In the spring of 1960, several months before the presidential election of that year, a small, slim volume by the junior senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, hit the bookstores. The brief manifesto, appropriately titled The Conscience of a Conservative, tried to reclaim the idea of conservatism from the disrepute into which it had fallen ever since the victories of the New Deal. Conservatism was not, Goldwater insisted, a “narrow, mechanistic economic theory.” Its adherents were not greedy businessmen, eager to protect their own privileges. Rather, conservatism was a political philosophy determined to stave off the intrusions of the state and expand the boundaries of freedom. Far from being preoccupied with wealth, conservatism, wrote Goldwater, “puts material things in their proper place.”
Many ironies surrounded the publication of The Conscience of a Conservative. Despite Goldwater’s claim that conservatism had nothing to do with wealth or privilege, the book’s publication had been financed by a small group of intensely antiunion businessmen who hoped to publicize their political views and encourage Goldwater to seek the presidency. They even connected him with National Review editor L. Brent Bozell (brother-in-law of the magazine’s editor in chief, William F. Buckley Jr.), who ghost-wrote the book. In the end, Conscience became a surprising success, hitting the bestseller lists two months after publication and helping conservatism shed its image as the stingy, small-minded politics of businessmen opposed to labor unions and the welfare state. Rarely has a book played as critical a role in building a movement.
Two new books seek to have the galvanizing impact on liberals and progressives that Goldwater’s did on conservatives in 1960. The Conscience of a Liberal, by Princeton economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, puts forward a vision of liberalism as a populist politics of opposition to economic inequality, not the foppish, sentimental cultural elitism mocked by the right. The Big Con, by New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait, seeks to demonstrate that for all its posturing, conservatism really is the politics of business and wealth, and that its truest believers are more obsessed with tax cuts than abortion or gay marriage. Most Americans, Krugman and Chait say, don’t really support the conservative economic agenda; they would like the government to do more, not less. Nor are they duped into voting for that agenda by their fanatical hatred of feminism and gay rights (although Krugman, especially, does emphasize the role of racism in winning popular support for an elitist economic agenda). Rather, the real reason for the strength of the right in American politics is its connection to a small group of businessmen, and their intellectual allies, who want to undo the New Deal and restore the laissez-faire, nonunion economy of the late nineteenth century. These “economic royalists” have captured the Grand Old Party and driven out the moderate Republicans of yesteryear. Unlike Thomas Frank, Krugman and Chait don’t think that the crucial problems of contemporary politics can be traced to culture wars in Kansas. They focus instead on the conservative business lobby and its enablers in Washington.
Krugman and Chait offer passionate and persuasive critiques of the ways economic inequality corrodes American politics and life. They are willing to take on the conservative movement with a ferocity that most mainstream liberals shied away from only a couple of years ago. And because their interpretation of the rise of the conservative movement shifts attention away from cultural conflict to struggles over economic power, their books offer a welcome change from the portrayal of America as divided between the traditionalism of the heartland and the soulless tolerance of the coasts.