Krugman’s "Distract and Disenfranchise": Clever But Overstated

Paul Krugman’s current offering in the New York Times, “Distract and Disenfranchise,” seeks to connect the dots between the Bush Administration’s very successful (until recently) fear-mongering, voter disenfranchisement, and income inequality. He argues that the fact that the Republicans are captive to interests that won’t permit them to address income inequality requires that they make other issues seem vastly more important. Hence the focus on alleged global threats and security. Similarly, since it had not intention to help the poor, but the poor still vote, another measure was voter disenfranchisement.

While this is a clever argument, it strikes me as being a conceit, a favorite device of the Metaphysical poets, who would compare seemingly dissimilar objects or concepts with the idea of illuminating each. When it works, it’s brilliant, and when it doesn’t, it’s forced.

With all due respect to Krugman, who has to be clever on a schedule, this seems forced.

He is completely correct to say that the Republicans have painted themselves in an ideological corner regarding providing economic assistance lower income individuals. Yet Krugman would have you believe that the Republicans never attempt to garner the votes of lower income individuals. Not true. Voters in red states are on average lower income than those in blue states. As Thomas Frank has pointed out in his book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” the Republicans have done a brilliant job of getting lower income non-urban voters to vote against their economic interests by stressing social issues, like gay marriage. They have managed to neutralize income inequality for a wide swathe of voters by appealing to traditional (meaning retrograde) values.

And even dyed-in-the-wool adherence to capitalist dogma doesn’t prevent Republicans from doing a bit of populist play-acting now and again. Recall the steel tariffs, and now the coated paper duties. And we also have the Medicare drug plan, which initially looked like a white elephant, but appears to help the drug companies while doing enough smoke-and-mirrors with the elderly to get pretty good marks.

As for security and our Middle East misadventures, Krugman also forgets that the neo-cons were around even in the Reagan era, but Reagan recognized them to be a bit off beam (even then, Wolfowitz was insisting that Iraq was the linchpin to US interests). Now one can argue, as Krugman implicitly does, that their ideas became more acceptable as the Republicans needed a new bogeyman, but one could just as easily read it as an alignment of personalities (Cheney has been involved with the neo-cons since at least the early 1990s). And yes, Bush had lousy popularity ratings prior to 9/11, but my recollection is it had as much to do with him being often missing in action (he was spending less than half time in DC) and perceived as ineffectual as to his policies.

And the voter fraud? Again, that is just playing dirty, and not necessarily directly related to income inequality. The voter disqualification efforts were all directed against blacks. Blacks vote nearly 90% Democratic. Yes, it correlates with income, but blacks simply happen to be a particularly easy Democratic group to target.

But perhaps you’ll agree with Krugman:

I have a theory about the Bush administration abuses of power that are now, finally, coming to light. Ultimately, I believe, they were driven by rising income inequality.

Let me explain.

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House, conservative ideas appealed to many, even most, Americans. At the time, we were truly a middle-class nation. To white voters, at least, the vast inequalities and social injustices of the past, which were what originally gave liberalism its appeal, seemed like ancient history. It was easy, in that nation, to convince many voters that Big Government was their enemy, that they were being taxed to provide social programs for other people.

Since then, however, we have once again become a deeply unequal society. Median income has risen only 17 percent since 1980, while the income of the richest 0.1 percent of the population has quadrupled. The gap between the rich and the middle class is as wide now as it was in the 1920s, when the political coalition that would eventually become the New Deal was taking shape.

And voters realize that society has changed. They may not pore over income distribution tables, but they do know that today’s rich are building themselves mansions bigger than those of the robber barons. They may not read labor statistics, but they know that wages aren’t going anywhere: according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of workers believe that it’s harder to earn a decent living today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

You know that perceptions of rising inequality have become a political issue when even President Bush admits, as he did in January, that “some of our citizens worry about the fact that our dynamic economy is leaving working people behind.”

But today’s Republicans can’t respond in any meaningful way to rising inequality, because their activists won’t let them. You could see the dilemma just this past Friday and Saturday, when almost all the G.O.P. presidential hopefuls traveled to Palm Beach to make obeisance to the Club for Growth, a supply-side pressure group dedicated to tax cuts and privatization.

The Republican Party’s adherence to an outdated ideology leaves it with big problems. It can’t offer domestic policies that respond to the public’s real needs. So how can it win elections?

The answer, for a while, was a combination of distraction and disenfranchisement.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were themselves a massive, providential distraction; until then the public, realizing that Mr. Bush wasn’t the moderate he played in the 2000 election, was growing increasingly unhappy with his administration. And they offered many opportunities for further distractions. Rather than debating Democrats on the issues, the G.O.P. could denounce them as soft on terror. And do you remember the terror alert, based on old and questionable information, that was declared right after the 2004 Democratic National Convention?

But distraction can only go so far. So the other tool was disenfranchisement: finding ways to keep poor people, who tend to vote for the party that might actually do something about inequality, out of the voting booth.

Remember that disenfranchisement in the form of the 2000 Florida “felon purge,” which struck many legitimate voters from the rolls, put Mr. Bush in the White House in the first place. And disenfranchisement seems to be what much of the politicization of the Justice Department was about.

Several of the fired U.S. attorneys were under pressure to pursue allegations of voter fraud — a phrase that has become almost synonymous with “voting while black.” Former staff members of the Justice Department’s civil rights division say that they were repeatedly overruled when they objected to Republican actions, ranging from Georgia’s voter ID law to Tom DeLay’s Texas redistricting, that they believed would effectively disenfranchise African-American voters.

The good news is that all the G.O.P.’s abuses of power weren’t enough to win the 2006 elections. And 2008 may be even harder for the Republicans, because the Democrats — who spent most of the Clinton years trying to reassure rich people and corporations that they weren’t really populists — seem to be realizing that times have changed.

A week before the Republican candidates trooped to Palm Beach to declare their allegiance to tax cuts, the Democrats met to declare their commitment to universal health care. And it’s hard to see what the G.O.P. can offer in response.

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