Paul Krugman, speaking at the Women’s Democratic Forum of Greater St. Louis at a Thursday luncheon, opined that the long, Alaskan winter of Republican dominance is ending. And Krugman, no Pollyanna, has solid reasons for thinking that “It’s almost over, or at least it can be over.”
Krugman began by explaining how the country has gone awry since the seventies. The once powerful middle class of the fifties and sixties in this country, created by the New Deal, was decimated because many of the programs that enabled more equality than this nation had ever seen before have been dismantled by Movement Conservatives. They have taken us into a second Gilded Age, with the concentration of wealth as great at the top now as it was in the twenties. For example, last year the top 25 hedge fund managers made as much money as the 80,000 New York City teachers make in three years.
Conservatives have wrought this change because they see the Great Society and the New Deal as a violation of American principles. Grover Norquist, when asked once what he wanted to accomplish, said that he intended to take this nation back to the time before Teddy Roosevelt introduced socialism.
The reason Republicans were able to take us out of an age of equality and into another gilded age, according to Krugman, was that they gained a grip on power by appealing to racism. The Civil Rights Act was the signal for many Southern white males to switch parties. By the time Reagan was running for president, Republicans had learned to use race. Reagan went to Mississippi, during his first presidential campaign, and spoke there–at the urging of Roger Ailes, currently the president of Fox News–in favor of “states’ rights”, code for racism. He popularized the notion of the “welfare queen”, even though the woman he described never existed. She was a product of his fertile imagination. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, relied on Willie Horton to get himself elected.
As the Republicans gained power, their goal was to weaken labor. Union membership declined from 30 percent of the workers in the sixties to 12 percent now. Canada, on the other hand, still has about a 30 percent union membership workforce. Why the difference in the two countries? The Reagan years saw open warfare on unions, and it is no accident that Wal-Mart, with its focus on keeping unions out, began its climb to power during those years.
Now, however, the Republican hold on America is losing its grip. Racism is less powerful. Look at what happened to George Allen last year, in Virginia no less, for using a racial epithet, “macaca”. His racist comment put Jim Webb into Allen’s senate seat.
The other critical factor in loosening Republican power is a surge of progressive economic populism. Americans see what is happening to their jobs and their health insurance under Republican rule. Last year Democracy Corps did a poll which revealed that 70 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Respondents in the poll were asked to choose from various phrases that described the possible reasons they thought so. The most commonly chosen phrases were “Big business gets everything it wants” and “leaders have forgotten the middle class.” Americans are angrier than those pollsters have ever seen them.
The place to begin progressive reform, Krugman believes, is with health care. We spend 60 percent more on health care than France, for example, and yet the French get better health outcomes than we do. Now, however, there is a strong progressive coalition behind health care reform, and all three major Democratic presidential candidates have introduced health plans that could eventually turn into Medicare for All. (Krugman’s only caveat was that he fears interest groups might be able to buy their way out of real health care reform.)
Less than three years ago, it looked as if we might lose social security, but the left fought back and we didn’t. Now, we may get health care reform by 2009. The times they are a-changin’, and Paul Krugman believes they’re likely to be better.