Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman








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As a matching bookend to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman offers his new book: The Conscience of a Liberal. In a conversational writing style, Krugman examines the last hundred years, and calls attention to what seems to have worked and what has not. His prescription is for greater economic equality that will come to a great extent by increases taxes to the wealthy. Here’s an excerpt, , from the beginning of Chapter 13, pp. 265-7:

One of the seeming paradoxes of America in the early twenty-first century is that those of us who call ourselves liberal are, in an important sense, conservative, while those who call themselves conservative are for the most part deeply radical. Liberals want to restore the middle-class society I grew up in; those who call themselves conservative want to take us back to the Gilded Age, undoing a century of history. Liberals defend long­standing institutions like Social Security and Medicare; those who call themselves conservative want to privatize or undermine those institutions. Liberals want to honor our democratic principles and the rule of law; those who call themselves conservative want the president to have dictatorial powers and have applauded the Bush administration as it imprisons people without charges and subjects them to torture.

The key to understanding this paradox is the history I described in this book. As early as 1952—and, it turned out, somewhat pre­maturely—Adlai Stevenson declared that

The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party in the country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best and build­ing solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party—the party of the reckless and embittered, bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric.

What he meant was that the Democrats had become the defenders of Social Security, unemployment insurance, a strong union movement—the New Deal institutions, which created and sustained a middle-class society—while the Republicans were try­ing to tear those institutions down.

Stevenson's characterization of the Republicans was off by a few years. In the years that followed his speech Eisenhower's "modern" Republicans took control of their party away from the old guard that was still fighting the New Deal, and for the next two decades the GOP was mostly led by men who accepted the New Deal's achievements. With the rise of movement conservatism, however, the assault on those achievements resumed. The great domestic policy struggles of the last fifteen years—Newt Gingrich's attempt to strangle Medicare, George W. Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security—were exactly what Stevenson described: the party of the reckless and embittered trying to dismantle institutions that are essential parts of modern America's social fabric.

And the struggle has been about preserving our democracy as well as our social fabric. The New Deal did more than create a middle-class society. It also brought America closer to its democratic ideals, by giving working Americans real political power and ending the dominant position of the wealthy elite. True, the New Deal relied on an alliance of convenience with Southern segrega­tionists—but in the end, inevitably, the New Deal ethos turned the Democrats into the party of civil rights and political rights. The Social Security Act of 1935 led, by a natural progression, to the Voting Rights Act thirty years later. Liberalism, in other words, isn't just about the welfare state: It's also about democracy and the rule of law. And those who call themselves conservative are on the other side, with a political strategy that rests, at its core, on exploiting the unwillingness of some Americans to grant equal rights to their fellow citizens—to those who don't share their skin color, don't share their faith, don't share their sexual preferences.

As I've documented in this book, movement conservatism has been antidemocratic, with an attraction to authoritarianism, from the beginning, when the National Review praised Francisco Franco and defended the right of white Southerners to disenfranchise blacks. That antidemocratic, authoritarian attitude has never gone away. When liberals and conservatives clash over voter rights in America today, liberals are always trying to enfranchise citizens, while conservatives are always trying to block some citizens from voting. When they clash over government prerogatives, liberals are always the defenders of due process, while conservatives insist that those in power have the right to do as they please. After 9/11 the Bush administration tried to foster a deeply un-American political climate in which any criticism of the president was considered unpa­triotic—and with few exceptions, American conservatives cheered.

I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. That makes me a liberal, and I'm proud of it.


Krugman calls for a new New Deal in The Conscience of a Liberal. His argument, as shown in this excerpt is that a new New Deal will bring America closer to our democratic ideals. This book adds perspective to the debate over what we mean by American democracy, and what is should be like for every citizen living in America.  


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2007 issue of Executive Times


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