The New York Times columnist wants voters to be pragmatic. But pragmatism for its own sake can be a dangerous thing
Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman can’t stand that people are irrational; that working-class conservatives are duped into voting against their own economic interests. In a recent New York Times editorial called “How Change Happens,” Krugman complained that liberal Bernie Sanders supporters are hopelessly waiting for the “better angels” in people to rise up and radically change our corrupt institutions. Real change, he argues, requires rational pragmatism and compromise.
As a psychotherapist who writes about politics, I have a different issue: I can’t believe Krugman is bewildered by the fact that the quality and quantity of our political engagement is strongly shaped by powerful unconscious needs and fears that are relatively immune to rational argument. Forgetting for a moment that, as others have pointed out, he misrepresents Sanders’ view of change. Krugman’s own view reflects a wishful fantasy that fundamental social change results from incremental victories that reflect rational compromises between competing interests. But the fundamental issue facing progressives today is not one negotiated by policy wonks; it is how we can build healthy institutions that become a base for a radical social movement. The issue is how do we engage the passions of millions of Americans who view such a movement as connecting to their unrequited desires and unarticulated fears?
To do so, we have to at least start with an accurate view of human motivation; that is, our picture of what people really need and fear, and therefore, how the institutions we build and the ideology we promote speak to these feelings at the deepest possible level. For example, people in our society are often isolated and lonely. People need a feeling of connectedness as much as they need economic justice. How does our “message” offer people a sense of community? (Sanders’ enthusiastic calls for a “political revolution” seek to do just that, while Clinton hangs her appeal on flat and technocratic notions of “competence.”) The right has certainly understood people’s frustrated needs for connectedness, although their offer of “community” is based in large part of demonizing some other (immigrants, gays, welfare recipients, etc.).
Or consider the notion Krugman gently mocks that too many progressives are trying to conjure up the better angels of America’s nature. In fact, people do have a deep emotional longing for meaning and purpose. We want our better angels to be awakened and we want to see the same in others. All one has to do to see this need awakened is to note how communities react with altruistic and high-minded generosity in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.
Politicians act when they are forced to or bribed to act. The compromises that so often result are due to the net effect of this play of forces. The job of progressives is to strengthen our side, increase our power, by engaging and inspiring people out of their passivity, not just by offering up reasonable policy alternatives but by inspiring them to be bigger and better than they typically see themselves. That’s what Obama did in 2008, and it’s what Sanders is doing now.
Sanders’ appeal isn’t reducible to what Krugman calls “transformational rhetoric,” but is, instead, an antidote to the cynicism so prevalent today, a malignant despair that doesn’t arise from the stupidity of conservatives or the naïve idealism of progressives. Cynicism is the belief that the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be. It can’t be combatted simply by appeals to reason, but rather, by speaking to the hearts of our constituents, stimulating (not belittling) their belief in better angels and resonating with their needs for love, recognition, agency, community, and meaning. These apparently softer needs are every bit as powerful as rational economic self-interest or left-brain logic.
Paul Krugman is the leading public intellectual in America today. He stands head and shoulders above the dishonest and small-minded wonks and politicians on the right. When he crosses swords with them, we are the better for it. But if he wants to talk about how change occurs and about political compromise, he needs to understand that Roosevelt was pushed to the left by labor, LBJ by the civil rights movement, Nixon by the anti-war movement, and the Supreme Court by the LGBT movement for same-sex marriage. Radical social change can’t be understood as the result of technical policy compromises between rational actors, but rather as the result of social movements that acquire power by engaging the whole person—including the more intimate regions of the heart and soul, as well as the parts in which reason resides.
Contrary to Krugman’s assertion, we will need those “better angels of our nature” in order to win the power needed to be pragmatic from a position of strength. Otherwise, pragmatism for its own sake leaves us disengaged and makes politics seem irrelevant, rather than a place where our deepest needs can be expressed and fulfilled.