02 October 2009

What's Wrong With the Country? A Pundit's Diagnosis

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, published a little jeremiad against the American political system this week. His basic argument is that partisanship has gone too far, to the point that one of the major parties basically refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a President belonging to the other. This habit began, he writes, with Republican demonization of President Clinton, and was answered with Democratic demonization of the second President Bush. Friedman thinks the situation has gotten worse with today's Republican demonization of President Obama; the Facebook death poll discovered this week seems to have disturbed him greatly.

Friedman doesn't blame the two-party system itself for our current dismal state. Instead, he points to media developments over the last twenty years that, in his view, encourage the exacerbation of partisanship:

The American political system was, as the saying goes, "designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots." But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system. Those factors are: the wild excess of money in politics; the gerrymandering of political districts, making them permanently Republican or Democrat and erasing the political middle; a 24/7 cable news cycle that makes all politics a daily battle of tactics that overwhelm strategic thinking; and a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world. Finally, on top of it all, we now have a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.

Friedman fails to note that the geniuses who designed our system did not plan for an American Bipolarchy. Instead, they anticipated that regional factionalism and local economic interests would make it impossible for legislatures to coalesce into two parties; the system was designed to prevent any permanent faction from regularly wielding the majority power that Republicans and Democrats constantly fumble back and forth between each other. He doesn't attack partisanship itself, but isn't his thesis that media evolution has exacerbated partisanship best explained by the fact that bipolar partisanship already existed to exploit the new media?

According to Friedman, the changes he describes "add up to a difference in degree that is a difference in kind -- a different kind of American scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of national interest." He thinks this can be changed, though not overnight, with renewed civility essential to the change. Beyond this he has nothing to suggest in his column. But the new media aren't going to go away, and I doubt he would every propose censoring them, except in extreme cases like the death poll. That means Friedman has to look at partisanship itself and the way the media have empowered it. He may think partisanship valuable to democracy, but he should learn to distinguish partisanship as a synonym for pluralism from the actually existing Bipolarchy that more than ever forces politics into all-or-nothing, even life-or-death gambits, depending on the point of view. There is no space for the moderation Friedman demands when two parties have a co-monopoly on political discourse and every interest in polarizing the electorate by publicly maximizing the extent of their differences. If Friedman wants to be taken seriously he has to acknowledge the necessity of breaking that co-monopoly. But we'll see if he has anything more to say on that topic.

1 comment:

d.eris said...

Wasn't Friedman talking up the wonders of the Chinese one-party state just last week or the week before?