Paul Krugman’s “The Conscience of a Liberal” has arrived at the apposite moment. The latest figures on income disparity are out simultaneously with this book and they are grim. The Wall Street Journal reports: “The wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 21.2% of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. … The bottom 50% earned 12.8% of all income, down from 13.4% in 2004 and a bit less than their 13% share in 2000.”

It is such alarming facts which prompt Krugman to write that, in addition to low- and middle-income families falling behind, there is “… the damage extreme inequality does to our society and our democracy. Ever since America’s founding, our idea of ourselves has been that of a nation without sharp class distinctions — not a leveled society of perfect equality but one in which the gap between the economic elite and the typical citizen isn’t an unbridgeable chasm. That’s why Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.’ “

book cover

Conscience of a Liberal

By Paul Krugman

W. W. Norton, 352 pages

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How the chasm, a grand canyon of disparity between the oligarchic one-tenth of 1 percent and everybody else, came to be is the center of Krugman’s book, which, incidentally, is not a compilation of old columns but a fresh work. His premise is that the narrowing of the gap between income extremes achieved under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal was reversed and destroyed by a twisted Republican Party captured by “movement conservatives” beginning with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

Delving into the seeming contradiction of the masses continuing to elect Republicans who return the favor by kicking them down the economic staircase, Krugman sets out to solve this sociopolitical riddle. He is not the first person to scratch his head over this. Thomas Frank in his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas” dissected the Republican tricks for getting voters to go against their own interests — invoking abortion, gays, terror, political correctness, etc.

Krugman buys Frank’s argument but says it is not enough to explain self-wounding electoral behavior. Such Karl Rovian electioneering cannot account for more than a marginal number of voters switching over from the Democratic to the Republican line. The missing element, according to Krugman, is racism.

In so saying he has nailed it. The reactionaries who isolated the Eisenhower Republicans and took over the party could not have won their string of election victories had they not been able to capture the once solid Democratic South and turn it into a bastion of their own.

That came about by exploiting the region’s historical white antipathy to African-Americans. The post Eisenhower-Nixon Republican Party has made its lack of enthusiasm for racial equality clear to the white South, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation and carrying on through to Reagan’s beginning his presidential campaign in 1980 by making a speech at Philadelphia, Miss., the place where three civil rights workers were lynched in 1964. Reagan turned that bloody spot into hallowed ground for today’s clandestine white, more genteel Kluxers.

Race being the explosive subject it is, Princeton University professors such as Paul Krugman and many another person safely lodged in our respectable institutions are shy about saying that the GOP’s success rests on profiting from racial prejudice. Whether or not people other than Krugman want to talk about it, the truth is that when Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson made the Democratic Party the party of civil rights, the white South turned to the Republicans, who received these whites with sympathy and sneaky encouragement. Even with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the stink from its quiet exploitation of racial animosities clings to the Grand Old Party.

But, Krugman argues, the movement to conservatism or reactionary Republicanism cannot count much longer on using Southern white distaste for persons of color to win elections. Without a doubt many younger white people do not share their elders’ ideas about racial superiority, and he points out that the nation’s population grows less white with every passing year. Nevertheless, he may be a trifle too sanguine in foreseeing a happy majority of all races in our future. Racial prejudice runs deep and has shown itself thus far in history to be nearly impossible to eradicate.

Once in power, Krugman writes, the Republicans cut the New Deal-World War II taxes on the rich so drastically that the present-day dangerous income imbalance resulted. He argues that with each tax cut the plutocracy had more money to buy more political power to use to cut its taxes again.

This kleptomaniacal cycle was achieved by relying on more than racial antagonisms. Krugman writes: “The nature of the hold movement conservatism has on the Republican Party may be summed up very simply: Yes, Virginia, there is a right-wing conspiracy. That is, there is an interlocking set of institutions ultimately answering to a small group of people that collectively reward loyalists and punish dissenters.”

Whether that is a conspiracy or brute-force, tunnel-vision politics backed up by big money is open to debate. Either way, the network of publications, television channels, front groups, publishing firms and those intellectual whorehouses we call think tanks, all richly financed, have done fierce work on the liberal cause over the years. The other side, of course, has tried to match the forces of reaction in kind, but it does not begin to have the same kind of money.

Outside of liberalism itself, the principal target of the right-wing network has been organized labor. Krugman devotes much of his attention to unions because he believes that their near destruction has left the working population of the country almost defenseless and deprived the Democratic Party of election muscle it has not been able to replace.

There is no gainsaying Krugman’s description of the attack on organized labor and the right wing’s use of the federal government to weaken and defeat unions wherever possible, but that is not the complete union story. The roots of the decline of organized labor begin with the ferocious internal battle between Communist and non-Communist factions in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The fight inside the electrical and auto workers unions, to name two of the big ones, left labor split and drained of its enthusiasm.

Given the times, the struggle to rid labor of behind-the-scenes Communist control in those unions wherever it existed was destructive but necessary. If one were to pick a bone with Krugman it might be on his stance that the domestic anti-Communist fights were “paranoid” in nature. True, there was enough paranoia, inflamed by anti-union reactionaries, to go around, but, even so, much of the anti-Communist battling was the real deal.

At the moment we are close to having no unions. Without them it is much harder to keep the Democratic Party on the straight and narrow. Krugman mentions New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer preventing a move to make our hedge fund billionaires pay the income tax they presently are able to legally avoid. No organized force exists to make Schumer break with his billionaire pals or walk the plank.

Again and again we have seen Democratic politicians during the primaries tell sweet lies to their “base” only to repudiate them come the general election. This pattern has practically become a tradition in Democratic Party politics. Kid ’em in February, betray ’em in November.

One can hope with Krugman that the unions can be resuscitated to play the role of enforcer or that changes in the population bring with them a liberal tide or that issues like health insurance or the anger over the Iraq war will turn the trick. Krugman tempers his optimism of a better day a’comin’ by recognizing how politically paralyzing are what he calls the “weapons of mass distraction,” the movies, TV and cyberworld, which hourly pour debilitating crap into innocent American brains.

“The Conscience of a Liberal” ends with a clarion call of sorts, a la Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative,” which electrified a generation of frighteningly committed right-wingers. Although this book will not do much electrifying, it will do much clarifying, and that is no small service.

Nicholas von Hoffman, a former columnist for The Washington Post and a former commentator for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” is a regular columnist for The New York Observer. He is the author of numerous books, including “Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies” and “Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business From Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang.”


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