Is Paul Krugman a Good Historian?


Mr. Kazin is author, most recently, of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Anchor paperback, 2007). He teaches history at Georgetown University.

    Paul Krugman is a brilliant economist, and his scathing columns in the New York Times have made him an intellectual hero to left-wing Democrats everywhere. But is he a good historian?

     His new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, is a sweeping manifesto grounded in a provocative interpretation of the American past. For Krugman, US history since Reconstruction can be understood as one grand cycle from darkness into light and back around again: a long Gilded Age that lasted until the Great Depression was followed by a golden age of liberal policies that made the US into a “middle-class nation.” Then, starting in the late 1960s, aggressive conservatives reversed the process, weakening the welfare state and widening the gap between the rich and everyone else. Based on several factors – including the waning of white racism and a big increase in Latino voters, the debacle in Iraq, and the urgent demand for universal health care -- Krugman is optimistic that Democrats who espouse a “new politics of equality” can come to power once again.

       If one interprets history largely by changes in economic statistics and socio-economic policies, then his account is quite convincing. Despite the reform fervor of the Progressive years, income inequality persisted during those years and, after narrowing during World War I, increased during the 1920s. The New Deal began to reverse that trend. But only with the prosperity of the 1950s and early 1960s could most Americans realistically think they were enjoying the fruits of a middle-class society. Krugman is nostalgic for that period, and the numbers demonstrate why. He also offers a sound survey of how the two main political parties in each era worked to shore up or, in the case of conservative Republicans from Reagan onward, undermine the economic consensus.

       But Krugman is less insightful about the causes of political change. He devotes just five paragraphs to “the roots of the New Deal,” in which he mentions workers’ compensation systems and retirement programs that were enacted by a minority of states between 1910 and 1929. This brief sketch omits a variety of developments across most of the nation that did much to remake liberalism in its modern form: the creation of the progressive income and inheritance taxes, the Democrats’ coalition with organized labor, the municipal ownership and regulation of utilities, federal conservation of natural resources, attacks on child labor, and the popularity of muckraking journalism –the latter a tradition to which Krugman is much indebted.  Such changes helped make Americans receptive to popular, anti-corporate insurgencies and open to egalitarian government programs. The triumph of Franklin Roosevelt, who started out his career as a Wilsonian Democrat, would have been inconceivable without them.

       Neither does he accurately capture the reasons why the Republican Right dominated the political world during the three decades that stretched from the final years of the Carter administration to the 2006 election. Krugman subscribes to a notion that Marxists used to call “false consciousness.” For him, such issues as race, immigration, and “moral values” are merely “weapons of mass distraction” that persuaded ordinary whites to cast their ballots for a party that really took only the interests of corporations and the rich to heart. Key to that shift was the transformation of the South, during and after the rise of the civil rights movement, into the most reliable bastion of the GOP.

     Krugman’s analysis shares the same defect as does Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, although racism was only a minor element in the latter’s entertaining polemic. Krugman doesn’t appreciate that, absent a depression, millions of born-again Christians cared more about a politics of the body (abortion, homosexuality, an anything-goes mass culture) than about a politics of jobs and incomes. Neither does he recognize how defeat in Vietnam, a war begun by liberal presidents, created an environment in which conservatives could portray liberals as weak figures who could not keep the nation secure. In his acknowledgments, Krugman thanks Sean Wilentz and Rick Perlstein for helping him avoid certain “misconceptions” and improving his “understanding” of the recent past. But both these historians, while they share Krugman’s politics, are far better at explaining outcomes they did not favor.

     For most readers, such flaws will matter not at all. Krugman admits that “my concern in this book is with political economy,” and his interpretation of that vital aspect of history – whether dismal or hopeful – should provide liberal readers with a past they can use in the 2008 campaign and beyond. As a fellow liberal, I certainly hope he’s prophetic about the downfall of the Right and the rise of a new progressive common sense. But there’s a difference between an effective manifesto based on history and political history that persuades readers, whatever their ideology, with the force of its logic, the cogency of its narrative, and the degree of its empathy. As history, The Conscience of a Liberal is one hell of a good op-ed.  

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    Alonzo Hamby - 11/9/2007

    Gimme a break! If Krugman uses history as the basis for an argument, he had better know what he's talking about instead of repeating outmoded cliches.

    And why is it that so many left-liberals like Krugman and Mr. Bud think that ordinary people are too stupid to have a sense of their own interests?

    Matt Bud - 11/5/2007

    First of all, PK doesn't claim to be a historian. Second, both Kazin and Krugman fail to point out the crucial (devastating) role of corporate media in distracting voters and convincing them to vote against their own interests.