Never confuse prestigious intellectual awards and positions awarded by the United States and Western establishment with real intelligence. And never assume that an intellectual is a real progressive just because they say they so.
Take the leading “progressive” U.S. economist Paul Krugman, once described by the Marxist economist Harry Magdoff as a “prizefighter for capitalism.” Krugman’s resume includes a Nobel Prize in Economics, a distinguished professorship at Princeton, and a regular column at the New York Times. When John Edwards ran against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Democratic presidential primary contested in 2007 and 2008, Krugman lauded him for arguing that (in Krugman’s words) “a progressive agenda” could not be achieved without “a bitter confrontation” with concentrated wealth and power.
Now Krugman defends the Big Business champion Hillary Clinton against the progressive Democrat Bernie Sanders, who has made the forgotten and scandalized Edwards’ argument with some significant success.
In a recent Times column on the rise of the noxious, white-nationalist Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump, Krugman points out that Trump runs in ugly grooves dug by the Republican Party since the 1960s. “Let’s dispel with [the] fiction,” Krugman writes, “that the Trump phenomenon represents some kind of unpredictable intrusion into the normal course of Republican politics. On the contrary, the G.O.P. has spent decades encouraging and exploiting the very rage that is now carrying Mr. Trump to the nomination… That rage was bound to spin out of the establishment’s control sooner or later…His party had it coming.”
The Republican Party, including Trump, Krugman argues, remains captive to “the dominating ideology” of free market, deregulated capitalism. “You can see,” Krugman writes, “the continuing power of the orthodoxy in the way all of the surviving contenders for the Republican nomination, Mr. Trump included, have dutifully proposed huge tax cuts for the wealthy, even though a large majority of voters, including many Republicans, want to see taxes on the rich increased.”
Krugman is right to observe that the mass anger captured by “The Donald” has escaped elite Republican management. And Krugman is correct to note that Trump is continuing the Republicans’ long practice of stirring the pot of white working- and lower middle-class hatred and hurling the terrible brew at feminists, Blacks, immigrants, gays, liberals, Muslims, intellectuals, liberals, civil libertarians and socialists both real and (like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Sanders) imagined. In doing this, the Republicans have worked to misdirect white working class anger away from capitalist plutocrats and Big Business on to less powerful and more vulnerable soft-targets like Black “welfare mothers” and “illegal immigrants.” It’s all very much in accord with the liberal author Thomas Frank’s account of Republican strategy in his widely read 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.
But Krugman’s argument is marred by two key flaws. His first mistake is to think that Trump is running in accord with standard Republican free market doctrine. The reality is more complex. As Matt Taibbi has noted, Trump’s speeches are “strikingly populist.” Trump bashes “free trade” and trumpets to protect “American jobs.” He denounces corporations that shut down American factories to set up operations in other, cheaper-labor countries like Mexico. He has said that a national single-payer system (removing private insurance companies from health coverage) would have been the best way to go with health insurance reform. He rails against the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by the insurance companies. He condemns the stranglehold that he big drug corporations have over both U.S. political parties, so strong that the federal government bars itself from negotiating Medicare drug prices in bulk. He notes that the nation’s politicians are bought by the highest corporate bidders. “The system is broken,” Trump observes.
It is populist, working class-pleasing rhetoric like that has elite Republicans rushing to block Trump, not the candidate’s foul nativism, sexism, and authoritarianism.
Krugman’s second mistake is to miss the basic fact that Donald Trump is the Democratic Party’s Frankenstein no less than the Republicans’ creation. How has the right-wing Republican Party gotten away with tapping and misdirecting so much legitimate white middle- and working-class anger and resentment away from its most appropriate target, the nation’s unelected dictatorship of capital? It has been able to do so largely for the same reason that the authoritarian Trump has been able to claim the mantle of working class populism in the current U.S. presidential sweepstakes: because the neoliberal, post-New Deal Democratic Party abandoned the U.S. working class in pursuit of a deepened partnership with corporate America and high finance. As Frank noted in the part of his famous book that is ignored by Democratic partisans, the dismal dollar Democrats share no small part of the blame for empowering right-wing Republicans. Their desertion of the majority white working class and its “bread and butter” issues opened the door for a right-wing diversion and takeover of popular resentment.
The Bill NAFTA Clinton (1993-2000) and Barack Trans-Pacific Obama administrations are monuments to neoliberal and Wall Street triumph over majority progressive U.S. public opinion, advancing (under Clinton) the de-regulation of finance and then (under Obama) taking up and expanding the taxpayer bailout and political protection of the reckless financial “elites” who crashed the U.S. and global economy in 2008. It is thanks in no small part to these neoliberal Democratic presidencies that U.S. citizens currently inhabit a New Gilded Age in which the top U.S. 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom U.S. 90 percent. It’s all as might be expected from presidents atop “a [Democratic] political party that…is now owned and controlled by a relatively small number of millionaires and billionaires” (Michelle Alexander). Hillary Clinton, an elitist Wall Street Democrat and (most dangerously of all) a militant imperial war-hawk to boot, walks in these dark neoliberal grooves beneath the usual populist-posturing on the campaign trail.
During the current U.S. Democratic presidential primary, Sanders (always far too conservative and imperial for this writer’s taste) has run as an actually progressive, non- and even anti-neoliberal Democrat in the liberal Keynesian New Deal tradition. His large rallies against “the billionaire class,” the record-setting small campaign contributions he has received from middle and working class Americans, and the remarkable support he has gotten from young voters – all of this reflects widespread hunger for a more equal distribution of wealth and political power and for an epic fight with the rich and powerful in the United States.
And how has the great “progressive” and liberal Keynesian Krugman responded to the Sanders’ insurgency, an attempt among other things to reclaim genuine populism and progressivism for and within the Democratic Party? With sneering condescension and dubious criticism including the claim that Sanders’ reasonable and moderate calls for the breaking up of the big banks and for single-payer health insurance are “politically unrealistic” and excessively “radical.” With the absurd charge that Sanders’ health care proposal “looks a bit like a standard Republican tax cut plan” and the strange claim that “on policy, [Hillary Clinton] has been pretty good.” Krugman has taken off the gloves, accusing Sanders of embracing “deep voodoo” economics and childish “unicorn” politics.
Krugman has chosen to be a prizefighter for the Clintons, the trailblazing champions of the neoliberal turn that cost the Democrats their onetime close connection to the American working class and opened that class to misdirection and poaching by ugly racist and nativist Republicans, including now the fascist-lite Donald Trump.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm-Routledge, 2014)