Scarcely a day goes by without Paul Krugman hammering away at Bernie Sanders. And the message is always clear. Change is difficult. It requires compromise. You can’t try to do too much. People like Sanders are ridiculous. They think all a President needs to do is snap her fingers and the millennium will arrive. Often mixed in with this message are some technical, wonkish points about tax policy or the balance of payments.
It is significant that Krugman directs this message at Sanders and his supporters. It would be ridiculous to direct the same message to the Wall Street bankers and lawyers who run this country. In 1945 when Wall Street wanted to destroy the alliance with our wartime ally, the Soviet Union, they didn’t do it gradually or carefully or through a series of difficult compromises. They simply made up a story about the threat of international communism, launched a series of military strikes and put the country on a permanent war footing, which remains in place today. In 2007 when the same bankers and lawyers, or their children, found that the grandiose fraud they called an economy was coming down around them, they didn’t stop and make a series of baby steps, compromising with trade unions, home owners, small businessmen, and others who had an interest in working things out. Not at all– they simply took over the American treasury and handed the country’s collective savings and credit to the banks, to the speculators who now control more than half of the American economy– no compromise was needed, thank you. And it was all done in a few weeks.
Behind this wonderful electoral campaign– and I do find it wonderful– lies one fact: the profoundly disappointing character of the Obama Presidency, which has been based from the beginning on the Krugmanesque philosophy of how slow we have to go, and how many compromises we have to make along the way. One thing has destroyed the credibility of the falsely termed “pragmatic” philosophy that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Paul Krugman espouse– the crisis that the US was and is in. While some of the details of how the Obama Presidency remain to be clarified, its main contours are clear. Obama’s career was launched in 2007-8 because he articulated the profound global awareness that the twin facts of the disaster in Iraq and the economic collapse were not contingent events from which the US could “recover,” but rather signified a deep rot in the American system. Obama brilliantly gave voice to that awareness, saying– let me remind you– that the rot started with Clinton, not Bush, and that we needed a change in mindset, not policy. His failure to address that dual crisis– which has become so much worse under his watch– gives his eight years their fundamental character: disappointment. The proof of this is the collapse of the “pragmatic,” cautious, compromising values that Obama offered up, which we see in today’s politics: the stunning weakness and background-corruption of Hillary Clinton, who represents continuity with the Obama years, and the strength of both Trump on the right and Sanders on the left, both of whom represent real breaks.
I am an historian and I know how historians think. No historian will miss the fact that the years between 2008 and 2016 have been years of dramatically increasing inequality (in spite of the end of the Bush tax cuts), of attacks on trade union, pensions, and teachers, of each and every institution in the country turning its full time attention to the bottom line. But far more striking to future historians will be the origins of the Obama Presidency in 2007-8– namely in a global awareness of crisis– and its consequences in the campaigns of 2016– the collapse of the philosophy of moderate, gradualism and bipartisanship that Obama represented. No one doubts the difficulty that an effort to change this country will face. But we need a new direction, the one we voted for in 2008. Lets vote for it now, again; judging Sanders from his thirty years in Congress, we have a better chance of getting it, or at least nudging things in the right direction for a change.