“In 21st century America,” writes Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist and longtime New York Times columnist, “everything is political.”
Krugman did not start out wanting to take sides––but today, he sees no other choice. In his latest book, Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better America, which is already a New York Times bestseller, Krugman charts the growth of this deep politicization––and the way that it has fueled “zombie ideas,” which he defines as ideas that are based on outdated concepts or outright misinformation, yet have continued to be promoted by our country’s Republican representatives.
Krugman is most concerned with how zombie ideas are impeding our fight against climate change and threatening our democratic values. Republicans in Congress, even if they acknowledge the science behind climate change, for instance, refuse to adopt policies that will mitigate the harm being done to the planet. These kinds of zombie ideas about climate change are rooted, in Krugman’s view, in the pursuit of wealth. “Monetary support from right-wing billionaires is a powerful force propping up zombie ideas,” Krugman writes. “Ideas that should have been killed by contrary evidence, but instead keep shambling along, eating people’s brains.”
In this hefty collection of essays that spans the last few decades, Krugman weighs in on everything from social security to his teaching philosophy to cryptocurrencies––engaging with all of the “zombie” ideas that have been perpetuated along the way. I asked Krugman, who has written more than two dozen books, about populism, the danger of conspiracy theories, and what he thinks about the media’s role in perpetuating attitudes about politics, among other subjects.
Here is our conversation, which took place by email, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: Republicans today must “believe or pretend to believe” a number of false things, you argue, such as refuting the existence of climate change. How do we know if Republicans truly believe what they’re saying, or not? Does it matter?
Paul Krugman: People in power aren’t usually that clear-headed; they don’t make a strong distinction between what’s politically convenient to say and what they really believe. But it’s pretty clear that much of what Republican politicians say is in self-conscious bad faith; they say what is politically convenient, brush aside facts that don’t fit, and make claims they have to know are false. I don’t know what they “really believe,” but it doesn’t matter.
Why do the “zombie ideas” that should have died off with factual evidence––such as a belief that vaccinations cause autism, that climate change isn’t real, or that trickle-down economics work––continue to flourish?
Money. Everyone who says that tax cuts pay for themselves, or that climate change is a hoax, is being paid to say that by wealthy interest groups. It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.
You differentiate between “Republicans” and “Republicans in Congress.” Can you talk about why this is important? Are Republicans in office serving their respective bases?
There are a substantial number of ordinary people who identify themselves as Republicans who don’t support zombie ideas. But they aren’t so much opposing the party line as unaware of what that line is. And many of them are being ill-served by their representatives. White working-class voters are very dependent on programs the Republican Party is trying to destroy, but they don’t know that.
What should Republican voters know about their representatives? Do you see any hope that Republican voters could hold their representatives accountable when they are betraying their actual best interests?
If voters understood that sharp cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the elimination of protection for preexisting conditions, and substantially worse pollution were core GOP goals, I think at least some of them would change their votes. But it’s really hard to get there through the fog of disinformation.
You’ve said that “each successive Republican president makes the preceding one look good by comparison.” Does this mean we should expect someone even more right-wing to follow Trump?
Well, that’s retrospective. What I fear is that the next Republican will be smarter than Trump, while sharing his contempt for democracy and rule of law. That would be scary.
Half of the U.S. population lives mainly on Social Security and individual retirement savings and a quarter of the population lives entirely on Social Security. How do “zombie ideas” affect this population?
The twin obsessions with debt and small government mean that Social Security is always at risk of serious cuts, which would be devastating to most older Americans.
How has Donald Trump been able to get away with calling himself a populist?
He plays to some widely shared sentiments, especially racial antagonism; he also plays to anti-intellectual backlash. At the same time, he pretends not to have served the interests of the wealthy. This is enough to convince many working-class Americans that he’s on their side, even though he isn’t.
As Republicans in Congress become more “politically aware,” you argue, the more they have “forsaken any interest in the truth.” Why is this?
A Republican who isn’t politically aware may, say, accept the evidence for climate change without realizing that her party is dead set against accepting that evidence. So the more aware they are of the party line, the more they need to endorse zombie ideas—or leave the party.
How has the impeachment process highlighted the “zombie ideas” of Republicans in Congress?
Actually it hasn’t. Policy barely arose. What it highlighted was the power of partisanship, which is what lets the zombie epidemic spread.
What about the Iowa caucuses?
Clear as mud. Caucuses are a terrible process, further screwed up by bad software; and the results gave nobody a mandate.
What do you think about the media biases that shaped the 2016 election? You wrote that “factually accurate can still be effectively biased against a candidate who for whatever reason, reporters don’t like, which happened to Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.” Have we learned from them? Are we repeating the same mistakes? How is the media influencing current attitudes about what’s happening in politics?
You still see a lot of both-sides-ism—news organizations still have a very hard time saying that a political claim is false, and still focus on second-order reporting: how policy ideas play, instead of what they are or whether they’re right. Maybe they’ve gotten better, but we won’t know for sure until the general election campaign gets underway.
In what way are conspiracy theories affecting our political process?
A lot of people believe that climate change is a hoax, that liberals are plotting to replace whites, and more; this has a real effect in degrading the discourse. And I do worry that even on the Democratic side, some people see conspiracies whenever things don’t go their way—like the idea that the Democratic establishment deliberately messed up Iowa to hurt Bernie Sanders.