Does this approach to persuasion work in the Age of Trump? Signs point to no. Partisanship might be the single-most powerful force in American politics right now. As noted in “The Ideas Industry,” polarization has a debilitating effect on the marketplace of ideas. Expert consensus loses its power. Distrust of elites skyrockets. Plutocrats can and will throw obscene amounts of money at thought leaders willing to hawk even the most dubious of worldviews. Speaking truth to power is hard enough; speaking truth to money is even more challenging. Persuasion in this kind of environment becomes a herculean task.
This brings me to the matter of Paul Krugman and Sebastian Mallaby. Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and longtime New York Times columnist. Mallaby is the Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and a distinguished economics columnist in his own right. The former is coming out with a new book, “Arguing With Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future,” a collection of his past columns. Mallaby’s critical review of it has already appeared in the Atlantic.
Mallaby makes two seemingly contradictory arguments in his review. The first is that, “Krugman is substantively correct on just about every topic he addresses. He writes amusingly and fluently.” This is not a small thing! An awful lot of economists and pundits have gotten an awful lot wrong over the past two decades. Krugman has not gotten everything right, but his batting average has been far better than most.
The second argument has attracted more attention. Mallaby posits that even if Krugman has been right about a lot, he subverts his persuasive abilities by impugning the motives of those he opposes: “By branding Republicans as ‘bad people,’ he reduces the chances of swaying them. By sweeping all Republicans into the same basket — often without specifying whether he means party leaders or the rank and file — Krugman may obscure more of reality than he manages to expose.”
My intellectual house style is closer in spirit to Mallaby than Krugman. I should be sympathetic to Mallaby’s critique. And yet, in 2020, it falls flat to me. Mallaby is not completely wrong; there are no doubt some “persuadables” in the GOP camp who might find Krugman’s arguments more appealing if they were written in a more moderate tone.
That would require, however, that Krugman’s name be changed, because most remaining Republicans are not going to be updating their opinion on him anytime soon. Mallaby’s review got a decent amount of play in conservative circles: Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn described Krugman as, “the Nobel Prize winner who is better known for predicting a ‘global recession’ following the 2016 election.” NewsBusters and Red State also ran items about the critique, with the latter noting, “Paul Krugman is so easy to dunk on, well, because he’s Paul Krugman and all.” All of these items enjoyed Mallaby’s critique of Krugman while scoffing at the notion that the New York Times columnist ever gets anything right. They must not be part of the persuadables Mallaby is so eager to highlight.
The truth is that the GOP is largely unified behind the current president. The issues on which there is disagreement, like climate change, will never rise to the top of the policy queue — and even then, those issues are likely to produce a partisan split in which Republicans and Krugman fall on opposite sides of the divide. Sure, ascribing bad intent turns off Republicans. Krugman’s theory of change, however, might rely more on motivating non-Republicans than reaching across the aisle. It is more of a thought leader approach to the marketplace of ideas than that of a traditional public intellectual. In the current political environment, however, that kind of polemicist can thrive.
The style in which one engages in this enterprise matters. On Tuesday Steven Cook pointed out in Foreign Policy that today’s outrage culture had permeated foreign policy discourse in a very unhealthy way. Let’s not kid ourselves, however. The composition of the audience has changed as well.
If Krugman was the only left intellectual in existence, then Mallaby’s argument would have more traction. He is not. My style hews more closely to Mallaby. In a polarized world, however, it is extremely difficult to argue that only one kind of intellectual style is appropriate.