The world — or at least America — is coming to an end. It must be, because someone sent Friedman an email with a quote about the fall of Rome:
A friend in the U.S. military sent me an e-mail last week with a quote from the historian Lewis Mumford’s book, “The Condition of Man,” about the development of civilization. Mumford was describing Rome’s decline: “Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”
It was one of those history passages that echo so loudly in the present that it sends a shiver down my spine — way, way too close for comfort
And what is the cause of Friedman’s ominously vibrating spine?
President Obama has not been a do-nothing failure. He has some real accomplishments. He passed a health care expansion, a financial regulation expansion, stabilized the economy, started a national education reform initiative and has conducted a smart and tough war on Al Qaeda.
Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.
So the system is broken becaaue even with a huge mandate, a new President and his Party cannot get anything but watered down solutions through Congress. And what it the solution to this systematic problem?
We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.
“If competition is good for our economy,” asks Diamond, “why isn’t it good for our politics?”
So the problem is that the President couldn’t enact his agenda because of an anti-majoritan Congressional system, unprecedented obstruction by the opponent party, and, perhaps, the need to placate special interests and the solution is … another party.
And this is why our country is doomed. Not so much because Friedman is a moron; he might actually not be a moron. He recognizes the symptoms of a dysfunctional system, after all, and he has a pretty clear and coherent set of policies he wishes to see enacted. No, we are doomed because those two ideas combined to produce the terrible idea in this column. It clearly delineates just how far gone out elite conversation has gone down the rabbit hole.
Friedman sees that the Democrats could not get their agenda passed because of the broken Congressional system. He knows that there are serious problems, and that the Democrats’ agenda would have gone a long way to addressing those problems. He knows that campaign money, especially to conservative Dems, and GOP obstruction in the Senate derailed that agenda. He wishes, in other words, that the GOP and the financial backers of critical Dems hadn’t been able to prevent a more leftist policy agenda from being implemented. But somehow that came out as an attack on the two party system.
Friedman is the world’s foremost barometer of conventional wisdom. He is a Serious Pundit who is Taken Seriously by all the Cool, Cool Competent men who make up the elite in this country. Friedman’s parroting of their common wisdom is as reliable as a weather vane — wherever their wind blows, he points. And so he cannot say that the country suffers from a lack of progressive policy. He cannot say that the Senate must be reformed and returned to the legislative body it once was. He cannot say that campaign finance reform is critical. To our elite, those ideas can no more exist than can pink elephants or unicorns or glittering vampires. So the problem must lie elsewhere, must lie in both the parties. Combine that with the elite’s deep distaste for democratic process and we get one more column demanding that the “radical center” be allowed to do whatever it is the common elite wisdom demands.
Our elites cannot even have talk about the idea that progressive policy might be a good idea. They cannot even have a conversation about Congressional dysfunction. Whatever problems there are must be because the two parties just aren’t being collegiality center-right enough for our perfect institutions to work. Anything else is, literally, unthinkable and unprintable.