27 September 2011

Us and Them: Missing the point of third-party advocacy

Earlier this month, Adam Gopnik published a review in The New Yorker of several new books discussing the prospects of American national decline. One of the books discussed is Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's That Used To Be Us, in which Friedman repeats his call, familiar from New York Times columns, for a moderate or "radical center" third party to challenge the prevailing Bipolarchy. Gopnik dismisses the demand, contending that the authors, by blaming the two-party system, miss the real problem. His article is available online for subscribers only, but this excerpt from the abstract version makes Gopnik's main point.

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s book is marked by a kind of tactical disingenuousness. Not only do they propose, as a way to arrest the decline, a third party, with no clear policies, programs, popular constituency, or potential leaders; they also present every problem as one confronted by a uniform “we.” Friedman and Mandelbaum want their countrymen to face the future without first facing the facts about their countrymen: this is the country that a lot of “us” want.

In the actual article, Gopnik goes on to denounce a class of people who would rather endure an inefficient infrastructure than make any concessions, or contributions, to "big government." Worse, these people supposedly would let our infrastructure deteriorate further just to spite liberals. Just who are these people? Who actually is satisfied with the state of America in 2011? Not the Tea Partiers; they're the champion gripers of our time, and I doubt that they'd say that the USA today is the country they want. Probably all of them would like things to operate more efficiently; they just think that'll only happen when everything is privatized. There may well be a clique of corporate types who are satisfied with their profits while disregarding the rest of the country and its people, but that wouldn't be "a lot of us."

In any event, how exactly does the existence of a complacent faction refute the authors' argument for a third party? It's not as if Friedman and Mandelbaum (whose book I haven't yet read) are saying that the new party would instantly win over that "a lot of us" who supposedly like things as they are. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the authors would readily agree with Gopnik's proposition that "a lot of us" are satisfied, some perversely so, with the present state of affairs. But based on Friedman's columns, I assume that he believes that "a lot of us" are a minority that has been disproportionately empowered by a two-party system that allows a "base" to dictate our choices for political office. The dominance of the major parties by "base" primary voters leaves the potential moderate or radical-center majority without an authentic voice representing practical reason. If Gopnik's implicit fear is that the nation as a whole is completely and hopelessly split between "a lot of us" who like things as they are and everyone else, then Friedman's hope is that a third party would prove that the unreasonable base of either major party, who together like things as they are politically, is a vulnerable minority. And if Gopnik's real point is that the nation won't progress until "a lot of us" are defeated or made to see the error of their ways, it's not as if the Bipolarchy has been speeding that day along. I'm sure Gopnik doesn't mean it that way, but his abstract makes it sound as if he denies that there's an ultimate "we" who are the American people. He seems to see an irreconcilable conflict between "a lot of us" and the presumed good guys, who most likely look a lot like the Democratic party -- but who's to say that Democrats don't have the country they want right now, with Republicans always available as a scarecrow to frighten people into deference to their vaunted wisdom and expertise, and no alternative to Republican terror but Democrats? Is that the country Gopnik wants? Let's face the facts about this particular countryman of ours before we face the future on his terms.

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