Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Crank Politics

Jonathan Chait is the author of the 2007 book, THE BIG CON: The true story of how Washington got hoodwinked and hijacked by crackpot economics. In the September 11, 2007 article "Crank Politics," Paul Krugman responded:
There’s only one word to describe Jon Chait’s book: shrill. I mean, how can Chait say that “American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists”? The cocktail-party circuit knows better. As Peter Beinart, the then editor of The New Republic, wrote in his review of my 2003 book The Great Unraveling, “guest lists that cross ideological lines can help liberals understand the conservatives they write about. And many Washington conservatives genuinely don't see the Bush administration as radical: they see it as having ratified a big-spending, culturally liberal status quo.”

OK, end snark. Obviously I agree with just about everything that’s in Jon’s book. I cover some of the same ground in my own forthcoming book, The Conscience of a Liberal, though in much less detail. I’d like to take this conversation in a slightly different direction by talking about the second part of the book, on the political environment that lets crackpot economics flourish; Jon’s description is correct, but, I think, somewhat incomplete.

First, supply-side quackery is only one of the gambits used to sell tax cuts.

There are other, older versions – notably the claim that government is wasting your money on vast armies of useless bureaucrats. Way back in 1964, in his famous speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater, Reagan talked about how crazy it was that the federal government employed 2.5 million civilian workers; nobody pointed out that two-thirds of those civilians worked either for the Pentagon or for the post office.

Second, Jon talks at some length about the media, and in particular about the Republican ability to get journalists to harp endlessly on supposed character flaws of Democrats, while their own candidates get a free pass. He emphasizes the right-wing echo chamber, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also – as I can report from my own experience – a result of asymmetrical intimidation. Quite simply, if you point out character flaws in a conservative, there will be an all-out effort, involving major media as well as blogs and talk radio, to discredit and ruin you, personally. This just doesn’t happen on the other side.

So journalists feel that it’s safe to ridicule Democrats, even if the supposed character-defining episode never happened; they choke up and shy away when it comes to Republicans. That’s why even the most grotesque stuff, like Giuliani’s claim that he’s a rescue worker too, or Romney’s remark that his sons are serving the country by helping him become president, doesn’t get picked up.

Third, I’m surprised that Jon doesn’t talk at all about the key political role of race in the political shift in this country. Reagan didn’t start as a supply-sider: he started as the enemy of welfare queens in their welfare Cadillacs. And what I’ve learned from Larry Bartels, Tom Schaller, and other political scientists is that race is really central to the whole thing. Here’s a preview quote from my own book:

“The overwhelming importance of the Southern switch suggests an almost embarrassingly simple story about the political success of movement conservatism. It goes like this: thanks to their organization, the interlocking institutions that constitute the reality of the vast right-wing conspiracy, movement conservatives were able to take over the Republican Party, and move its domestic policies sharply to the right. In most of the country, this rightward shift alienated voters, who gradually moved toward the Democrats. But Republicans were nonetheless able to win presidential elections, and eventually gain control of Congress, because they were able to exploit the race issue to win political dominance of the South. End of story.”

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