Strange Medicine

Tom Friedman's peculiar cures for our ailing politics

Like a lot of people, Tom Friedman is upset that American politics is “broken.” Unlike a lot of people, he has a regular column in a major newspaper in which he gets to propose fixes. He took a swing today, and mostly missed.

To cure the grave ills of the body politic, Friedman offers two specific solutions: instant run-off voting (he calls it “alternative voting”) and nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative districts, in an effort to make them more competitive and thus reduce polarization in Congress.

If we’re taking Friedman’s claims of crisis—and his assertion that we need to “break the oligopoly of our two-party system”—at face value, this is the equivalent of giving a cancer patient a couple of aspirin. Instant run-off voting, which would allow voters to register support for third-party candidates without wasting their votes, might modestly expand electoral choice and add a little diversity and intrigue to the political system. A few talented folks—some subset of whom favor the policy agenda Friedman has in mind—might even overcome the remaining procedural and structural hurdles to improbably win election to Congress…where they would promptly have to choose which party to caucus with, and become, for most practical purposes, a member of that party. Just like the two independents we now have in the Senate.

How about nonpartisan districting? Friedman is here advancing the popular, and very plausible, notion that gerrymandering, by making House seats less competitive has increased polarization in Congress. But people who have studied this issue don’t necessarily agree. This information is not hard to obtain. Type “gerrymandering polarization” into Google Scholar, and the very first hit is a paper by Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal titled “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” From the abstract:

Both pundits and scholars have blamed increasing levels of partisan conflict and polarization in Congress on the effects of partisan gerrymandering. We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link.

To be fair, while the authors are leaders in their field, their conclusions are not universally accepted. From the second hit in that search, a paper by Jamie L. Carson, Michael H. Crespin, Charles J. Finocchiaro, and David W. Rohde:

Although the effect is relatively modest, [our results suggest] that redistricting is one among other factors that produce party polarization in the House and may help to explain the elevated levels of polarization in the House relative to the Senate.

So gerrymandering might have a “relatively modest” effect on polarization in Congress. Maybe nonpartisan redistricting isn’t the solution to all our problems, either. (If this sounds implausible, think of the Senate, which by definition is not subject to gerrymandering. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican, represent the same constituents, but have compiled voting records that are absolutely standard for their respective parties.)

But it’s no surprise that Friedman’s cures are wanting, because his diagnosis is suspect. It’s rooted in the contention that “independents and centrists” constitute a large, overlooked block in American politics. This is not really the case. While the public is less polarized than Congress, very few voters are independents; the notion of a vast middle ground waiting to coalesce behind some new agenda just isn’t supported by the evidence.

What is the agenda of the “radical center” that Friedman has in mind, anyway? Well, it consists of “cutting services” and “raising taxes” when needed—two things whose unpopularity seem less a symptom of a broken system than, well, a perennial challenge of democracy. But more broadly, it consists of:

raising taxes to close our budgetary shortfalls, but doing so with a spirit of equity and social justice; guaranteeing that every American is covered by health insurance, but with market reforms to really bring down costs; legally expanding immigration to attract more job-creators to America’s shores; increasing corporate tax credits for research and lowering corporate taxes if companies will move more manufacturing jobs back onshore; investing more in our public schools, while insisting on rising national education standards and greater accountability for teachers, principals and parents; massively investing in clean energy, including nuclear, while allowing more offshore drilling in the transition. You get the idea.

If this sounds familiar, it should: as Friedman more or less acknowledges, it’s basically the Obama platform. And, as you may have heard, a big plank of it was enacted this week. If this is the agenda that urgently needs representation in American politics, what do we need radical change for?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.