23 June 2011

The Party of Thomas Friedman

As a New York Times columnist and consistently bestselling author, Thomas L. Friedman is one of the most prominent voices expressing dissatisfaction with the American two-party system. He vents his frustration again in his newest column, in which he argues that the imperatives of partisanship and fundraising leave any President or Congress with no more than a 100-day window at the start of a term (on the model of FDR's "Hundred Days" of 1933) in order to accomplish anything before being gridlocked and declared a failure. Friedman wants a "full-time government," one dedicated to actual governing and problem-solving rather than fundraising and electioneering. Against the two major parties specifically, he complains that each must pander to its ideological and fundraising bases, who somehow remain satisfied by increasingly empty promises as long as they conform with partisan and ideological orthodoxy. Neither party, he argues, has the will to enact the four reforms he deems essential to national recovery.

The truth is, we need to do four things at once if we have any hope of maintaining American greatness: We need more stimulus to keep the economy from slipping back into recession. But we need to combine that stimulus with a credible, legislated, long-term plan for cutting spending and getting the deficit under control — e.g., the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan. And we need to raise new revenues in order to reinvest in the sources of our strength:
education, infrastructure and government-funded research to push out the boundaries of knowledge. That’s right. We need to do four things at once: spend, cut, tax and invest. And unless we do all four at once we’re not going to break out of our slow decline

Given the gridlock characteristic of currently-existing Bipolarchy, Friedman asserts that "to do all four at once will require a new hybrid politics, which does not conform to the political agenda of either major party." As he's reiterated often over the past few years, he's heard numerous people "looking for a serious Third Party candidate who could run in 2012 and deliver the shock therapy to the corrupt, encrusted, two-party duopoly now running the show in America." Friedman offers such a party a minimalist five-plank platform to build on.

Such a Third Party would have a simple agenda: 1) Inject a short-term stimulus. 2) Enact Simpson-Bowles. 3) Shrink our presence in Afghanistan. 4) Raise automobile mileage standards. 5) Impose a gasoline tax to pay for a massive increase in government-supported scientific research and a carbon tax to pay for new infrastructure and stimulate clean-power innovation.

As he's shown before, Friedman's ideal third party would be a party of technocratic pragmatists for whom culture-war issues would be refreshingly irrelevant. Convincing voters of those issues' irrelevance might be the hardest party of such a party's pitch, except for anything to do with a "massive increase in government-[subsidized] research." But based on the grumbling he's heard in his travels, or within his social circles, Friedman clearly thinks this platform would be potent enough to put a scare in the Bipolarchy. The problem is that he seems to think putting a scare in the system would be accomplishment enough.

Do I think such a Third Party can win in 2012? Not likely. But it doesn’t have to win to be effective. If such a party attracted substantial voters on such a platform, it would shape the agendas of the Republicans and Democrats. They would both have to move to attract these voters by changing their own platforms and, in so doing, might even create a mandate for the next president to govern for an entire term — not just 100 days.

Friedman would stink as a horse-trader. He's just told the Democrats and Republicans that they could win over and most likely break up his theoretical third party simply by "changing their platforms," i.e. by making promises. This last paragraph suggests that Friedman doesn't really appreciate the influence of Bipolarchy itself on the current crisis. As far as he seems to be concerned, the real problem is that Republicans and Democrats alike are victims of perverse incentives created by fundraising imperatives and ideological primary voters. All a third party would have to do, he argues implicitly, is offer a potent enough counter-incentive and one or both of the major parties would come to their senses and at least say the right things to voters -- at which point, I assume inferentially, the third party's work is done. He doesn't seem to consider that Bipolarchy itself generates many of the perverse incentives he decries, or that the remedy isn't merely the threat of a third party, but total electoral and intellectual war against the two-party system.

Actually, I can understand why Friedman wrote that paragraph, since an all-or-nothing ultimatum might seem too daunting for many potential third-party supporters. The prospect of the big parties at least being forced to listen to a third party probably makes the project look less hopeless in the short term to Times readers. But the same paragraph probably makes Friedman's threats look even more hopeless to the Bipolarchy, because they can tell from it that Friedman isn't really out to destroy them -- yet. If the day does come when Friedman writes that nothing short of third-party victory will be acceptable, you'll know that things are really, really bad.


d.eris said...

In my own thinking, I sometimes find myself going back and forth on the issue of whether to frame third party and indy advocacy as a means of influencing the major parties or solely as a legitimate political end in itself.

There is ample historical evidence to support the proposition that third party activism is an effective way to elicit change from/within the major parties. But at the same time, those changes often came about only after the third party organizations began winning elections, or seriously jeopardizing the candidacies of the major party candidates.

imo, it is probably good to make both arguments at the same time, i.e. that third party activism with the goal of electing third party or indy candidates is a worthy end in itself (i.e. outright challenge to the bipolarchy), with the added benefit that even if they lose they still affected the debate or forced changes in the positions of their Dem/Rep opponents.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., I suppose I'd be careful to whom I made either argument. The "elicit change" argument ought to be made more confidentially, while the bipolarchs should see and hear nothing but war without compromise, and a third party should have the guts to make one or the other of the big parties lose at least once before even considering terms for compromise.

Anonymous said...

Successful third parties may elicit change within the major two, but it doesn't solve the problems caused by the major two parties. If you wish real and permanent solutions to the problems caused by duopoly, then legitimate third parties are the answer you seek.

The only difference between our political system and that of, say, Communist Russia or China is exactly 1 party. Both parties here continually seek to be the 1 party that controls all three branches of the government so they can be the sole dictators of the direction America takes. That is not democracy, it is thinly veiled autocracy. If you truly support the idea and ideals of democracy, then the bipolarchy MUST BE SMASHED. There is no other solution.

Samuel Wilson said...

Each party may be rhetorically committed to smashing the other, especially when communing with its base, but I suspect that on some level both sides acknowledge their co-dependency. They're true believers in a two-party system that limits voters choices to Good and Evil, and without the threat of the "Evil" party, the "Good" party would probably have a much harder time holding its coalition of interests together.