The Chess Game of the Crazies

Ben Wallace-Wells’s profile of Paul Krugman contains this frustratingly imprecise paragraph:

There are times, however, when the consequences of Krugman’s perspective, the darkness of his view of American politics, come into view. In the health-care-reform debate, he saw evidence of “racial hate-mongering.” When the crazed assassin Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, Krugman saw intimations of a broader disorder to come. “The harshness and the incipient violence are very real,” he told me. The liberal historian Michael Kazin, of Georgetown, told me he thought Krugman’s account of the right succumbed to the old Marxist flaw of false consciousness: “Unlike what Krugman says, conservatism is not some kind of smoke screen for another agenda.” In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman was plainer still: “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

For starters, I went back and reread the passage in question in Krugman’s book and I think that Wallace-Wells has misread Krugman in his final sentence. My take, and I think Krugman’s, is that the stoking of the paranoid style in American politics, that is, feeding the dangerous, true-believing right-wing crazies, is a tactical maneuver on the part of the relatively small number of economic plutocrats who effectively rule the the GOP and the broader conservative movement.  There are tons of obvious benefits to this – not only does having a vigorous undercurrent of extremist nuts, fueled by talk radio frothers, scare the crap out of lawmakers, but it also furthers a broader political goal of distracting America’s white majority into voting against its economic interests. The passage in the book supports this interpretation – Krugman’s point here is about the institutional structure of the conservative movement, not its ultimate aims. Wallace-Wells seems to be claiming that Krugman thinks that conservatism is about producing social disorder and chaos as an end in itself – a strange and dubious idea.

With that in mind, I’m not sure there is really as much disagreement between Kazin and Krugman as Wallace-Wells has set up here. But if there is, Krugman seems to have the better of the argument. The point is that the conservative movement has, for the last 50 years, been spectacularly bad at achieving its social goals in spite of spectacular success at its economic goals. Given that track record, it’s hard for me to see how the center-left consensus on this that Krugman subscribes to is wrong: the conservative movement is happy to pursue its stated aims on abortion and crime and drugs, but when push comes to shove they’ll always take a back seat to tax cut maximalism and goodies for big business.

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