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.
But at the same time, the books seem written for a political constituency that does not yet exist. They seek to reinvigorate the liberalism of the mid-twentieth century, yet they do not fully appreciate the exceptional circumstances that brought it about. Although their books are trenchant and incisive, their anger seems born more of desperation than of strength. After all, they are trying to defend the remnants of liberalism, an old political order, more than seeking to create a new one. Their books seem radical only because the institutions and the ideas that made the New Deal and the liberal politics of the mid-twentieth century possible have been so significantly weakened. There is, of course, a certain rhetorical power in claiming the mantle of history. But what's missing from their wish to revive the economic policies of the New Deal and the liberal consensus of the mid-twentieth century are the kind of calls for a true break from the past that sparked those policies to life.
Paul Krugman has a confession to make: he's nostalgic for the 1950s. Yes, the 1950s--the decade of Joseph McCarthy, the cold war and the segregated South--and despite the Vietnam War, he misses the '60s too. Back in the day, Krugman "railed against the very real injustices of our society" and even "marched against the bombing of Cambodia." But the liberal order that he criticized then now looks like a "paradise lost."
What does Krugman miss? Well, for one thing, in the '50s the nation's wealthiest people weren't casually purchasing multimillion-dollar apartments in New York City and planning to spend millions more on renovations before they even moved in. They weren't hosting birthday parties for their children at $120,000 a pop, hiring personal nutritionists to evaluate the menus of restaurants around town or filling their hours with many of the other gold-plated entertainments breathlessly catalogued in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine about the new Gilded Age.
In the last Gilded Age, tycoons like Andrew Carnegie believed that the wealthy were the winners in a great cosmic race and that they, not the state, were best able to determine the right ways to spend their fortunes. The impotence of the business class during the economic free-fall of the 1930s destroyed this vision of the omnipotent rich. By the '50s, top income tax rates were 91 percent, while estate taxes were near 80 percent. Krugman estimates that the result of these tax rates was that the income of the richest 1 percent of the country was 20 to 30 percent lower in the mid-'50s than it had been a generation before. Yet the "compression" of incomes did not destroy incentives or halt economic growth, as conservatives often warn. On the contrary, family incomes rose regularly throughout the period, climbing about 2.7 percent each year from 1947 to 1973, compared with an annual 0.7 percent increase in median family income since 1980. There was, of course, still much poverty in 1950s America, especially among black Southerners living under Jim Crow. But the gap between the rich and the poor was not widening rapidly the way it is today.