Don’t Cry for the Republicans, Paul Krugman!

December 16, 2012   ·   5 Comments

Source: NYTX

By Costas Panayotakis:

In a column entitled “The G.O.P.’s Existential Crisis,” Paul Krugman claims that the Republican Party’s long-standing effort to eliminate “the welfare state – that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society” has now failed because “Democrats didn’t go along with the program, and refused to give up.” (i) Faced with this failure, Krugman argues, the Republicans have no concrete proposals to offer and, “increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues,” are threatening to make America ungovernable.

This very simplistic narrative presents the radical changes in the American political landscape over the last thirty years as a move of the Republicans to the right even as the Democrats have stayed true to the liberal legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society.  In Krugman’s mind, the Republicans have marginalized themselves by moving to the right, thus leaving the Democrats in a politically hegemonic position.

A monument of Democratic wishful thinking, Krugman’s column obscures the fact that, far from having failed, the Republicans have over the last thirty years successfully shifted the entire political spectrum to the right.  As for the Democrats, far from having stayed true to the liberal legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, they too have moved to the right as they have helped bring about and adjusted to the new free-market neoliberal regime of economic and social policy that is currently in crisis.

Not unique to the United States, this new regime represents a break with the model of the Keynesian welfare state which prevailed in capitalism’s post-war ‘golden age’ and which, in the U.S., was exemplified by the policy initiatives of the New Deal and the Great Society.  Thus, long before threatening to make America ‘ungovernable,’ Republican ideologues helped to bring about a new way of governing America.  This new way has drastically increased inequality and has contributed to the onset of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression.  And although Republicans may sometimes overreach when it comes to the implementation of the neoliberal program, they have been successful in making even those they denounce as liberals and socialists (such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) dutifully serve the neoliberal project.  Similarly, the fact that Margaret Thatcher overreached in her neoliberal restructuring of British society did not change the fact that she so changed the dominant policy paradigm in her country that when, a few years after her political demise, Labor got back in power, its policies were solidly neoliberal (as have been the policies of the Conservative/Liberal coalition that has, by now, assumed power in Britain).

In this sense, any temporary electoral setbacks that Republicans may suffer as a result of overreaching pales in comparison to the robust structural change represented by the fact that the Democratic politicians who have in recent years outmaneuvered them have stayed within the neoliberal fold.  There is no better example of the ideological victory of right-wing Republicans than the fact that the most ‘liberal’ policies today’s Democrats would dare propose (for example, Obamacare) are corporate-friendly policies embraced until not so long ago by Republicans themselves.  And what about the fact that even Obama’s (wavering) opposition to the renewal of the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich would still leave their tax rates much lower than they were under Republican presidents such as Eisenhower and Nixon?

Krugman’s regular debunking of Republican non-sense is useful and welcome.  But even more fundamental than the political football between Republicans and Democrats, which dominates the attention of The New York Times and the media, are the deeper structural changes that global capitalism has undergone in the last thirty years.  And what these structural changes have made clear is that the belief of liberal Keynesians, like Krugman, in the possibility of humanizing capitalism has to be qualified by the experience of the twentieth century.  This experience suggests that, as long as the capitalist power structure remains intact, any progressive social and economic changes will remain precarious and be reversed whenever capitalist elites feel strong enough to do away with any concessions that popular movements may have in the past forced them to grant.  It is for this reason that the enemy of humanity and the planet are not Republicans and their political counterparts in other parts of the world but capitalism itself.  It is this basic insight that the ‘good cop, bad cop’ game played by Democrats and Republicans alike serves to obscure.  Just as support for the Democrats did not prevent the current crisis but helped to bring it about, so will continued support for the Democrats not ensure a truly better future for ourselves, our children and the planet.


Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).


(i) See


Readers Comments (5)

  1. D12345 says:

    This is a great commentary. Krugman presents a very limited, sheltered, and naive world view which makes him the perfect foil for the right.
    Just as Obama is vilified as a socialist. If Obama and Krugman are the extremists, we can see where the equilibrium is being established.

    Krugman also is determined to see the austerity program as “ideology.” Pundits want to “appear serious” etc. He never confronts the fact that the austerity paves the way for dismantling every workers’ right, every social program, and every public works program.

    I recall Rachel Maddow and others chortling after 2010 that the Republicans were finished as a party. Today again, we see all of the demographic proof that they can’t win. This while right to work laws, abortion restrictions, voting restrictions are spreading like wildfire.

    Great work.!!

    • D12345 says:

      typo….they were chortling after 2008!!!

      and starting to chortle again with the demographics etc.

  2. carlyle says:

    The entire country has moved right and the entire country will pay with fear, poverty,and despair.
    There is only one direction for the economy to move following any agreement that includes one,two, or three trillion dollars of Government spending cuts over the next decade. There is a shortage of demand for goods and services now that will be magnified by any spending cut. Some portion of every dollar of reduced spending comes from the paycheck of some American worker. American workers are aready broke.

  3. marieburns says:

    Panayotakis has badly misread Krugman. What Krugman said in his column Friday was that Democrats have — so far — held the line on Medicare & Social Security. He does not imply here or elsewhere that Democrats have not shifted right.

    Panayotakis writes that “Krugman’s regular debunking of Republican non-sense is useful and welcome.” But I don’t think Panayotakis regularly reads Krugman, because if he did, he would know that Krugman does not disagree with the thrust of Panayotakis’ criticism of Democrats. Here is Krugman in 2009, for instance, on the right-winginess of ObamaCare: “Nixon’s proposal for health care reform looks a lot like Democratic proposals today. In fact, in some ways it was stronger.” Here he was last month, for the umpteenth time, warning Democrats (Obama) not to abandon their base to effect a “Grand Bargain.” Krugman has criticized Democrats — and Obama specifically — for abandoning core principles dozens if not hundreds of times in his column, on his blog, in other writings & in speeches & other public commentary.

    Krugman’s column on “The GOP’s Existential Crisis” is — as the headline suggests — not about Democrats; it’s about Republicans. Pretty much the only thing Krugman says about Democrats is, “Democrats didn’t go along with the program [to destroy the social safety net], and refused to give up.” He also implies here (& writes elsewhere) that Democrats look like America. This is not in any way — as a previous commenter suggests — a demonstration that Krugman has a “very limited, sheltered and naive world view.” It is simply a statement of fact.

    Before criticizing a writer for writing something he didn’t write, it’s a good idea to read what he did write.

    Marie Burns

  4. JAH says:

    Do you believe the Democrats are willing to significantly reduce the social safety net?


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