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What's the Matter with Paul Krugman?

On February 11, Paul Krugman touched off a mini firestorm with his New York Times column, "Hate Springs Eternal," which asserted that Obama supporters had been infected with the disease of Clinton-hating spawned by the right wing. "I won't try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody," wrote Krugman. Then, came the real fireworks: "I'm not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." While Krugman may not have been the first to compare the Obama campaign to a cult (see this insightful piece by Jonathan Tilove of Newhouse News), being the first to do so in the pages of the New York Times raises eyebrows. This came on top of his assertion that it was not the Clinton camp, but the Obama camp that was playing the "race card."

Negative responses from readers came flying in fast and furious. Adding even more fervor to the argument, many expressed "say it ain't so, Joe" disillusionment. The arguments for and against Krugman's assertions can all be found in the comments left on his blog. And while I do think Krugman is dead wrong in his assessments, it is more important to me to dissect his method of reasoning. I have never met Krugman, but I have read enough of his work to recognize how his line of thought parallels that of many (not all) liberal academics I find myself surrounded by in my line of work.

During the Bush years, Krugman has been a champion of liberalism, his Times column providing an oasis in a sea of despair. I first encountered Krugman's writings more than a decade ago, when I was a grad student and he was a Princeton economist producing mild-mannered assessments of the pluses and minuses of free trade. In recent times, I have closely followed and generally agreed with his analysis of the housing bubble and other aspects of the coming economic crisis. But Krugman has become a prominent voice in politics primarily because of his scathing critique of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Not only does he expose the faulty logic governing the administration's actions, he also condemns such actions as unconscionable.

Nevertheless, times are changing. The wonderful development of the primaries is that anti-Bush voters are such a strong majority that the campaigns have had to articulate what they positively stand for. The basis of Krugman's anti-Bush analysis -- his distress that rational thinking has disappeared from politics -- was previously a source of both strength and inspiration. But this same mindset is now a limitation. I am not a foe of rational thinking, but whether a choice is deemed rational depends on who is deciding what the parameters of choice are. The rational analysis that may prove so vital to studying topics like climate change, demographics, or infectious disease does not equip academics to make sense of social movements. Academics tend to live in a bubble -- one to be sure that is enriched with a diversity of intellectual ideas and creativity. But it is a bubble, nonetheless, in that many academics are by and large divorced from what most Americans consider to be the real world. And this helps to explain why their political analysis can not only strike others as off the mark sometimes but also condescending.

"As I've said," Krugman wrote back to his critics supporting Obama, "you've been played like a fiddle by journalists who hate the Clintons, and just make stuff up about how evil they are." Translation: you are so easily manipulated you are starting to look like a cult. Or, in other words, you're thoughts and actions defy the rationality that is the universal standard for social order. Krugman apparently fails to see the irony in his remarks. In the name of liberal/progressive unity, he is warning Obama supporters not to embrace Clinton-hating because it will eventually be turned against Obama. Yet, what he has done is taken his condemnation of Bush's irrationality and focused the same critique on Obama supporters. What seemed righteous and yielding in the face of Bush now looks rigid and strident in the face of an emerging movement. It's what Obama would call "sloppy thinking."

The liberal side of Krugman's rational thinking is best expressed in his embrace of economic populism and praise for John Edwards's candidacy. Edwards "ran a campaign based on ideas," Krugman writes, changing the dynamic of what would otherwise have been "a cautious campaign." By contrast, Obama does not, in Krugman's eyes, represent real "change" because his call to transcend partisanship means he won't really fight for populist causes. In fact, Krugman has felt it his duty to point out that Obama is really not "progressive" at all, again implying that progressives are being driven by emotion rather than reason. That is why he has spent the last several months trying to demonstrate that Hillary has a more populist health care policy. His pose is something like: I've already thought through all of this, so now progressive change is just a matter of winning votes for the candidate with the best platform. These are the misguided sentiments of an academic with no concept of how social change actually happens.

While Krugman's rational assessment of the candidates' policy proposals is welcome, he should recognize that policy proposals are not the exclusive or even the most crucial site of new "ideas." Obama's first new "idea" is that real progressive change can only occur if we start by changing the way politics operates. This is not something than can be done simply by agitating the Democratic base harder and stirring up resentment of Republicans. It requires new energy to marshal change from the bottom up and new ways of engaging an active citizenry in participatory democracy. Whereas Howard Dean tried to give meaning to a campaign that his grassroots supporters were driving, Obama himself embodies bottom-up organizing. In the world I live in, it's not "cautious" but rather daring to run for President stressing your work as a grassroots community organizer as your formative experience in life. (This 1995 article on Obama's first electoral campaign reveals his progressive roots.) Hillary's suggestion that LBJ was the decisive figure who made Martin Luther King's dream a reality was not racist. However, it revealed her regressive top-down thinking and the limited appeal of her "experience" theme.

Krugman also misses Obama's second fresh approach: the call to shift the terms of political debate. He thinks Edwards did this by injecting economic populism into the campaign. When Krugman writes, "Racism, misogyny and character assassination are all ways of distracting voters from the issues," he is echoing Thomas Frank's "What's the matter with Kansa s?" argument that liberals need to stop fighting irrational "culture wars" and return to the rational bread-and-butter issues that were once the heart of the Democratic Party. In this way, they think the party can win back Reagan Democrats and low-income social conservatives. This type of populism is actually driven by liberal elitism and reductive economism. It assumes that those engaged in the "culture wars" suffer from the disease of false consciousness and the cure is rational economic thinking.

What Obama is proposing, and what Krugman only sees as moderation, is to engage Republicans and independents in a different way. The way to move beyond the "culture wars" is not to ignore culture but to stop seeing our divisions as impassable. Krugman says progressives should lead with their maximum proposals, then compromise only what's necessary to get measures passed. Obama proposes to start political debate by identifying the common values we share in order to develop policies that will be meaningful to a large majority. Evangelical conservatives, for instance, may not support abortion. But if progressives don't write them off as irrational, they may find that the value of compassion is a basis for common cause around issues like AIDS or Darfur. This is a strategy that recognizes the relationship between short-term reform and long-term transformation. Obama tried to point out that progressives needed to learn from the history of how Reaganism deployed such a strategy. The Clinton camp ignored the substantive point and made a guilt-by-association attack ad depicting Obama as a Reaganite.

Obama's third bold approach, which is really the foundation of everything else, is to insist that we need a politics based on hope rather than fear. It boils down to the question of how different America could be if we all bring out the best in ourselves and see the best in others; if we focus on what we are for rather than what we are against; if we unite to face the challenges of our lifetime rather than argue over who is to blame for our failures.

An injection of hope might just expand the realm of what's possible. It might even do so in ways that Paul Krugman's rational mind cannot imagine.

Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of American Culture, History, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Michigan and author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2008).