Utne Blogs > Politics

The Disappointment of a Liberal

by Staff


Tags: Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal, civic engagement, social change, political solutions, liberal optimism,

The Conscience of a LiberalPaul Krugman is optimistic. “So optimistic,” he says, “that friends have been asking me if I’m feeling alright.” The New York Times columnist and liberal savior has a gleam of excitement in his eyes as he holds forth before a packed, silver-haired audience at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. While America is in a crisis now, he says, “the possibilities for change are once again very great.”

Krugman was in town recently to tout his latest book, The Conscience of a Liberal (Norton). His central point is this: So-called movement conservatives have been winning elections by exploiting Southern whites’ racism. Since grabbing power, they’ve pushed an agenda that promotes economic inequality, helping the mega-rich get mega-richer.

Krugman’s good news is that the times of darkness shall soon draw to an end, and we may see a glorious realignment in the U.S. political system. That is, if a true liberal takes hold of the offices of government. Responsible policy-making could reverse the country’s decline by pushing ambitious social policies that drastically reverse inequality.

Pundits have parsed Krugman’s points and exchanged heated parlays about his prose. The book’s been pretty much reviewed to death, so I’ll spare you any more diluted  Krugman-summary in lieu of a few quick thoughts about what’s missing from Krugman’s analysis.

Krugman seems to be talking about a purely political change, not a social change. He looks at the cogs and gears of democracy—who’s in power and what they do with their power. He doesn’t imagine this new glorious revolution as arising, Athena-like, from the split skulls of the citizenry’s discontent. No. He imagines a purely political solution to a purely political problem that just happens to have social side-effects.

So what’s left for citizens to do? Hope. Hope that the Democrats’ presidential nominee is a good one. Hope that the Democratic presidential nominee wins. Hope that the next president does all the great things we hope that he or she will do, like reform the health care system.

Despite the audacious optimism of Krugman’s predictions for America’s future, there’s something disappointing about his myopic focus on politics and policy. The Bush years left us with a host of political problems, to be sure. But the political problems seem inexorably connected to a web of social problems that politics alone cannot fix. How can politics alone restore our faith in the media, how can politics alone resurrect reasoned debate, how can politics alone soothe our disillusioned democracy?

I wish that Krugman would have told another story to the excited crowd, about how they could change the course of the country, about why they mattered—those citizens who gobble up his columns twice a week, week after week. Because in our outpouring of enthusiasm for the progressive sage, there was something more than politics; there was an invigorated sense of civic engagement. To think that mere citizens can have an earth-shifting effect, well, maybe that would be the more audacious optimism. —Brendan Mackie