Paul Krugman’s Two Political Moralities Leave Out the Majority of Americans and Even Our Elected Leaders

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on January 16, 2011

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Paul Krugman should be praised for his January 14, 2011 New York Times column “A Tale of Two Moralities” in which he seeks common ground and ground rules for non-violent, respectful political debates.  But Krugman is pessimistic that calls for greater civility in political discourse will be met with success because, in his view, there are two sides to the debate that do not share a common morality.

What he fails to understand is that added together these two sides amount to a small fraction of the electorate, and perhaps a somewhat larger share of elected leaders and commentators.  It is true that some number (8 percent in the December NBC News Wall Street Journal Poll) of the public view themselves as “very liberal” and a slightly larger number (15%) view themselves as “very conservative.”  These sides imagine that they, and the rest of us, are locked in a great ideological struggle for the soul of a great nation.

The vast majority of Americans, including the somewhat liberals (15%), the somewhat conservatives (24%) as well as President Obama and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was a Republican before she became a moderate Democrat, and millions of others, see some merit as well as some weakness in both of the perspectives Krugman delineates.  This non-ideological majority would like Krugman and other ideologues on the right and the left to take a few deep breaths, perhaps take a vacation now and then, and gain a broader perspective and understanding of the world that does not cast them as heroes and villains in an epic perpetual war.

There is a great deal that the ideological perspectives from both the right and the left add to the discussion, both in describing their positive vision for America and the world, and certainly, in pointing out the weaknesses of the other side’s view.  As somewhat liberal progressives ourselves, we would not necessarily score the contributions, nor the senses of fair play, evenly on both sides.  But like most Americans we do not believe that either side has all the answers.  Most Americans are turned off from politics by the constant war of words and most Americans place a far higher value on getting things done than on ideological purity.

We are not just talking about a “silent majority” here.  Even though we are in a (likely temporary: political pendulums swing; and they swing through the center) period where the numbers of moderates of both parties have been greatly reduced, it was still possible to pass major legislation through both houses of the 111th Congress with strong majorities despite the opposition of both the hard left and the hard right.  It was not necessary to wait until after the election.  This could have been done at any time in 2009 and 2010 and it is a sensible model for the kind of progress we progressives should support in 2011 and beyond.

Krugman rightly complains about those who would view the differences between the two world views he describes as small and petty, but he is just as dismissive of the differences between his morality and that of the majority of voters in the middle.  The very liberals will never become anything close to a majority without finding common cause with the somewhat liberals and a fair number of the moderates.  The first step is understanding and respecting that these groups, again, including President Obama and Representative Gabby Giffords, and a lot of other elected leaders, have their own political philosophy and morality.  They are not spineless very liberals, or Very Liberals Lite, or very liberals in waiting for just the right argument to see the light.   In the legislative landscape of 2011, there will be no progress without an understanding that there are more than just two moralities.

  • William Berkson

    I agree with you that Krugman got it too polarized, but equally important he characterizes differences that are basically about economic understanding, not morality, as I lay out in my blog: . By calling the differences basically “moral” he is not only too pessimistic, but wrongly closes the door on fruitful debate.

    • Allan Rivlin

      Good point, and your post link is well worth following.

  • Jay

    What really bothers me about Krugman’s comments is that they reflect a POV that too many on the left and right share. There must be perpetual war until the other side is annihilated. Sorry, but how does that solve anything? Personally, I think this is just a bad habit from the Bush years that we need break posthaste if we want to get things done.

    • Allan Rivlin

      Strong agree — and thank you for accepting our invitation to come to the site. You asked how you can help. Well (and this invitation is open to everyone) the first thing you can do is comment here. There are not enough people doing that but we are working to find more thoughtful people like you. There is a somewhat more robust discussion on our facebook feed.!/pages/Centered-Politics/337657450012. If you like to write we are seeking thoughtful essays and posts. We would normally give our link as, but it may not be working so (since this conversation has a limited audience for now) you may contact me (Allan) directly and I will forward it to the Editor in Chief (Sheri).

  • litesout

    I believe you fail to understand Krugman’s view while taking a utopian view of human behavior.

  • Pingback: Toward A Moderate Morality | CenteredPolitics()

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