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What’s Left of the Left

Krugman has been suspicious of Obama since the beginning of the campaign, and his early doubts have remained. “It’s not so much—it’s not a values difference. I think Obama was and is committed to the welfare state.” What has always troubled him, Krugman says, is Obama’s conviction “that we can find the center and work with these people.” This seems to Krugman a deeply naïve view of politics, though one that is pervasive in Washington. “There are really very, very few things, very few values issues on which both sides of our political divide agree,” he says. “You may in the end get an agreement that involves both parties but is not bi-partisan in any positive sense of the word.”

And so perhaps this is part of the political legacy of the Bush years: a subtle shift in what makes you a progressive, and how liberal lines are drawn. The debates among Democrats in the nineties mostly followed established ideological lines—some believed that Clinton’s centrism was whitewashing liberalism, others that he was modernizing it. But there is less ideological divergence among Democrats now. The deep liberal disappointment with the president has a different source: He believes in politics more than they do. If you believe, like Obama, that politics is what brings the social compact to life, then the only way to build an equitable society is to make sure everyone has an equal say. Or if you believe, like Krugman, that the data can show you the shape that the fairest society should take, then politics might not always make good on the social compact. Politics, instead, might make it impossible.

Krugman’s purism is partly tactical, his way of correcting for the inevitable dilutions of legislative negotiation. “You want to have a pretty clear vision of what it is you want even though you know what you’re going to get is only a small fraction of that,” he says. When he pushed for a stimulus so large that it seemed implausible it would pass Congress, “I was making a political calculation of my own, that a policy that only did half of what was necessary would lead to political disaster.” His online commenters are more absolute, and they have sometimes turned on him when he has acquiesced to political realities (when, for instance, he eventually endorsed Obama’s health-care reform after having attacked its compromises). But Krugman insists he is playing a more sophisticated game than his supporters and critics give him credit for. “Do we know that if they’d really gone bigger in their proposals, they would have gotten more and it would have worked out better? Of course we don’t,” he says. “But I don’t think it was just me being an outsider and not having a grasp of the realities. I think in some ways I had a better grasp than the insiders had.”

There are times, however, when the consequences of Krugman’s perspective, the darkness of his view of American politics, come into view. In the health-care-reform debate, he saw evidence of “racial hate-mongering.” When the crazed assassin Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, Krugman saw intimations of a broader disorder to come. “The harshness and the incipient violence are very real,” he told me. The liberal historian Michael Kazin, of Georgetown, told me he thought Krugman’s account of the right succumbed to the old Marxist flaw of false consciousness: “Unlike what Krugman says, conservatism is not some kind of smoke screen for another agenda.” In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman was plainer still: “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

The first time I interviewed Krugman, we were sitting in the lobby of the Hilton in midtown, talking about Giffords and Loughner. “I really do think it’s been true,” Krugman said, “that for the past ten years, making sure that you spend a lot of time hanging out with people who are in the mainstream has been really detrimental to seeing what is happening.”

I brought up the work of the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, now with the Obama administration, who has studied the radicalizing effects of ideological isolation—the idea, born from studies of three-judge panels, that if you are not in regular conversation with people who differ from you, you can become far more extreme. It is a very Obama idea, and I asked Krugman if he ever worried that he might succumb to that tendency. “It could happen,” he says. “But I work a lot from data; that’s enough of an anchor. I have a good sense when a claim has gone too far.”

This is the claim of a supreme self-confidence. To say “I am anchored in the data” is really to say “I understand exactly what the data mean.” But it is also the logical extension of a particular view of human nature, one equipped with such a clear view of the way society should be arranged that it can’t comprehend the greed, weakness, and compromise that forestall it. There is society, beautifully. And then there are people.