THE BLOG
01/24/2016 08:56 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2017

Paul Krugman on the 'Happy Dreams' of Bernie Sanders

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Few public intellectuals have a better grasp of the inherent injustices of our current economic order than the Noble Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. But when it comes to weighing the political reality of our current predicament Krugman's analysis, as put forth in a recent column, shows an astonishing lack of vision.

In an article titled, "How Change Happens," Krugman gives us political advice that one would not expect from the leading left-liberal voice on the New York Times' op-ed page. Krugman argues that we must dispense with the "persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor."

"[O]n the left" Krugman continues, "there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America's nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions."

Here Krugman grossly underestimates the power of a committed citizenry to make social change and fails to see that the United States is a different country today than when calls for a more "centrist" politics made any sense.

For example, the government's response to the 9-11 attacks of 2001 and the Wall Street crash of 2008, along with the political changes wrought by Citizens United and Republican gerrymandering have already "radically overhauled our institutions." Yet Krugman apparently has little faith in the idea that millions of energized citizens can have much of an effect on moving the country away from oligarchy.

Krugman points out that even though Barack Obama was an inspiring presidential candidate who talked about "hope and change," he still had to accept his limits.

[Obama's] achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street's abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality."\

Here Krugman misses a key point that animates the Bernie Sanders campaign: President Obama did not push hard enough for more radical reforms when he had the chance and missed his historic opportunity.

Let's recall that Obama decided before he had even begun with health care reform to refuse to give single-payer advocates a seat at the table while giving away far too much ground (such as the "public option") to the deep-pocketed campaign cash and lobbying prowess of Big Pharma and the health insurance industry.

Let's also recall that in 2008 Obama received large campaign contributions from Wall Street banks, and when he appointed a Wall Street insider, Tim Geithner, to be Secretary of the Treasury and brought in "Mr. Derivative" himself, Larry Summers, as his economic adviser, his efforts at reform were rigged from the start in favor of the banks.

Not one corrupt banker went to jail (not even Angelo Mozilo) when Americans across the political spectrum desperately wanted to see justice. Mortgage holders, public pensions, and state governments facing fiscal ruin after Wall Street ripped them off got little help from the Obama Administration. And the tiny tax increase on the rich merely reinstated taxes that George W. Bush never should have been allowed to lower in the first place.

Implicit in Krugman's argument is the bland acceptance of corporations and too-big-to-fail banks always running the show in Washington. The trick for progressives, he advises, is to let go of our "delusions," lower the scope of our demands, and appease those in power who have rigged the system to serve their narrow class interests.

Bernie Sanders wants to break the stranglehold giant corporations and Wall Street banks have on our political system by directly challenging their control over our "democratic" institutions. Sanders and his supporters are saying "Enough!" to this brand of corporate dominated politics and his ideas are resonating far more than they could have in 2008 or even 2012.

If the left, as Krugman claims, really is incapable of changing anything fundamental in Washington, then how is it that in 2004 George W. Bush could win re-election, in part, by capitalizing on GOP-backed anti-gay ballot initiatives in eleven swing states whereas today gay marriage is the law of the land? The center of gravity shifted very quickly on LGBT marriage rights indicating that it's possible that American politics could shift just as rapidly on busting up the Wall Street banks (which are totally unpopular), expanding the social safety net, and addressing the gross inequality of American society with massive new taxes on the billionaire class.

Opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans oppose Citizens United and believe that the wealthy and corporations have far too much power over our politics. And the demographic changes we're expected to see in this country could have a "transformational" effect that Krugman and other mainstream pundits cannot envision right now.

"I'm not saying that someone like Mr. Sanders is unelectable," Krugman writes, "although Republican operatives would evidently rather face him than Mrs. Clinton - they know that his current polling is meaningless, because he has never yet faced their attack machine. But even if he was to become president, he would end up facing the same harsh realities that constrained Mr. Obama."

Here Krugman says that Bernie Sanders' polling numbers right now are "meaningless," but the same thing could be said of Hillary Rodham Clinton's. With regard to the general election her polling numbers are equally meaningless.

Krugman also cedes too much power to the Republican "attack machine," as if Bernie Sanders is uniquely vulnerable. Yet the GOP's fearsome foot soldiers at Fox News, talk radio, and elsewhere failed to defeat Obama in 2008 and 2012 (even with the added advantage of being able to blow hard on racial dog whistles.) There's no evidence that Bernie Sanders is any more susceptible to the GOP assaults than Hillary Clinton.

After all, she also has never faced the GOP "attack machine" as the Democratic Party's nominee for president. It's fruitless to predict whether Sanders or Clinton would fare better against the Republican's army of Lee Atwater-Karl Rove inspired smear-Meisters. And if Trump wins the GOP Republican nomination in 2016 in my view whoever the Democrats nominate will have a HUGE advantage. (We will see the largest Latino voter registration effort in American history.)

Finally, Krugman cannot predict that a Sanders presidency would "end up facing the same harsh realities that constrained Obama" because unlike Obama, a President Bernie Sanders, with no SuperPAC or billionaire donors, won't be financially pressed to botch his historic opportunity, which will be only possible if he is backed up by an organized, energized, and mobilized citizenry ready for radical change.

Krugman concludes: "Sorry, but there's nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don't let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence."

Here Krugman leaves his readers with the idea that Republican-corporate domination of our politics is a fait accompli. Anybody not willing to accept this "reality" (i.e. Bernie Sanders supporters) prefers "happy dreams" over "hard thinking," which can only lead to "destructive self-indulgence."

For people on the left to accept Krugman's conclusion would only produce apathy and an acceptance of the idea that the American people can never muster the power to challenge the corporate oligarchy that has seized this country. I do not accept this defeatist view of social change in this country.

Let's review the recent history. The election of the nation's first African-American president was followed by a racially charged collective freak-out on the part of white "conservatives," not only in the Old Confederacy, but also in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, North Carolina and others. Quaking in their boots, white people elected some right-wing hacks for their governors -- Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Paul LePage, Pat McCrory and others -- and sent to their state houses some of the nuttiest "Tea Party" politicians we've seen in modern history. In 2016, Donald Trump is the logical extension of this white freak-out that began the moment Obama was inaugurated.

Krugman knows how damaging the Great Recession was to the fabric of our society. He also understands that the vast gaps in income and wealth inequality that Bernie Sanders has made the centerpiece of his presidential campaign have corrupted our politics. He's aware of the recent Oxfam study showing that just 62 astronomically wealthy individuals control roughly one-half of planet Earth's wealth.

The U.S. presidential election of 2016, only the second since Citizens United, is already breaking all spending records and estimated to cost $5 billion (with a small number of unbelievably rich people, banks, and corporations the source of the lion's share). No other industrial democracy in the world would tolerate that level of corporate corruption in their countries' democratic processes.

And with the multiple catastrophes in American society right now directly associated with unchecked corporate power -- from the poisoned water supply of Flint, Michigan, to the raging gun violence everywhere else, from the grotesque injustices rampant in our prison-industrial complex and police shootings of innocent black citizens, to the social costs and economic insecurity that decades of stagnant wages have produced - Krugman should at least acknowledge that we could reach a state where "politics as usual" won't be able to withstand these retrograde social conditions indefinitely.

Unfortunately, Krugman's political views as presented in this op-ed fit perfectly into the corporate media maw that emphasizes horse-race political coverage and safe Beltway "analysis" that masks real shifts in our politics. The "political revolution" that Bernie Sanders is talking about doesn't fit into the corporate media frame that wastes precious airtime on Ted Cruz gaining a point or two in the latest Iowa Caucus poll.

"How Change Happens" is not by deflating and devaluing the idealism of left activism in favor of a "half loaf" or "quarter loaf" mentality.

When Obama was inaugurated and the Republican obstructionism started, rather than fight he blandly accepted the notion that winning 60 votes in the Senate was the "new normal." He therefore pandered to "moderates" like Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Olympia Snowe of Maine, none of whom could ever win a national election and were all on their way to the ashbin of history.

No bankers went to jail; the Affordable Care Act got watered down without a "public option"; the economic recovery legislation was loaded down with tax cuts for big business; and Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan. And all of these things happened when the Democrats controlled the Congress and the presidency.

Krugman chalks this up to "getting half a loaf." But these stark compromises didn't help the Democratic Party politically when a dispirited base failed to show up for the 2010 midterms, thereby handing over the House of Representatives to the dead cold hand of John Boehner.

That's not "how change happens."

People power, infused with enthusiasm and knowing what a good fight looks like, is how change happens. Bernie Sanders is firing up the Democratic base, which is exactly the shot in the arm it needed after all the betrayals of the Obama years.

The fact is nobody really knows what are the limits of radical politics in this country right now. Without people like Bernie Sanders challenging us to test those limits the fight for social justice and progressive change won't stand a chance.

Workers fought for decades for elementary rights in the workplace; women fought for decades just to win the right to vote; African Americans and other minorities have fought hard since the start of the republic, and the civil rights struggle pushes on with Black Lives Matter, climate change activism has won recent concrete victories -- THAT's "how change happens."

Throwing a wet blanket on progressive activists in a primary election season saying they're "unrealistic" when they're fighting like hell to turn the Bernie Sanders campaign into a grassroots social movement -- the "political revolution" Sanders is calling for -- is not only unhelpful to moving the nation forward, but disparages those who make up the democratic wing of the Democratic Party by portraying them as naïve dreamers. Paul Krugman should rethink some of his ideas about "how change happens."