Why Tom Friedman Is America's Perfect Centrist Pundit

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

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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.

He also makes the common but ahistorical claim that "our political divisions have become more venomous than ever." More venomous than during the Civil War? Reconstruction? The McCarthy era?

Says Friedman:

...the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span's coverage of the workings of the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent -- making back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7 norm.

Shouldn't this argument be qualified by the admission that the Bush and Obama Administrations have gone to unprecedented extremes cloaking themselves in executive privilege and state secrets? Friedman posits a plausible downside to a certain kind of transparency.  But he totally ignores an increase in executive branch secrecy that is surely a defining trend of our era. It's directly tied to known abuses, from illegal spying on American citizens to torture to the waging of an undeclared drone war that Obama officials tout anonymously to reporters when it serves their interests, even as they hide behind its classified status when it doesn't.

The remainder of the column is a mess of contradictions.

Friedman rightly decries the rise of monied special interests and their ability to influence legislation, bizarrely blames this on libertarians, who've wielded zero power in Congress, suggests the answer is technocracy insulated from political pressure, and having offered that anti-democratic prescription concludes by insisting that "we can't be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy," as if it's a move toward democracy that he's recommending. He adds that the secret of America's success is "a balanced public-private partnership." Like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Dick Cheney and Halliburton? Goldman Sachs and the United States treasury? Federally discounted student loans and the private colleges who've so expertly captured the unintended subsidy they provided while raising tuition?

This imprecision is his tic. Sure, there are some successful instances of public private partnerships. What made them work where others failed? Friedman doesn't tell us. He touts a category of things so broad that it includes success and catastrophic failures, and recommends it generally.  

America confronts a lot of problems. There is no binary that describes them all, no single solution that is key to improving all the rest. But among the many problems we confront are ideologues whose pronouncements are bereft of nuance and disconnected from the world as it is. On the far right and the far left, there are pundits and politicians who always manage to avoid confronting facts and evidence that cut against their simplistic theories of what America needs. And there are "centrist" pundits like this too. Friedman is the most famous among this group.

His prescriptions are so frequently wrong (or even ruinous, as was the Iraq War) because despite his discrete insights, many of them sound, he lacks the humility to posit a narrow response. Every observation finds its way into an ill-conceived metaphor, these are bundled into questionable binaries, and what results are solutions so sweeping they'd obviously have significant unintended consequences if it weren't for the fact that they mostly have no chance of happening.

In closing, no, America does not need "an Arab Spring."

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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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