Thomas Friedman's New Math of Democracy

Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column today would be astonishing in its incoherence if only Friedman hadn’t long ago sapped us of our ability to be astonished by his incoherence. Like many capital-‘d’ Democrats, Friedman has soured on democracy for failing to deliver on his policy wish list.

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

Why does Friedman say the United States has one-party democracy? Because the Republican Party is effectively opposing the Democratic Party’s agenda! Not even kidding. Get this:

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions.

Only the Democrats are really playing! You might think that would mean they can do whatever they darn well please. But no! The Democrats can’t do anything! Because the other party‘s opposition is so effective! So it’s exactly as if there’s just one party: nothing gets done!

My hunch is that the Times’ editors see Friedman aiming the gun at his foot, but watching a man stupid enough to actually pull the trigger is so fun they hate to intervene. That or they’re trying to explode the myth of American meritocracy.

So where were we? Oh, yes: one-party democracy is aggravating because sometimes one party can’t do what it wants because the other party gets in the way. Sooo frustrating!!! Why have democracy at all when all you end up with is a single party stymied by the other one! And so it is that Friedman comes to wax romantic about communist central planning:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.

Nikita Kruschev, the enlightened leader of a now-defunct one-party autocracy, was also committed to overtaking the United States in technology and so much more. “We will bury you” is how he put it. At the time, more than a few left-leaning American opinionmakers suspected he was right. After all, how can inefficiently squabbling democracies possibly keep pace with undivided regimes wholly devoted to scientifically centrally planning their way into the brighter, better future? And that, children, is why we speak Russian today.

[Cross-posted from Cato@Liberty]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

20 thoughts

  1. On the plus side, the cult of the presidency diminishes a bit when Obama/Bush derangement syndrome is either an undesired or no longer possible expression of everything that's wrong in this country. Now at least an entire group is thought of as so demonically powerful.

  2. Finally? There really outta be term limits on pundits. Once they've been at the racket for 10 years or so, they run out of new things to say, and are obliged to fall back on saying old things in “novel” (ie. incoherent) ways.

  3. “jumps the shark” That is a beautiful description of Mr. Friedman. “reasonably enlightened group of people”? Tommy, come back to us! Is there a more absurd description of the totalitarian regime in China? I assume that if the good old USA had a similar thug regime calling all of our shots it would be fine with Tommy as long as he could keep his 11,000+ square foot home on 7.5 acres (valued at $9.3M – source Wikipedia) in Bethesda. Of course, he would be a strong player in that one-party rule.

  4. It's amazing to me that Friedman has actually managed to reduce the credibility of the same editorial board that employs Maureen Dowd.

  5. Friedman already basically said this in his last book, with his “China for a Day” fantasy. Chinese government does have it's perks- they're amazing at pushing through massive development projects. Power plants, bullet trains, industrial parks, endless tracts of high-rise apartments, bay-spanning bridges, enough highways to support a billion commuters- what they've built here (I live in Shanghai) in the last thirty years is pretty damn amazing. The cities are unreal. Too bad about the human rights and freedom of speech suppression. That's the downside of one-party autocracy. Friedman fantasizes about having the upsides without the downsides- FDR came close in America, but even he had to almost go fascist to get there. So it's still stupid, but it's not terribly surprising. To anyone who has seen the Middle Kingdom up close, it's awfully tempting… until Uighurs start getting shot, that is.

  6. I love a good Friedman-bashing as much as the next guy…But is there really nothing to the claim that republican opposition to health care is motivated more by a desire to hobble Obama's presidency via an early and major defeat, than it is by any differences about what health care policy in this country should look like?

  7. But is there really nothing to the claim that republican opposition to health care is motivated more by a desire to hobble Obama's presidency via an early and major defeat, than it is by any differences about what health care policy in this country should look like?Perhaps you're only familiar with the popular lie that the Republicans (and those who endorse different reform approaches) have failed to offer their own suggestions. If you've heard and believed, that then you might be more willing to accept that suggestion. It is not even close to true. Rep. Tom Price (head of Republican Study Committee), Rep. Mike Pence (chairman of House Republican Conference), and Rep. John Shadegg (libertarian-ish former candidate for Minority Leader and Whip) all have bills, and there's about 25 others. Democrats in general show no interest in the Republican ideas. That's fine, of course; if the Democrats disagree with the Republican ideas, they have no requirement to vote for them. But it's not the same thing as the Republicans not having bills with suggestions.Another piece of evidence is that Republicans have been openly praising Obama on Afghanistan. Agree or disagree with that policy, they do not appear to be opposing everything.A third piece of evidence is that Republican strategists are insisting that Republicans should run against the Democratic Congress, and try to triangulate by painting the liberal Democratic Congress as forcing President Obama to be different from the centrist he ran as.

  8. Another point, of course, is that successfully bringing a President's policy to “an early and major defeat” only hobbles a Presidency if you can make stopping the policy popular with the voters. Otherwise it's merely a recipe for losing in 2010. So while of course political opponents want to hobble a presidency, they have a very strong incentive to do so only when stopping the policy would be popular (or else that they can keep stopping it quiet, which is impossible with health care.)And if opposing health care reform is popular with the voters, then by the logic of democracy the Republicans are right to do so.Democrats have the votes; they could ram something through regardless of Republican opposition. The thing stopping the Democrats isn't Republican parliamentary maneuvers. It's public opinion, and any degree to which Republicans are mobilizing that or taking advantage of it.

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