Over the weekend, The New York Times op-ed page published one of Tom Friedman’s periodic columns about the need for a uprising of the “radical center.” It was, unsurprisingly, terrible. Though the details of these columns change with each iteration—this one relied heavily on a new initiative called Americans Elect, which brings together two of Friedman’s favorite things, wealthy people and the Internet—the basic wrongheadedness does not.
Friedman’s idea seems to be that if only we can find some reform that will allow us to “break the oligopoly of the two-party system,” it might, someday, be possible for someone who holds 90 percent of Barack Obama’s stated policy positions—plus support for a carbon tax—to assume a position of power. Then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear—maybe because some fantasy vice president (Michael Bloomberg?) applies some of his “pragmatic independent” pixie dust?—political dysfunction disappears, and a magical new era of “superconsensus” to solve our “superhard” problems is ushered in. Startlingly, this consensus seems to closely reflect many of Friedman’s personal policy preferences.
Friedman has been engaged in third-party wishcasting for at least five years now; Brendan Nyhan’s excellent, running blog post on third-party media hype records that back in the 2006 election cycle, Friedman longed for a “Geo-Green Party.” His “radical center” phase, though, seems to be inspired by the Tea Party era. Friedman has devoted columns to this mythical middle at least three times since spring 2010. They’re as predictable as the tides, or a hackneyed lede about a conversation with a taxi driver or tech entrepreneur.
Just as predictable is the subsequent savaging by writers who, having some insight into the workings of American politics, can explain not just why Friedman’s vision is impractical but also how it misunderstands the virtues of American democracy. If the columns have little intrinsic value, they serve as fodder for an entertaining, informative Internet competition, a sort of piñata that smart writers across the political spectrum bat about to demonstrate their blogging skills.
What follows is a selective anthology of Friedman’s “radical center” columns, each followed by excerpts of notable debunkings. Their inclusion is based on sharpness of snark, quality of analytical insight, or, ideally, both. Admittedly, nothing here approaches the panache of Matt Taibbi’s epic evisceration of Friedman’s writing style. But they are worthy counts in a pretty strong indictment of one of our best-known political columnists.
* “A Tea Party Without Nuts,” March 24, 2010.
After outlining a platform that could have come straight from a White House white paper—expanded access to health insurance coupled with market reforms to control costs, greater investment in education along with higher standards, etc.—Friedman suggests, implausibly, that non-partisan redistricting and an alternative voting system akin to instant-runoff voting will empower the radical center.
Reaction to this piece was relatively muted, though at Reason, Matt Welch flagged the, um, non-radicalness of Friedman’s agenda:
The columnist’s definitions of “radical centrism,” as made tangible through our political system, will be what we end up living with over the next several years, minus the election-law reform and massive carbon tax of his dreams. Why would there be a grassroots movement to parrot the official line?
At Outside the Beltway, blogger James Joyner took a kinder tone, but noted
that Friedman’s recommended fixes wouldn’t fix much, because people actually disagree about important political issues (and don’t necessarily agree with Friedman):
[A]t least 12 states—not including California—were [using non-partisan redistricting] in 2000. And several others have advisory committees and other extra-legislative inputs. (See, “The Experiences of Other States—A Comparison of Redistricting Commissions,” PDF.) I’m not sure there’s any evidence that those states are less partisan, much less more prone to tax hikes, benefit cuts, or passing others of Friedman’s pet programs
Regardless of whether we pass these changes we’re still going to have a very polarized polity. We’re genuinely divided on major issues of war and peace, freedom and security, and cultural stability vs. tolerance.
* “Third Party Rising,” October 2, 2010.
Here’s where the competition gets lively. In this column, Friedman called for “a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate” that would simultaneously stand up to “special interests” and help overcome gridlock in D.C.