I had another birthday last week, on the whole an experience far superior to not having one. But growing older is such a crazy quilt of joy and angst: as the inner library of experience expands, you know more, see more, feel more, have more choice in almost every matter; and all the while, despite many salubrious regimens (not to mention the robust health I presently enjoy—knock wood), the body issues a steady pulse of memento mori. You breathe in and out, in and out, until one day you don’t. May that day be far off!
What I wanted for my birthday this year was hope grounded in reality, which a friend delivered in the form of a podcast by economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman.
Krugman feels that the arc of “movement conservatism” (the massively organized movement that propelled Reagan into office, throwing its weight around Washington and many state capitals ever since) has peaked, and the wheel is turning toward liberal or progressive values. He characterizes this powerful right-wing force succinctly, as a “self-conscious movement” of well-funded people who wanted to undo the New Deal and social safety net in order to increase income inequality (with themselves on top, naturally), and who shrewdly promoted that program by lying and manipulating people’s baser emotions: racial and sexual fears and Red Scare-style panics, for instance.
In 2004, Bush runs on national security and moral values and all that, and then almost immediately after the election, the polls had barely closed and he says, “Now we’re going to privatize Social Security.” That was movement conservatism in action: You win elections by pressing people’s emotional buttons, but what you’re really interested in is fostering economic inequality. But he failed.
Krugman points out that our huge gap in financial inequality is a product not of economic forces but of politics: that despite global economic forces weighing on every nation, the only countries that experienced a yawning, growing income gap over the last thirty years were the U.S. and Thatcher’s Britain, where it was ideologically induced.
Krugman quotes Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, as saying the movement’s goal is to return the U.S. to the way it was “‘before Teddy Roosevelt and the socialists came in,’ not just before the New Deal, but before the progressive movement.” (Krugman doesn’t mention that Norquist also famously said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”)
Krugman thinks “It’s over, or very nearly over. I think movement conservatism and the things it’s done to America are in their last throes.” He perceives that race is losing its potency as a scare weapon for the right, because the electorate is steadily becoming more diverse, and because public opinion is less racist (for example, nearly 80 percent accept interracial marriage now, while just a few decades ago, the strong majority rejected it). Few people still believe the Republicans’ claims to national security expertise (Krugman says “they trashed the brand on that”). And the electorate, disenchanted with corporate rule, is poised to accept public interventions like a public healthcare system; all the Democratic candidates have similar (if flawed) plans, and whomever is elected will have the task of implementation, rather than crude persuasion. “I can see universal healthcare as a realistic possibility,” says Krugman.
A possibility isn’t a promise, especially when there’s a bloody campaign to be fought and so much corporate money in both parties’ coffers that silver is bound to cloud peoples’ vision. But when I look into my own heart and mind and think about the other progressives I know, I perceive the main obstacle to this imminent sea-change. The whole time I was listening to Krugman, a second audio channel was playing in my head, telling me to reject a merely liberal message as insufficiently radical, incapable of addressing root causes.
No one described thinking like mine better than Voltaire 250 years ago: the perfect is the enemy of the good. The plain truth is that all candidates are compromised. Politics is deal-making, and even under the best circumstances, our system involves horse-trading with people who are operating less on principle than raw political power. Many of my generation tend to be squeamish about power. We tend to prefer being right to winning. We tend to be more comfortable as part of the righteous opposition to wrongdoing, swaddled in the purity of our positions, than as part of a negotiated, compromised majority that creates incremental improvement.
Back when I was young and ignorant, I thought it didn’t make any difference who was elected president, they were all the same. Then Reagan took office. Now, nearly three decades later, we have seen how formidable movement conservatism can be in tearing down the shelter that generations built to defend us from the depredations of the marketplace: basic economic protection, civil liberties, decent housing, decent education, decent medical care. It’s time to resist the fastidious impulses that keep some of the most powerful thinkers and activists out of ground-level politics, to roll up our sleeves and dirty our hands in the type of compromise that leads to victory, not for the perfect, but for the better. Without a doubt, there are limits, but in the political trade-off between purity and progress, progress wins.