Monday, October 4, 2010

Dept. of Piling On (Tom Friedman and Democracy Edition)

Yeah, I agree with Steve Benen.  And Dave Weigel.  And Brendan Nyhan.  And Steve Kornacki.  And especially with Jamelle Bouie, who writes that Tom Friedman "is clearly uncomfortable living in the world as it is, where voters matter, interests are heard, and political disagreement is important. Friedman's ideas are True, and if voters would just step aside, he and his could fix the country without having to persuade anyone."

Putting aside the particulars of the Party of Friedman (and as Benen points out, the agenda that Friedman thinks requires a whole new party sounds suspiciously like 99% of the Barack Obama agenda, making Friedman's column even more of a mess), I want to just underline what Bouie said.  Truly accepting democracy involves accepting difference.  That might be difference in opinion -- some people, even given the exact same set of facts, may reach different conclusions about public policy.  Indeed, people might disagree on the facts, and that's democracy, too, no matter how frustrating it seems.  That's one.  Second, it might be difference in interests, which means that believing in democracy means believing that unions and old people and even Wall Street rich folks have a legitimate right to work for things that benefit themselves, and to see the world as it looks from where they sit.  From the point of view of democracy, there are no "special" interests (although of course from the point of view of any particular political actor, there's nothing wrong with opposing those interests which conflict with one's own interests).  And in a democracy, we want politicians to "worry" (to use Friedman's word) about the interests of their constituencies.  So that's two.  And then there's a third, overlapping type of difference to accept in a democracy: the differences involved in who individuals and groups are, the differences that words such as "diversity" try to get at.  If you're going to try to have a nation of over 300 millions built on more or less open immigration and freedom of thought, worship, and the rest of it, you're going to have astonishing differences between people, and if you want that nation to be a democracy, you're going to have to accept that the way that all the differences, and even the way those people think, is not going to be the same.  Not just interests or opinions, but values, priorities, cultural reference points.  The whole shebang. 

From Madison and Federalist 10 on, the United States has always been a gamble that democracy from difference can be an enormous strength, despite the evident and frequently frightening dangers involved.  And there have always been those who don't get that, and think there's an obvious consensus that would be reached if only politics or partisanship or nefarious special interests didn't get in the way.  What they -- what Friedman and those like him -- miss is that in a real-world democracy, consensus is both an impossible and a foolish goal.  True democracy involves plenty of conflict, difficulty, pain, and frustration, although it also promises the exhilaration of public happiness.  If you don't like what's happening in a democracy, the solution is to persuade others to adopt your ideas, or mobilize people who already share your ideas, or form a coalition with others whose ideas or interests you can live with...but not, never, to assume that your ideas are the obvious and only correct ones that everyone would adopt if only...whatever. 


  1. Couldn't agree more... Friedman is an (insufferable) elitist in the truest sense of the world.

    On "Left, Right and Center" Tony Blankley took down Scheer, Huffington, and Friedman for romanticizing the efficiency with which an authoritarian government can make the "right" decision (China's stimulus, investing in HSR and green energy technology). I think he went a bit over the top comparing it to the romanticization of the Nazis by certain groups in the 1930s. But his point was a good one, individual liberty has its trade-offs and sometimes that involves speed in collective decision-making as well as the quality of such decisions from any single perspective (that is the bitter part of compromise, rarely does anyone get exactly what they want). I am rarely anything but frustrated by what Blankley has to say on that program but this was a breath of fresh air.

  2. Agreed.

    In addition, this provides another opportunity to point out that with, say, the Senate rules of 1800, it's likely that most of Friedman's agenda would have been passed. That's because the original Senate rules did not allow for filibusters.

    If Senate Democrats only had to get 50 votes (plus Biden to break a tie) to pass legislation, then (to take Friedman's list of examples) the current Congress would have passed an Affodable Care Act that dealt more effectively with both cost and quality, a larger stimulus that would have rebuilt more infrastructure and created more jobs, a stronger and clearer financial regulation law, and a comprehensive energy/climate change law that included cap-and-trade.

    Just saying....

  3. @Massappeal:

    I actually get the feeling that fifty votes as a minimum would've just shifted who got to play kingmaker from Nelson or Lincoln to someone like Conrad or Pryor.

  4. @Menzies, yes. In any negotiation involving multiple parties (e.g., 100 Senators), a small group of individuals will have the most bargaining power. In a hypothetical, filibusterless Senate (2009-10 edition), the 48th - 52nd most conservative members (likely Democrats) would be most likely to get their concerns addressed in any particularly piece of legislation.

    In the actual 2009-10 Senate, the 58th - 62nd most conservative members had the most bargaining power. The fundamental politics don't change. The end result does (somewhat more liberal legislation, moved somewhat more quickly through Congress).

  5. The big question then is, are Conrad and Pryor (or whoever) better than Nelson and Lincoln. I think in terms of raw votes, they seem to be, and they seem to make their votes with relatively little haggling.


    Would that be true if it was all down to them? If they were the last two votes Reid needed, why WOULDN'T they be as big of pains in the asses?

    No clue why. But then again, couldn't they have been the big pains in the asses as things stood? Doesn't seem like there's any structural reason why Lincoln and Nelson are the problem children, could've just as easily been anyone else, even a true blue liberal (see: FinReg). And yet, Pryor and Conrad (or McCaskill and Tester, or the other Nelson and Casey) kept their cool.

  6. @Colby, sure, every Senator has their own personality. There's always going to be someone who will be the most vocally "independent" from their caucus.

    It's also true that every Senator has their parochial interests. NY Senators are always going to pay attention to Wall Street. AR Senators are always going to pay attention to Walmart. IA Senators will protect corn subsidies.

    It's also true that Senators will generally care about getting re-elected. (Lincoln and Ben Nelson representing red states is part of why their votes are hard to get for Democrats.)

    And yet, once we've accepted all of the above as given, we're still faced with getting enough votes to pass a bill. Getting to 50 is easier than getting to 60, I contend.

    If, like the Democratic caucus currently, you have 59 members, you have a lot of ways to get to 50. (You can lose Feingold, Ben Nelson, Lincoln, Pryor, Conrad, McCaskill, Tester, Bill Nelson and Lieberman---and still pass a bill.)

    You have very few ways to get to 60 (hold all 59 Dems and pick off 1 Rep, but since no Rep wants to be the sole "traitor" you can lose 1 Dem and get 2 Reps. In any case, extraordinarily difficult in the current session.)

    And, because it's easier to get to 50, you don't have to make as many compromises on any given bill. The big compromises don't change. It's the small ones that add up. And, crucially at a time when the House has passed over 300 bills that haven't even reached the Senate floor, you can move bills more quickly if you only have to get to 50 votes.

  7. Why does it stand to reason that adding a new party to the equation is the best way to fix the two-party system? Why not just fix one of the existing parties? Oh, wait, that would mean taking actual stands on the issues and calling out the other side instead of being a voter anger poseur. Plus, it would be boring. Party discipline and loyalty is too dull for a maverick iconoclast like Mr. Tom Friedman.

    Tom Friedman, I would like to speak for all America when I say to you: thanks, but let's try this ourselves. It's not like you guys did a great job back during the Bush years.


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