Why Tom Friedman Is America's Perfect Centrist Pundit

He spins small insights into sweeping theories, avoids facts that cut against those theories, and expresses them with baffling metaphors.

tom friedman full.jpg
Reuters

Does America need an Arab Spring? That question was on my mind Sunday when I read a Thomas Friedman column that began with that question. After calling "Frank" Fukuyama to talk it over, the NY Times columnist had a hypothesis: "Has American gone from a democracy to a 'vetocracy' -- from a system designed to prevent anyone in government from amassing too much power to a system in which no one can aggregate enough power to make any important decisions at all?"

This perplexed me.

The Arab Spring aims to bring down dictators who've aggregated too much power. If America's problem is that no one can aggregate enough power, wouldn't we need the opposite of an Arab Spring? An Arab winter! No, that isn't right either. I cast about for an apt metaphor, but a pithy binary capable of summing up America escaped me as surely as the taxis absent from the streets of my Southern California neighborhood.

What if I were in Davos?

What would a taxi driver there say?

A pothole at the beginning of a drive can be frustrating, but shouldn't distract from or inspire sweeping conclusions about the road. 

So I kept reading:

A system with as many checks and balances built into it as ours assumes -- indeed requires -- a certain minimum level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war, which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system. For starters, we've added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult -- such as senatorial holds now being used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes.

There's something to this. The filibuster ought to be reformed. And nominees ought to get up or down votes. But is it true that "we've added more checks and balances to make decision-making even more difficult"? As an unqualified summary of U.S. governance that's egregiously incomplete.

Since 9/11 the executive branch has dramatically expanded its assertions of unchecked power. For even longer, the trend in domestic affairs has been for presidents to do more and more with rule-making in the ever-expanding federal bureaucracy. And although you wouldn't know it from Friedman's column, post-Cold War congresses have passed landmark legislation including the Family Medical Leave Act, welfare reform, No Child Left Behind, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, the PATRIOT Act, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, permission to wage war in Iraq, huge tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and the Affordable Care Act.

For better and worse, significant change is possible.

Maybe we'd have made more progress addressing major problems if passing legislation were easier. But more restraints on government could've prevented the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind or the Bush tax cuts. Friedman focuses on legislation he'd like to see passed that isn't, and never grapples with legislation that passed and made us worse off. Given his one-sided analysis it's no wonder he thinks gridlock is the major problem that confronts America.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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