Tuesday, April 23, 2002
Maybe I'm mistaken, but I've always thought that most readers of the New York Times were a little above average when it comes to knowledge of current events and crossword puzzles. I'd think that's one perception that a newspaper would want to guard zealously. It looks much better to advertisers -- our readers are smarter, prettier and doggone it, people just like them.
But, on today's op-ed page, Paul "Line 47" Krugman does his best to treat his readers as idiots who haven't read the newspaper over the last two days.
[A] slightly left-of-center candidate runs for president. In a rational world he would win easily. After all, his party has been running the country, with great success: unemployment is down, economic growth has accelerated, the sense of malaise that prevailed under the previous administration has evaporated.
RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT! Because everyone in the world knows that if you're not left-of-center you're just not an intelligent, enlightened person.
But everything goes wrong. His moderation becomes a liability; denouncing the candidate's pro-market stance, left-wing candidates — who have no chance of winning, but are engaged in politics as theater — draw off crucial support. The candidate, though by every indication a very good human being, is not a natural campaigner; he has, say critics, "a professorial style" that seems "condescending and humorless" to many voters. Above all, there is apathy and complacency among moderates; they take it for granted that he will win, or that in any case the election will make little difference.
The result is a stunning victory for the hard right. It's by and large a tolerant, open-minded country; but there is a hard core, maybe 20 percent of the electorate, that is deeply angry even in good times. And owing to the peculiarities of the electoral system, this right-wing minority prevails even though more people actually cast their votes for the moderate left.
It's by and large a tolerant, open-minded country -- as long as you're not Jewish or American. And it's not exactly what Krugman has suggested. This is the equivalent of a primary election in the U.S. Krugman's concern that the "hard right" will take over the presidency of France is unwarranted.
If all this sounds like a post-mortem on the Gore campaign in 2000, that's intentional. But I'm actually describing Sunday's shocking election in France, in which the current prime minister, Lionel Jospin, placed third, behind the rabid rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Until very recently, Mr. Le Pen was regarded as a spent force. Now he has scored an astonishing triumph.
It didn't sound like a post-mortem on the Gore campaign to anyone -- because, with the exception of the "hard left" of the Democratic party who are "deeply angry," the American public got over it. Where did Krugman come up with this idea? What gave him the idea that this little literary device would actually work?
What the French election revealed is that in France, as in the United States, there are a lot of angry people. They aren't a majority; Mr. Le Pen received about 17 percent of the vote, less than Ross Perot got here in 1992. But they are highly motivated, and can exert influence out of proportion to their numbers if moderates take a tolerant society for granted.
Ahhh...I understand now. Conservatives are, by definition, intolerant and angry people. They are also a small minority. Most Americans are part of Krugman's moderate left. Of course, if that were the case, the moderate left would actually be the center.
And let's completely ignore the fact that Bush is very pro-immigrant, while Le Pen demonizes foreigners in his nation and is an anti-Semitic holocaust-denier. To simple people like Krugman, the two are one and the same.
What are the angry people angry about? Not economics; peace and prosperity did not reconcile them to Bill Clinton or to Mr. Jospin. Instead, it seems to be about traditional values. Our angry right rails against godless liberals; France's targets immigrants. In both cases, what really seems to bother them is the loss of certainty; they want to return to a simpler time, one without that disturbing modern mix of people and ideas.
I think most people would reject Krugman's analysis. Actually, "conservative Republican" is becoming a misnomer. Republicans were the ones pushing to change welfare, they want to privatize Social Security, add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare -- these are all changes. Conservatives, by definition, want to hold tight to the status quo. Democrats who find themselves opposed to these changes are actually the conservative ones.
I'm also not going to let the "peace and prosperity" thing go unchallenged. The economy was beginning to tank during Clinton's last year in office as the dot-com bubble burst. As far as peace, in hindsight we can see what the Clinton-Gore administration's reactions to the first World Trade Center bombing, the U.S. African embassies bombings and the bombing of the USS Cole brought us. In hindsight we might have wished a little less peace during his term.
And in both cases this angry minority has had far more influence than its numbers would suggest, largely because of the fecklessness of the left and the apathy of moderates. Al Gore had Ralph Nader; Mr. Jospin had a potpourri of silly leftists (two Trotskyists took 10 percent of the vote). And both men were mocked and neglected by complacent moderates.
Wait, it's the "angry" Republicans' fault that Nader ran? It's the Republicans fault that Nader did well enough in Florida to put a lock on Gore's loss? If you're drawing parallels between the 2000 election campaign and last weekend's French election, then the "angry" people would be those on the far left who voted for Nader.
Now for the important difference. Mr. Le Pen is a political outsider; his showing in Sunday's election puts him into the second-round runoff, but he won't actually become France's president. So his hard-right ideas won't be put into practice anytime soon.
In the United States, by contrast, the hard right has essentially been co-opted by the Republican Party — or maybe it's the other way around. In this country people with views that are, in their way, as extreme as Mr. Le Pen's are in a position to put those views into practice.
Krugman's analysis would lead most to believe that Bush's 70+ percent approval rating is due to -- what? Are 70+ percent of the American people "angry, hard-righters?" If Krugman had been reading the paper in the last week or so he'd see that the "hard-right" that he decries has been criticizing Bush on his foreign policy. So much for co-opting the Republican Party. Talk about wanting a return to simpler times, the world is so much more complicated that Krugman makes it out to be.
Consider, for example, the case of Representative Tom DeLay. Last week Mr. DeLay told a group that he was on a mission from God to promote a "biblical worldview," and that he had pursued the impeachment of Bill Clinton in part because Mr. Clinton held "the wrong worldview." Well, there are strange politicians everywhere. But Mr. DeLay is the House majority whip — and, in the view of most observers, the real power behind Speaker Dennis Hastert.
And then there's John Ashcroft.
Ohhh...that's a good one....whenever you want to elicit fear among the nation's liberals, all you have to do is mention Ashcroft's name. Scary!
What France's election revealed is that we and the French have more in common than either country would like to admit. There as here, there turns out to be a lot of irrational anger lurking just below the surface of politics as usual. The difference is that here the angry people are already running the country.
Nader's running the country? I'm sure he'll be excited to hear that! The main thing that the United States has in common with France is an elitist left that thinks it knows better than everyone else. Krugman's proof of that.