Kansas on My Mind

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

February 26, 2005

Call it "What's the Matter With Kansas - The Cartoon Version."

The slime campaign has begun against AARP, which opposes Social Security privatization. There's no hard evidence that the people involved - some of them also responsible for the "Swift Boat" election smear - are taking orders from the White House. So you're free to believe that this is an independent venture. You're also free to believe in the tooth fairy.

Their first foray - an ad accusing the seniors' organization of being against the troops and for gay marriage - was notably inept. But they'll be back, and it's important to understand what they're up to.

The answer lies in "What's the Matter With Kansas?," Thomas Frank's meditation on how right-wingers, whose economic policies harm working Americans, nonetheless get so many of those working Americans to vote for them.

People like myself - members of what one scornful Bush aide called the "reality-based community" - tend to attribute the right's electoral victories to its success at spreading policy disinformation. And the campaign against Social Security certainly involves a lot of disinformation, both about how the current system works and about the consequences of privatization.

But if that were all there is to it, Social Security should be safe, because this particular disinformation campaign isn't going at all well. In fact, there's a sense of wonderment among defenders of Social Security about the other side's lack of preparation. The Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have spent decades campaigning for privatization. Yet they weren't ready to answer even the most obvious questions about how it would work - like how benefits could be maintained for older Americans without a dangerous increase in debt.

Privatizers are even having a hard time pretending that they want to strengthen Social Security, not dismantle it. At one of Senator Rick Santorum's recent town-hall meetings promoting privatization, college Republicans began chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, Social Security's got to go."

But before the anti-privatization forces assume that winning the rational arguments is enough, they need to read Mr. Frank.

The message of Mr. Frank's book is that the right has been able to win elections, despite the fact that its economic policies hurt workers, by portraying itself as the defender of mainstream values against a malevolent cultural elite. The right "mobilizes voters with explosive social issues, summoning public outrage ... which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends."

In Mr. Frank's view, this is a confidence trick: politicians like Mr. Santorum trumpet their defense of traditional values, but their true loyalty is to elitist economic policies. "Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. ... Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization." But it keeps working.

And this week we saw Mr. Frank's thesis acted out so crudely that it was as if someone had deliberately staged it. The right wants to dismantle Social Security, a successful program that is a pillar of stability for working Americans. AARP stands in the way. So without a moment's hesitation, the usual suspects declared that this organization of staid seniors is actually an anti-soldier, pro-gay-marriage leftist front.

It's tempting to dismiss this as an exceptional case in which right-wingers, unable to come up with a real cultural grievance to exploit, fabricated one out of thin air. But such fabrications are the rule, not the exception.

For example, for much of December viewers of Fox News were treated to a series of ominous warnings about "Christmas under siege" - the plot by secular humanists to take Christ out of America's favorite holiday. The evidence for such a plot consisted largely of occasions when someone in an official capacity said, "Happy holidays," instead of, "Merry Christmas."

So it doesn't matter that Social Security is a pro-family program that was created by and for America's greatest generation - and that it is especially crucial in poor but conservative states like Alabama and Arkansas, where it's the only thing keeping a majority of seniors above the poverty line. Right-wingers will still find ways to claim that anyone who opposes privatization supports terrorists and hates family values.

Their first attack may have missed the mark, but it's the shape of smears to come.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com