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The Conscience of a Liberal

According to Michael Tomasky’s review of Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman is claiming partisanship is the only way forward for progressive politics. It’s no secret the contemporary Republican party is dominated by movement conservatives who for 40 years have waged open warfare against New Deal policies that effectively curbed gilded-age excess. The rhetorical and actual snipping-away at economic safety nets, the dissolution of the labor movement, the enforcement of regressive taxation, even our current state of constant warfare as a means of perpetuating imperial power all work to create a system that accelerates divergence between the rich and the middle class, not to mention between the rich and middle class and the poor. That warfare has gone a long way toward creating a new era of gilded-age excess, which is one reason that contemporary conservatism is less about developing and perpetuating systems in which prosperity is possible than about developing and perpetuating systems in which wealth is perpetual (there is no more obvious symbol of this than attacks on the estate tax). It suits the movement that Richard Mellon Scaife, himself a gilded-age heir, has for decades been one of its primary backers.

But Krugman argues that the conservative movement was born not only from class warfare by the rich against everyone else, but also from racism. It’s a charge Krugman supports with Ronald Reagan’s and William F. Buckley’s political lives ca. 1955–1965—that is, when they became leaders in the cause. However, I’m skeptical of Krugman’s originalism. The conservative impulse is a selfish one. It doesn’t need racism to foment its economics even though, in this country, a system that privileges wealth also privileges historically white power. I see Buckley’s and Reagan’s positions at the time as expedient—though no less disgusting for being so. A large bloc of (not just southern) voters were already disenchanted with the Democratic Party when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964; anyone speaking in favor of “state’s rights” and for policies of discrimination was engaged in an effort to draw those voters from the Democratic Party. They got what they wanted, and the Republican Party has been at those voters’ mercies ever since.

I’ve said before that, as a virtue, bipartisanship is of little use in our political climate. But I don’t think it’s necessary to claim that conservatives are at base racists in order to claim that their policies are antithetical to liberalism. Their policies are antithetical to liberalism for plenty of other perfectly sufficient reasons.



Ever so slightly OT, the infamous Atawater interview excerpt:

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964… and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster…

Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps…?

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’

Not OT at all. I think I’m working at what’s just beyond where Atwater stops. Entrenched and/or systematic racism is racism—no doubt. But it must be treated as something different from an outgrowth of personally racist attitudes. At some point, going back to the original (Buckley, Reagan) is little more than a shallow exercise, because the thing has evolved into something completely different. It seems to me that Krugman’s attempting an argument from evolutionary psychology, and it carries with it all the problems of causality that ev.psych arguments always have.

It’s another way of saying, “Should one hold the sins of the parents responsible for the sins of the children?” Also: “Are children motivated to sin by the same reasons as their parents were?”

That sounds about right to me. Calling movement conservatives racist may be (is) accurate and useful to a point, but isn’t Krugman’s main point (from what I can gather from the review) that conservatives have consistently and effectively waged a rhetorical and political war on liberal institutions and policies, not specific minority groups? If that’s the case, the residual racism of Reagan (like the religious fundamentalism of GWB) is primarily a tool for dominating the electorate by building a consensus between the rich and poor/middle-class whites that elides substantial class differences between the two groups.