A Book Review Saga: Professor David Kennedy Takes on Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman’s new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, is named after Barry Goldwater’s 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Like Goldwater’s seminal expression of conservatism, Krugman wants his book to define an ideology and spur a new era in politics. He even states this on the flap jacket: “The Conscience of a Liberal promises to reshape public debate about American policy and become a touchstone for an entire generation.”

You can imagine, then, Krugman’s disappointment when he read the review of his book in the October 21st New York Times Book Review. “Like the rants of Rush Limbaugh or the films of Michael Moore,” the reviewer writes, “Krugman’s shrill polemic may hearten the faithful, but it will do little to persuade the unconvinced or to advance the national discussion of the important issues it addresses.” Ouch. Who wrote this scathing assessment? David Brooks? Andrew Sullivan? Actually, it was David M. Kennedy, Stanford’s Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Pulitzer Prize-winner. In his review, Professor Kennedy does not reject the new book so much as dismiss it out of hand. He displays some sympathy for the broader argument, but instead focuses, like a true academic, on the nuts and bolts of the argument. In this respect, what he sees is a lack of evidence and caricatured assertions. Overall, Professor Kennedy considers it to be a shoddy piece of work — and he’s right. Krugman’s book is a preachy, underdeveloped diatribe.

The New Book and the Review

The Conscience of a Liberal argues that the New Deal made America a more equal, middle class nation- a sort of “Leave it to Beaver” wonderland of income parity. Then “movement conservatism” — starting with William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and so forth — dismantled the mechanisms of equality and began a “second Gilded Age.” This conservative movement – or “vast right wing conspiracy” as Krugman non-jokingly labels it – came to power by exploiting post-Civil Rights racial tensions, the “culture war,” and post-Vietnam vengeance. But now, after the tremendous failures of the Bush Administration, he calls for “a new age of reform” and social programs that will take the country back from the elite ideologues and return it to the people.

But, like Professor Kennedy says, this argument lacks any sort of nuance or genuine insight. To open his review, Kennedy labels Krugman as an “anti-economist”: an economist so focused on the limitations of the free market that he overlooks its widespread effectiveness. Though his evidence for this claim is a bit confusing, Kennedy’s main point is well taken. Krugman’s narrow focus on market limitations exemplifies his lack of big-picture understanding. His columns and books gloss over the myriad ways that the market, and American society in general, actually help; his writings only focus on how they hurt.

Kennedy’s review is at its best when criticizing Krugman’s interpretation of recent political history, probably due to the professor’s immense knowledge and Krugman’s glaring weakness in the area. First, Krugman focuses too much on the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy.” The columnist claims that the rise of the Republicans is “an almost embarrassingly simple story . . . Much of the whole phenomenon can be summed up in just five words: Southern whites started voting Republican. … End of story.” He even cites the usual, tired examples like Reagan’s 1980 campaign stop in Philadelphia, Mississippi. But Krugman is right: his story is embarrassingly simple. As Professor Kennedy points out and as any reader will notice, the author neglects other possible factors in the voting shift, including land issues in the West and the resonance of “values” all over the nation.

In terms of foreign policy, The Conscience of a Liberal blames post-Vietnam War “revenge fantasies” for the Republican Party’s monopoly on national security issues. His main evidence? The rise of the Rambo and Chuck Norris movies in the 1980’s. Professor Kennedy will have none of this. He points out, for instance, that the Iran Hostage Crisis, Somalia in 1993, and assorted Clinton-era inadequacies also contributed to the perception that Democrats were weak on national security issues. Krugman, while he may have a right to be embittered by the foreign policy style of the current administration, does a poor job of explaining the issue within the sweep of history. Considering that he is making a broad argument that took shape over decades, he should include more evidence than just a Chuck Norris movie.

Kennedy also points out two factual errors. While this book is not exactly overflowing with historical examples and solid facts, Kennedy cites two examples of clear historical errors. First, Krugman states that the Voting Rights Act was instituted “in 1964”, when in reality it was 1965. Kennedy also points out that, while Krugman calls Kansas the birthplace of prohibition because it passed the first constitutional law against alcohol in 1880, in fact Kansas was never a leader in the temperance movement. The facts, while perhaps insignificant to the overall argument, expose the level of sophistication of Krugman’s historical research.

Overall, to Krugman the review was likely the ultimate insult. First, this tepid response comes from Krugman’s own paper. Given the Times’s openly liberal stance, Krugman no doubt hoped for (and, it seems, expected) support. Second, Professor Kennedy is a distinguished academic — precisely the audience that Krugman wants to impress. Finally, Professor Kennedy is a self-proclaimed Democrat and noted historian of progressivism and the New Deal. Speaking with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb recently he said, “I’m a very active Democrat . . . I’ve been a delegate to the national convention. I’ve actively supported several presidential candidacies.” (He adds, though, that “. . . I try to keep that out of the classroom. And I try to keep it out of my, what I’ll call my scholarly writing.” Most of his students would attest to this claim.) So clearly Krugman cannot call Kennedy’s review a partisan attack. Any criticism, then, can only be traced back to the merits of his work.

The Reaction and Backlash

Following the October 21st release of Kennedy’s review, Krugman and his “progressive” partisans mounted some angry responses. On the same day, Krugman responded to the review on his blog by wistfully stating, “I presented facts on voting behavior, which point to the centrality of race — he ignores them. I presented polling evidence about the timing and role of the perception that Democrats are weak on national security; he just waves it away.” But in reality his evidence is thin and lacks any sort of academic comprehensiveness. A poll from 1979 shows the parties to be viewed as about equal in foreign policy issues. But, again, the poll took place before other incidents, including the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Professor Brad DeLong, an economist at UC-Berkely and personal friend of Krugman, wrote an October 21st post on his blog under the title, “David M Kennedy of Stanford makes his play for the Stupidest Man Alive crown.” Beneath these harsh words DeLong attacks Kennedy for picking on minor factual errors and, most harshly, slams Kennedy’s “anti-economist” label. He sums up his distaste for the review: “David Kennedy . . . demonstrates his allegiance to those who have never had substantive arguments to make in reply to Paul Krugman’s arguments, and hence have no move to make save the rhetorical one of dismissing him as “shrill.” Because, of course, David Kennedy had just before admitted that Krugman is right on the substance.”

Another comment came from Gavin Kennedy (no relation) who maintains a blog about economic history titled “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy.” Responding to DeLong’s post and Kennedy’s review, he concludes that Kennedy’s “anti-economist” diagnosis was off the mark. He particularly criticizes Kennedy for mentioning “Adam Smith’s fabled ‘invisible hand’” by claiming that the whole metaphor is not a direct legacy of Smith. He even accuses Kennedy, as DeLong did, of not having ever read Smith. Finally, he concludes that “a historian (should) . . . at least be interested in this . . .” He seems to be playing Kennedy’s own game against him.

Even The Nation tried to get in on the action. The November 12th article entitled “Hawking War Guilt” written by Jim Sleeper criticized the New York Times Book Review and the New Republic book reviews for being unsympathetic to war critics. It says, “Others received prissy put downs, as has Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal.”

But these blogs and periodicals seem to be missing the point of Professor Kennedy’s review. Because Krugman makes some salient points, such as the importance of race in modern politics and the end of a New Deal consensus, they want the book to get a red carpet rollout. They think that Krugman’s earnestness and good intentions alone will make his book a classic. But a book review is about the quality of the book itself, and that is what Kennedy wrote about.

Professor Kennedy is, above all, a scholar. This is obvious from his lectures, articles, and general demeanor. And, like any good scholar, he values accuracy, depth of research, and clarity of argument. The Conscience of a Liberal is the work of a scholar stooping to a level of naked partisanship, painting intricate historical processes in laughably oversimplified strokes. The historical sketch that Krugman draws is at times painfully shallow. In his book, Krugman tends to devote merely a few pages to support some of his unoriginal assertions. Kennedy, meanwhile, in his Freedom from Fear used hundreds of meticulously researched pages to challenge conventional wisdoms in an accessible manner. You can imagine why, then, he is unimpressed by Krugman’s efforts.

Perhaps Kennedy went too far by comparing the New York Times columnist and Princeton professor to Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. As a pundit, he has much more substance than those showmen. But The Conscience of a Liberal, unfortunately never displays this substance. And that is exactly why Kennedy slammed it.

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