Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tom Friedman’s Tea Kettle and the Mandarin Delusion

by Michael Kaplan

A defective Martha Stewart Everyday Brand Tea Kettle. A metaphor for Tom Friedman?

I’ve long been an admirer of Tom Friedman, the New York Times award-winning foreign affairs columnist. I’ve spent many days happily absorbed in his articles and books, which often inspired my own thinking on world issues. Friedman’s analysis of the realms of politics, culture, economics, and religion was incisive, penetrating beneath the surface of events, bringing historical perspective to current conflicts. Whether discussing Middle Eastern politics, global capitalism, or America’s place in the world, Friedman connected the dots with grace, elegance, and humor. Several years ago, when I taught at Yeshiva University, some students asked me how I could like both Tom Friedman and Rush Limbaugh. I replied that I don’t march in lock step with anyone and I’ll take my wisdom from wherever I can find it.

How disappointing it is to find that Friedman’s analytical and expository power, that allows him to get to the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict or explain globalization, fails him when he turns to his own country. Friedman is frustrated with democracy, at least in its two-party incarnation. The sad truth is that Tom Friedman, like so many other liberal pundits, does not understand Jacksonian America. I really shouldn’t be so surprised. Friedman was never a Jacksonian, but unlike many liberal progressives he is an American nationalist. In his writings Friedman usually tries to strike a balance between American nationalism and liberal internationalism, which is not an easy task. Friedman’s nationalism likewise tends to balance the patriotism of affirmation with the patriotism of dissent. No matter how critical he may be of America’s dysfunctions as he sees them, whenever he returns home from one of his globe trotting adventures, Friedman metaphorically kisses the ground and says “God bless America!”

A pensive Tom Friedman. Trapped in the mandarin delusion?

But getting to the point. As I said Friedman is frustrated with American democracy in its current two-party duopoly. Since at least 2005 Freidman’s writings have been dominated by three themes: the urgent need to develop green technologies and a green economy even if it has to be forced on a recalcitrant American public by governing elites who know better; the hijacking of American politics by the ideological far right and far left and the disintegration of the political center; China as the model of an enlightened autocracy where wise mandarin elites can impose reform on society unhampered by the dysfunctions of democracy (the mandarin delusion). Friedman really wants a third party, a party of “the radical center,” that can bring together the majority of Americans who are center right or center left (New York Times, October 3, 2010). Such a coalition, Friedman believes, can bring needed reforms to address America’s urgent social and economic problems and restore democracy to health. A new centrist party would, in Friedman’s view, see the wisdom in the policies that the liberal progressive elite want to impose on the nation, some of which have already been implemented by the Obama administration. I believe Friedman is mistaken in this. The center right is just as opposed to the progressive green agenda as the far right is, as indicated by the level of popular support for the Tea Party. And America is a center right (not a center left) nation. As Democratic pollster Pat Caddell told Monica Crowley on her WABC radio show (October 9, 2010), the Tea Party is “the tip of the spear” of a much larger Jacksonian populist revolt against the liberal progressive agenda.

In another recent column (September 29, 2010) Friedman dismisses the Tea Party movement as a “Tea Kettle movement.” This is because in Friedman’s considered judgment the Tea Party is all steam and no engine or substance. Tea Partiers are just a bunch of whiners and complainers who have no ideas and offer no solutions to America’s pressing problems.

The Tea Kettle movement can’t have a positive impact on the country because it has both misdiagnosed America’s main problem and hasn’t even offered a credible solution for the problem it has identified. How can you take a movement seriously that says it wants to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won’t identify the specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services it’s ready to cut — let alone explain how this will make us more competitive and grow the economy?
Friedman then accuses the Tea Party of hypocrisy for not opposing George W. Bush when he engaged in an orgy of spending on two wars, new entitlements, and irresponsible tax cuts. Never mind that Friedman himself was a supporter of those wars in their early stages (Friedman did see the necessity of crushing Islamic jihadism back then), but turned against them when things did not go as smoothly as planned. Also forget that the Tea Party did not emerge until the spring of 2009, after Bush had left office. In fact the Jacksonian populist conservatives who would become the Tea Party did oppose Bush’s domestic entitlement spending, which is why so many of them sat out the 2006 and 2008 elections. This is a point made by Noel Sheppard at NewsBusters and Drew M. at The New Ledger. But by doing this they made Nancy Pelosi speaker and Barack Obama president, not perhaps what they wanted, but it did lead to a needed shake up of the Republican establishment. The future Tea Partiers for the most part did, and do, support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the costs, for Jacksonian reasons of defending national security and national honor.

Perhaps Drew M. gets it right when he comments, “By ‘misdiagnosed America’s main problem’ he means, ‘No, all you people are wrong. I, Thomas Friedman, will now tell you what you actually should think.’” Friedman shows in these columns a discomfort with and an elite disdain for democracy’s populist politics that has become more pronounced in his writings. Friedman fails to grasp what Jacksonian populism is all about when he lambastes the Tea Party for failing to present detailed position papers. Drew M. again sums it up: “Campaigns in the democratic world (unlike Friedman’s mythical China) aren’t about detailed policy and legislation, they are about themes. Once candidates take over they are expected to act within a broad framework of the concepts they were elected on and not simply to carry with them a specific set of policies plans that they must stick to.” Elections are just the first step in the democratic process of policy making and governing. It involves many steps of debate, negotiation, and compromise. “Turning these themes (values really) into actual policy is the purpose of the legislative process.” Friedman is thinking like an elite policy wonk, which is not the way to comprehend a populist movement mobilizing public support for the defense of liberty.

The Jacksonians of the Tea Party movement are not looking to government for the answers to America’s challenges. They don’t want the government to lay out the detailed plans that Friedman wants to micromanage the economy and business. For the most part they want to reduce burdensome taxes and government regulations that are hamstringing the economy and preventing individuals and the private sector from creating jobs and wealth. The answers to America’s challenges will come not from government but from the American people. In this the Tea Party agrees with Ronald Reagan:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
These days Friedman does not hold Reagan in high regard, though he did in the 1990s when he wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Calling Reagan “the most overrated president in U.S. history,” Friedman attributes his success, despite his administration’s huge budget deficits, to the good fortune of having the Soviet Union decline on his watch. But Reagan remains a hero to Jacksonians who still believe that the American people can govern their society and remain in charge of their own destinies. They will not pay the price to remake society in the image that will satisfy Friedman and other elite progressives.

Jacksonians reject solutions imposed by elites from above. Friedman’s call for progressive elites to use the power of government to impose a green lifestyle on Americans—which he elaborates in many columns over the past few years and in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded—is one example. Jacksonian reaction against the Green movement in the 21st century is as intense as Jacksonian reaction against the Temperance movement was in the 19th century—another attempt by progressive elites to impose their cultural values on Jacksonian America.

Speaking of the Temperance movement, Captain Isaiah Rynders, leader of the Empire Club, a political gang in antebellum New York City, expressed the Jacksonian belief in a republican liberty that rejected progressive elite impositions in terms similar to those used by the Tea Party today. Rallying his followers at Tammany Hall, Rynders denounced the 1855 New York state prohibition law as a tyrannical ploy by an evangelical elite to impose its cultural values on and regulate the lives of New York’s hard-drinking working class. “I . . . drink what I like when I can get it,” Rynders declared to the cheers of New York’s Jacksonian b’hoys. “I thank God I have hitherto had what I want to eat, and as much as I needed to drink.” While proposing to “meet law with law,” the Captain insisted that when “our social rights are infringed upon . . . the law does not always give us our rights.” (New York Tribune, April 28, 1855). Like today’s Tea Partiers, Rynders was willing to use political protest and the ballot box to address popular grievances. Unlike today’s Tea Partiers, Rynders was ready to use violence, politics-out-of-doors, if legitimate politics did not get him what he wanted. Jacksonians today have no intention of allowing the government, or Green crusaders like Tom Friedman or singer Sheryl Crow (who I love—musically, not politically), tell them which light bulb they must screw in or how much toilet paper they can use to wipe their . . . need I say it? Even Walter Russell Mead, who admires Friedman, called his plan for a crippling gas tax to encourage a program to build electric cars a red herring that can never get off the ground. Unlike Friedman, Mead understands that Jacksonian America will not be bullied into the Green utopia.

Sheryl Crow, crusader against toilet paper.

Actually the tea kettle may be a more apt metaphor for Friedman’s thinking on these matters than it is for the Jacksonian Tea Party movement. Tea is Chinese in origin and China was the first nation to mass cultivate and trade this heavenly brew. Many tea kettles are made out of fine china. And Friedman now looks to China as a better model for modern governance than America. Friedman reveals this central point of his argument when he quotes pollster Stan Greenberg on his focus group’s findings. “People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don’t. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats.”

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Friedman's philosopher king?

Friedman suffers from what I call the “mandarin delusion.” The mandarin delusion is the belief that authoritarian state capitalism, of which China is the most successful model, can be a viable alternative to democratic free-market capitalism. The mandarin delusion is the idea that the post-Mao China of Deng Xiaoping and his successors is governed by a wise, far-seeing, elite of engineers, technocrats, and bureaucrats, heirs to China’s 2500 year tradition of rule by a mandarin intellectual elite. This elite, not hamstrung by the messy give and take and political accountability of democracy, can simply impose the policies it knows are right for their nation. Individuals who object to such policies, or who are just inconvenient and in the way, can simply be squashed. There are no Tea Parties in China. China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, an engineer by training (as are most of China’s current government officials), is no doubt Friedman’s model of an enlightened leader for the 21st century, perhaps even a philosopher king. Friedman told David Gregory on Meet the Press back on May 23:

I have fantasized—don't get me wrong—but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment. I don't want to be China for a second, OK, I want my democracy to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness. But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.
To be fair, Friedman is well aware of the shortcomings of China’s authoritarian system. He doesn’t really want America to be China. But he does envy the ability of China’s mandarin technocrats to implement change by fiat. Explaining his thinking in Hot, Flat, and Crowded (pp. 430-431), Friedman writes:
As far as I am concerned, China’s system of government is inferior to ours in every respect—except one. That is the ability of China’s current generation of leaders—if they want—to cut through all their legacy industries, all the pleading special interests, all the bureaucratic obstacles, all the worries of a voter backlash, and simply order top-down the sweeping changes in prices, regulations, standards, education, and infrastructure that reflect China’s long-term strategic national interests—changes that would normally take Western democracies years or decades to debate and implement. That is such an asset when it comes to trying to engineer a sweeping change, like the green revolution, where you are competing against deeply embedded, well-funded, entrenched interests, and where you have to motivate the public to accept certain short-term sacrifices, including higher energy prices, for long-term gain. For Washington to be able to order all the right changes and set up the ideal market conditions for innovation, and then get out of the way and let the natural energy of the American capitalist system work—that would be a dream.
A dream for Friedman and America’s mandarin wannabes, perhaps. But for Jacksonians, including the Tea Party, this would be their worst nightmare: the government deciding who would be the winners and losers in the economy going forward. “What would be so bad? China? Just for one short day?” For Americans who love liberty, quite a lot would be bad.

Friedman may still believe in American democracy but he is frustrated with democracy’s messiness and lack of focus. He’s frustrated with the checks and balances in our political system that can lead to partisan gridlock. So he yearns for the authoritarian Chinese system where the government can implement change on command. He thinks that the challenges we face are so urgent that in his heart he doesn’t think democracy is up to meeting them. Like Alexander Hamilton, Friedman fears that active engagement by the American people in politics in the form of the Tea Party movement throws a monkey wrench into the machinery of government.

In a revealing interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published the day before Barack Obama was inaugurated, Friedman made it quite clear that he thinks America is in crisis, that “we have lost our groove as a country” and that democratic government is dysfunctional and not up to the challenges of the 21st century. Government is unable to harness the innovation coming out of the private sector, especially in what he calls “ET”—green energy technology. But unlike conservatives who argue that government should just get out of the way and let the private sector develop new technologies, Friedman believes that government has to guide and focus the creative energy of the private sector to get the new technologies off the ground. Obama won the election, Friedman insists “because he understood that what Americans wanted most was nation building at home, not nation building in Iraq, not nation building in Afghanistan. America needs rebooting.” Friedman then dropped a bomb on his interviewer, claiming it was less important that Obama have experience than it was for him to absorb the radicalism of . . . Bill Ayers! “Experience is important, judgment is important, but most of all we need a president who is ready to take radical departures from business as usualand be able to bring the country along with him. That is why I say, I hope he has been hanging around with Bill Ayers, because he needs to be as radical as this moment.”

Radical change, a radical departure from the past, seems to be Friedman’s top priority when he thinks about where America needs to go. “This is a radical moment for America, and the time has come where a radical is needed. If Obama is not as radical as the present moment requires, our country will be in trouble.” Well Jacksonian conservatives in the Tea Party certainly think Obama is more than radical enough. That is why they oppose him. But he’s not radical enough for Friedman. Here is Friedman’s idea of the type of radicalism that’s needed in the present crisis: “It would be radical if we were going to send two wise men away for six months, they would come back with a national energy policy, and we were going to bring it before Congress with an up or down vote. No amendments, no earmarks, no nothing. Just vote for the right policy or shut up.” This statement is breathtaking in its rejection of democracy, of the process of negotiation and compromise, of checks and balances. This is the mandarin delusion. Friedman is looking for a deus ex machina in the form of two wise mandarin technocrats to blast away the messy sausage making of democracy and lay down the law from on high, the will of the people be damned. China for a day indeed.

For several years now Friedman has been calling for “nation building” in America. But he appears willing to sacrifice liberty on the altar of doing whatever it takes to force his vision of “opitmal solutions” on Americans. He should have more confidence and faith in the American people; in their good sense and capacity for self-government, and in their ability to devise their own “opitmal solutions” to meet this generation’s challenges as did generations past. Americans really don’t need mandarins to tell them what to do to get their nation back on track. If Friedman is serious about his vision of “nation building” in America, he is going to have to persuade and convince the Jacksonian public that the “opitmal solutions” of the progressive green agenda is in their interests. He cannot indulge in fantasies that an all-knowing mandarin technocratic elite can impose his vision on a Jacksonian America that rejects it.

Friedman’s mandarin delusion has darker implications too. Jacksonians exaggerate the danger European-style social democracy poses to liberty. This comes with the Jacksonian tradition of hyper-vigilance to identify and expose any potential challenge to liberty before it can get off the ground. But a more ominous and dire threat to liberty looms on the horizon. Democratic capitalism, whether of the American laissez-faire or the European social democratic model, now faces a serious challenge from the authoritarian state capitalisms of China (that Friedman seems to admire), Russia, and other emerging nations. Both the American and European capitalist models are based on the concept that private-sector business exists to create wealth and raise living standards for all citizens while the government supervises, regulates, and intervenes to ensure that the game isn’t rigged and the rules are obeyed. Americans and Europeans may disagree on where, when, and how often the government should intervene in the economy, but both agree that the system’s goal is the prosperity, happiness, and liberty of the people.

Authoritarian state capitalism, in sharp contrast, works to enhance the power of the state and the elites that control it. Access to political and government elites—cronyism—determines who will get the opportunity to start a business and create wealth. In fact many businesses in Russia and China are state owned, or owned by members of the government. And the wealth created by these politically sanctioned enterprises is used for the financial support of the ruling elites. This is precisely the situation that Old Hickory warned against in his Bank Veto Message.

The New Authoritarian Challenge. Wen Jiabao and Vladimir Putin.

Authoritarian elites, the mandarins that Friedman wants to turn America over to for a day, fear political and economic liberty. They believe that the creative destruction central to free-market capitalism will lead to social and economic upheaval beyond the capacity of their political systems to absorb. As Ian Bremmer observes, China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and their elite circles all “know that if they leave it entirely to market forces to decide winners and losers from economic growth, they risk enabling those who might use that wealth to challenge their political power.” The mandarins and the oligarchs are “using markets to create wealth that can be directed as officials see fit. The ultimate motive is not economic but political: to maximise the state’s control of development and the leadership’s chance of survival.” And the people in countries ranging from Russia and China to Iran and Venezuela fear social and political chaos as much as their masters. The relative economic prosperity and political stability provided by authoritarian state capitalism is an acceptable trade-off in societies that value security over liberty. David Brooks, Friedman’s fellow columnist at the New York Times, writes that “state capitalism may be the only viable system in low-trust societies, in places where decentralized power devolves into gangsterism. . . . State capitalism taps into deep nationalist passions and offers psychic security for people who detest the hurly-burly of modern capitalism.”

In 2005 Friedman offered this tongue-in-cheek prayer asking the Lord’s forgiveness for his mandarin delusion:
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. . . . 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.
It is truly unfortunate Friedman does not seem serious about his remorse. The mandarin delusion he promotes is real and dangerous. State capitalism poses, I believe, the greatest challenge to the liberal democracy since the fall of communism, even greater than radical Islam. While the jihad has zero attraction outside the Dar al-Islam, state capitalism presents a potential alternative to democratic capitalism that much of the world would like: economic development disconnected from liberal democratic politics and the rule of law; prosperity without liberty. Francis Fukuyama was wrong. The appeal of state capitalism shows that we have not yet reached the end of history. Liberty loving Americans ignore these developments at their peril.

But in the end the mandarin delusion is just that: a mirage and a delusion. There are no shortcuts to sustained mass prosperity through policies imposed on the people without their consent by a mandarin elite. Not in the long term. Prosperity and liberty are ultimately inseparable. Democracy can be messy. It can appear to lack focus. But it is only through the democratic process of give and take, of building support for policies among popular constituencies, that an advanced modern society can create wealth, sustain legitimacy, and promote liberty and happiness. For all its undoubted achievements in raising millions of people out of poverty and building a modern economy, China is still a brutal autocracy, no matter how deceptively attractive its façade. Just ask China’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo (if you can find him somewhere the the bowels of the Chinese gulag). Here in America the Tea Party is, to quote Pat Caddell again, “the tip of the iceberg” of the much larger Jacksonian public’s sentiment. While it may not win the approval of Tom Friedman, the Tea Party is the current embodiment of the American democratic spirit, the spirit of Jacksonian America. Friedman, as a journalist, thinker, and American who loves his country, should get serious again about standing up for liberty and American democracy, analyze and not demonize the Tea Party, dispose of his defective tea kettle, and free himself from the mandarin delusion.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

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