Tom Friedman’s ‘Radical’ Wrongness

Critics debunk—again—the NYT columnist’s ‘radical center’ dream

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.

Among many, many smart replies, The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen wrote:

I didn’t care for this column the first hundred times it’s been published over the years, and it’s not improving with age… Friedman has effectively endorsed the entirety of President Obama’s agenda, most of which has passed, can’t pass, or has to be severely watered down because of unprecedented Senate obstructionism. But instead of calling for reforming the legislative process, or calling on Republicans to start playing a constructive role in policymaking, or calling on voters to elect more candidates who agree with the agenda the columnist espouses, Friedman says what we really need is an amorphous third party that will think the way he does.


Ezra Klein also noted the misguided focus on the presidency:

If the legislative system is broken—if the best we can do is not good enough—you need to change the legislative system. Friedman laments Obama’s “limited stimulus” and decision to “abandon an energy-climate bill altogether,” but he doesn’t mention the one thing that would’ve allowed for a larger stimulus and a fighting chance on an energy and climate bill: eliminating the filibuster.

And Brendan Nyhan recalled the fate of an independent executive who actually managed to get elected:

The best precedent in contemporary politics is Jesse Ventura, who was elected governor in Minnesota as an independent candidate and tried to govern without the support of either major party. Needless to say, it did not go well.

Meanwhile, Jamelle Bouie argued that rule by Davos Man is perhaps not in keeping with America’s democratic tradition:

Friedman’s pining for a third party—like David Broder’s frequent pining for anti-political “independents”—is strikingly undemocratic. It’s not just that he wants to enact his preferred agenda though an elite-driven party with no constituency, no activists, and no ties to local communities but that he is clearly uncomfortable living in the world as it is, where voters matter, interests are heard, and political disagreement is important.

And Jonathan Bernstein went even deeper into the realm of democratic theory:

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… 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.

*Make Way for the Radical Center,” July 23, 2011.

Collectively, the replies to Friedman’s October column presented a two-pronged complaint: first, there’s no way for the president to govern from the “radical center” alongside an empowered, polarized legislature. And second, participatory democracy in the United States means competition among (and, at times, cooperation between) rival political parties, not finding some way to impose elite opinion by transcending politics.

So naturally, Friedman’s latest is a paean to Americans Elect, a Web-oriented effort “financed with some serious hedge fund money” that is trying to find a presidential candidate who can “reach across the divide of politics.”

You can almost sense the Internet throwing up its hands in resignation. But Slate’s Dave Weigel delivered the requisite snark, asking of Friedman’s “glib claptrap”:

[H]ow can a sophisticated political analyst buy into this? How do you look at the way Washington is actually organized, with multiple legislative veto points that can cripple or kill legislation, and say “we could fix this if a third party won the presidency”?

And poli-sci blogger Seth Masket punctured the sense of self-congratulation surrounding Americans Elect’s promise to empower “the community” over “entrenched parties”:

How exactly does a party go about nominating candidates and determining planks on a platform? It involves extensive, messy deliberation and coordination among political activists, major donors, some officeholders, party elders, interest group leaders, and others. In other words, it involves the community. That’s what a party is. A party is not an alien presence imposing its will on the democratic process. Quite the contrary: a party emerges organically from the democratic process.

Are some moderates left out of these communities? Sure. They have a choice. They can form their own new party, although the track record of those isn’t great. They can suck up their objections to the ideological extremists and work within one of the party communities, although that can be frustrating. Or they can stay at home. But they are not somehow more noble because they aren’t part of one of the “entrenched parties.”

Even Friedman’s Times colleague Michael Powell raised an eyebrow on Twitter:

A Hedge Fund backed party railing against ‘special interests’? With no evident irony, Tom Friedman endorses

All good stuff. Still, there’s a steep drop-off in the volume of responses from October; even Masket wrote that hesitated to comment on such “an easy target.”

Smart pundits of the world, don’t give up! The reluctance to repeat yourself is understandable, even admirable. But Tom Friedman is read by many, many people. And in his infatuation with the idea of the “radical center,” he is very, very mistaken. Do your part to improve public understanding of politics, defend American democracy, and grab some Internet bragging rights. The next time Friedman opines on the “radical center”—I’m guessing it won’t be later than the time Michele Bachmann wins the Iowa caucuses—take your best shot at proving him wrong.

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