Thomas Friedman Prays: Thou Shalt Not Destroy the Center

Friedman offers a prayer from Shanghai.

Thou Shalt Not Destroy the Center

Dear God in Heaven: Forgive me my sins, for I have been to China and I have had bad thoughts. Forgive me, Heavenly Father, for I have cast an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved. For instance, Shanghai’s deputy mayor told me that as his city became more polluted, the government simply moved thousands of small

manufacturers out of Shanghai to clean up the air.

Forgive me, Heavenly Father, because I know that China’s political system is hardly ideal – not even close – and is not one that I would ever want to emulate in my own country. But at this time, when democracies, like India and America, seem incapable of making hard decisions, I cannot help but feel a tinge of jealousy at China’s ability to be serious about its problems and actually do things that are tough and require taking things away from people. Dear Lord, please accept my expression of remorse for harboring such feelings. Amen.

Well, you get the point. At a time when we are busy lecturing others about the need to adopt democratic systems, ours and many others seem to be hopelessly gridlocked – with neither the left nor the right able to generate a mandate to tackle hard problems. And it is the yawning gap between the huge problems our country faces today – Social Security reform, health care, education, climate change, energy – and the tiny, fragile mandates that our democracy seems able to generate to address these problems that is really worrying.

Why is this happening? Clearly, the way voting districts have been gerrymandered in America, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and Tom DeLay-like political manipulations, is a big part of the problem. As a result of this gerrymandering, only a small fraction of the seats in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures are really contested anymore. Therefore, few candidates have to build cross-party coalitions around the middle.

Most seats are now reserved for one party or the other. And when that happens, it means that in each of these districts the real election is the primary, where Democrats run against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans. And when that happens, it produces candidates who appeal only to their party’s base – so we end up with a Congress paralyzed between the far left and far right.

Add to this the fragmentation of the media, with the rising power of bloggers and podcasters, and the decline in authority of traditional centrist institutions – including this newspaper – and you have what the Foreign Policy magazine editor Moisés Naím rightly calls “the age of diffusion.”

“Show me a democratically elected government today anywhere in the world with a popular mandate rooted in a landslide victory – there aren’t many,” said Mr. Naím, whose smart new book, “Illicit,” is an absolute must-read about how small illicit players, using the tools of globalization, are now able to act very big on the world stage, weakening nations and the power of executives across the globe. “Everywhere you look in this age of diffusion, you see these veto centers emerging, which can derail, contain or stop any initiative. That is why so few governments today are able to generate a strong unifying mandate.”

This is a real dilemma because a vast majority of Americans are just center-left or center-right. Many surely feel disenfranchised by today’s far-left, far-right Congress. Moreover, the solutions to our biggest problems – especially Social Security and health care – can be found only in compromises between the center-left and center-right. This is doubly true today, when the real solutions require Washington to take stuff away from people, not give them more.

But our politics no longer rewards good behavior. Ronald Reagan, the most overrated president in U.S. history, lowered taxes and raised government spending, triggering a huge spike in the deficit. But because he did it with a sunny smile and it happened to coincide with the decline of the Soviet Union, he is remembered as a Great Man. The senior George Bush raised taxes and helped pave the way for the prosperity of the 1990’s. He also managed the actual collapse of the Soviet Union without a shot being fired, using unsmiling but deft diplomacy. Yet the elder Bush is somehow remembered – including, it seems, by his own son – as a failed president.

Add it all up and you can see that we have put ourselves in a position where only a total blow-out crisis in our system will generate enough authority for a democratic government to do the right things.

Let us pray.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Thomas Friedman has bad thoughts

I agree that the government is being fractured.

November 11, 2005 @ 9:16 am | Comment

This is a real dilemma because a vast majority of Americans are just center-left or center-right. Many surely feel disenfranchised by today’s far-left, far-right Congress.

I suppose that ‘far-left’ in the US must be the same as ‘center-right’ anywhere else in the world…

November 11, 2005 @ 10:58 am | Comment

I was shaking my head when I read this. What “far left” is there in Congress??!!

“Things fall apart, the center does not hold…”

November 11, 2005 @ 11:37 am | Comment

politicans have abandoned the center and reached to far extrme right and left for support.

the center is becoming the enmey of both right and left. it died in a cross fire.

November 11, 2005 @ 11:54 am | Comment

The most serious problem facing China is corruption. If the CCP could make a few hard choices in that area and “just order that the problem be solved”, Friedman might have a point.

November 11, 2005 @ 12:19 pm | Comment

Ah, the predictions of de Tocqueville coming home to roost, that America would remain a free Republic so long as we hadn’t figured out that we could pick each others’ pockets at the ballot box. It has been the cause of the decline of every democracy in history that has lasted any amount of time.

And who can do anything about the bureaucracy? Who is going to run for, let alone win, the Presidency with a platform plank of actually reducing that dead-weight, that makes up about 1/5 of the US GDP?

This is why democratic republics nearly always end in a dictatorship, to ‘solve the hard problems’ when no one wants to give up anything for the good of society.

November 11, 2005 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

i actually rather liked that article, and would say it echos what i have been thinking. huge blowout indeed. i saw something yesterday about the two companies that count ballots in amerika, and they are owned by brothers. it gets way worse from there…where is that link…

’20 amazing facts about voting in america’…

ahhh, there it is. totally rigged. suckers.

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November 11, 2005 @ 3:07 pm | Comment

I take Friedman’s challenge on a leader that was elected with a mandate from the center, New York’s Michael Bloomberg! That said, he’s right on everything else. As someone, in some other blog today, I can’t remember which said, the far right and far left argue over how to get over our dependency on foreign oil. the far riht argues that we need to increase production and exploration, the far left argues that we need to conserve more and raise fuel efficiency standards, even while a child can see that we need to do both. I second Friedman’s prayer, God help us (and this from an agnostic)!

November 11, 2005 @ 3:54 pm | Comment

If this wasn’t so scary, and Friedman so “sincere,” I would have gotten a good laugh this morning when I read this…He wrote “For instance, Shanghai’s deputy mayor told me that as his city became more polluted, the government simply moved thousands of small manufacturers out of Shanghai to clean up the air.” And where did these small manufacturers go, once they had polluted Shanghai? Did they go out of business? Where they forced to use cleaner-technology? No, they went to smaller cities that were looking for jobs and economic growth and were probably willing to overlook things like economic regulations and the health of their own population. Much easier to get a vice mayor of a “small city” of 900,000 to look the other way….. Mr. Friedman, I really don’t understand why this is so laudable. Can anyone help me out? Did I miss something?

November 11, 2005 @ 5:07 pm | Comment

I think I can understand where Friedman is going when there is too much democracy and everybody is allowed to participate in the decision making process. Toronto is currently having many cases of Not In My Backyard where every development is stymied or stopped. We used to ship garbage out to some city landfill for $60 a ton. The landfill got full so we found an abandoned mine in northern Ontario to be a new site. The local residents launched massive protests and stopped the development cold. The end result is we now ship garbage to the state of Michigan for $115 a ton. For some strange reason, Michigan is the local dumping ground and everybody ships their garbage there. This can’t go on forever so now the city council has decreed that we now must do 100% recycling where we sort our garbage into dry and wet stuff. The wet stuff like food gets shipped off to some gigantic compost heap. This makes great sense except it costs around $130 a ton.

There was this new development where we were going to transform a major thoroughfare into a more pedestrian friendly street by improving a streetcar line and having better sidewalks. The St Clair project got stopped when the local residents launched a lawsuit and got an injunction. They were afraid the new construction would hurt their business and reduce the parking spaces. We try to do new high density housing for our growing population but are always opposed by some NIMBY group.

Everybody wants something but don’t want to pay the price. We want cheap available electricity but don’t want ugly high voltage lines. All across Ontario NIMBY groups are fighting tooth and nail against any new power plants including nuclear and natural gas. Where do they think the electricity is going to come from?

At this point, I would love to see a little more dictatorship and ruthlessness. It’s time somebody makes decisions and overrides these NIMBY groups.

November 11, 2005 @ 8:40 pm | Comment

Well, we have a grand coalition now in Germany (the two big parties together in government). More center is not possible. Let’s see if that works.

I also have my doubts that the current Chinese sytem is able to tackle the big problems like environmental pollution. It was the civil society in the West that put preassure on the politicians. Without that preassure things would have developed much slower I think.

November 12, 2005 @ 12:30 pm | Comment

The article would be interesting … if it bore even a slight relation to the reality on the ground. The idea that the entire democratic world has become polarised is laughable in the extreme. He seems to be mistaking United States federal elections with the “world”. In fact, the general trend, the world over, has been more parties to grow TOWARDS eachother, not apart. THAT is the real reason you see so few landslide election results these days … because voters feel that there’s really not a hell of a lot of difference. As a result, elections get decided on reletively cosmetic differences … or they don’t get decided, and you end up with situations like Germany’s.

Yes, things are polarised in the US at the moment. Show me another democratic country where that is true.

November 13, 2005 @ 12:38 am | Comment

Yes, things are polarised in the US at the moment. Show me another
democratic country where that is true.

Did you see the last election results in Germany?

November 13, 2005 @ 6:50 am | Comment

Yes I did Richard … and it disproves utterly what he has to say. The election result was so tight, not because voters are polarised, but rather because voters feel that in the end, they’re all just politicians, and there’s not much to choose between them.

In your line of work you should recognise spin which tries desperately to create “product differentiation” … when the only things that is substantially different is the bottle the product comes in. In New Zealand, Australia, for example, the major parties are so close to each other, their economic policies are barely distinguishable. The polarisation, of which this article speaks, is so NOT happening in the main parties, that you’ve seen the emergence of minor parties to take the disenfranchised radicals. In Australia, it’s the Greens … who should really renamed themselves the Communists, if you look at their economics and foreign policies. Then there’s certain religious factions starting to emerge on the right (with one particular party capturing its first Senate seat in the last election). In NZ, it’s the Greens on the far left, and ACT and a few others on the far right.

Basically, the major parties determine what it will take to get elected, and reshape themselves to be that thing. It becomes a case of choosing between one kind of apple and another kind of apple.

November 13, 2005 @ 3:59 pm | Comment

What does Thomas Friedman mean by The World is Flat? What is causing this according to Friedman? What has all of this got to do with the digital revolution? What are the important economic, geo-political or other implications of a “flat world” for the United States and the world? What are the positive and negative effects of this transformation of the global economy?

November 14, 2005 @ 12:32 am | Comment

this might help you what he means with his flat world:

November 14, 2005 @ 4:37 am | Comment

I really am disgusted by the attitude displayed here; not about centrism and gridlock, but how blind to reality he is and how warmly he embraces his myopia. He seems to have forgotten that dictatorships alone are capable of the efficiency he lauds, and these are possible only with the most minimum of freedoms. I look at my adopted Chinese daughter feeling great sadness for her birthmother. The efficiency he so lauds made it all but impossible for her to know and love her Chinese family and her native country.

November 23, 2005 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

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