22 September 2010

The China Question: Can Democracy Produce Objective Government?

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is on the defensive as he comments yet again on China's current competitive advantages over the U.S. His occasional criticisms of partisan politics as an obstacle to long-term economic policy have predictably provoked critics to sense a preference on Friedman's part for authoritarian regimes. Writing from China, where he's covering an economic summit, Friedman tries to clarify his position in his latest column.

I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America. Studying China’s ability to invest for the future doesn’t make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system.

What makes the American system the right one? The nearest thing he offers to a concrete answer is the assertion that a "knowledge economy" requires the sort of liberty the U.S. has and China still lacks in order to function most efficiently, despite China's advantages in meritocracy and central planning. Apart from that, Friedman insists that "There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things — democratically — that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before." Friedman means "that 'can-do,' 'get-it-done,' 'everyone-pull-together,' 'whatever-it-takes' attitude that built our highways, dams and put a man on the moon." He worries that our democracy is unable right now to generate focus, legitimacy, unity, etc. But if the problem isn't inherent to democracy, what's the real problem?

"[W]e’re not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country," Friedman answers. To correct this defect, democracy needs to produce and elect "candidates who will do what is right for the country, not just for their ideological wing or whoever comes with the biggest bag of money."

Friedman describes two different defects in democracy, each requiring a different solution. It's one thing to blame America's problems on selfish people acting on purely mercenary short-term motives. Dealing with ideology, a major component of "toxic partisan[ship]," is trickier, since every ideologue believes that his ideology is just "what is right for the country." To defeat the influence of ideology, Friedman depends on a "political center" that has to be "focused, united and energized." In turn, the "center" must get "a lot of people pulling in the same direction."

You can see right there how the conventional metaphorical language of political analysis fails to fit the moment. As soon as people start pulling in any direction, one might argue, they are no longer in the "center." Centrism also implies a balance or compromise between "left" and "right" that might be counterproductive or impossible, depending on your point of view. Friedman may plot his "center" to far to the right for leftists, or too far to the left for rightists. I think he means something more profound when he writes about the "center," but hasn't found the right word for it. It clearly has something to do with the recognition of an objective national interest defined independently from any particular ideology. Objectivity and ideology are opposites, no matter how objective ideologues think they are. Ideologues always think in oughts, based on fundamentally moral notions of how people should live together. Objective people (as opposed, I suppose, to Objectivists) presumably think in musts, based on pragmatic notions of the necessities for social and national survival. Ideology constantly challenges objectivity, disputing whether societies or nations that deviate from the ideological good deserve to survive. Ideologues act as if survival on terms other than their own is a dystopian fate worse than national ruin. If they prove impervious to objective arguments, the only alternative available to the "center" is to outvote them every time and ignore their complaints.

But all this hopeful talk about the "center" begs a question: what if there is no center anymore? Friedman may believe that democracy should be able to summon an effective, governing center into being, but what if the failure to do so is an objective sign of decline in any democracy? The Founders knew that all democratic and republican experiments in the past had failed; the Constitution was their attempt to learn from all past mistakes and build a democratic republic that would last longer if not indefinitely. They offered no guarantee that I know of that it would last forever. I'm not saying that the republic is dying as we speak. Friedman may be right about the persistent potential of an energized "center." But how will we know it when we see it? Tea Partiers think of themselves as the center; so do Obama supporters. How many Americans don't think of themselves as part of the center? It's easy to identify your individual interests with the national interest, and it's easier still to get angry when someone disputes the premise. Democracy itself tempts us to define the national interest as nothing more than an accumulation of individual interests that form a majority. Maybe democracy doesn't work the way Friedman wants unless citizens acknowledge that the national interest is greater than the sum of its individual interests and believe that being part of a larger whole actually enlarges individuals rather than diminishing them. Americans do seem to have believed that in the past, but many across the metaphorical political spectrum seem to have lost that faith. The ultimate question for Friedman and his "center" may be whether that faith, once lost, can be restored.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In order for what Mr. Friedman envisions to work, the voting population needs to be educated. They need to understand how the government works, how national and international economics works. But educating ones' self takes work. It means shutting off the football games, the NASCAR races, "reality" tv, etc. and learning. That entire idea is anathema to the modern American. This country is doomed to fall like the Rome we love comparing ourselves to.