Consider for a moment the paradoxical pain of being a best-selling political pundit so successful that American presidents don’t just seek but heed your advice. You have lobbied in your columns for the commander in chief to deploy your signature catch phrases, and he has. You have, in times of both crisis and sloth, advocated robust federal action in the name of national “greatness,” and the people in power have mostly followed suit. You have been flattered by invitations to the White House and pecked at by lesser partisans, yet you’ve maintained your critical distance in the patriotic spirit of post-ideological problem solving. All this influence and success, and somehow the country still sucks.
“Are we going to roll up our sleeves or limp on?” an exasperated Thomas L. Friedman asked the nation in a September 20 New York Times column. Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, influential Iraq war supporter, champion of “green jobs” industrial policy, and backer of President Barack Obama’s public education initiatives, is threatening to secede from a status quo he helped create.
“Given those stark choices,” he wrote, “one would hope that our politicians would rise to the challenge by putting forth fair and credible recovery proposals that match the scale of our debt problem and contain the three elements that any serious plan must have: spending cuts, increases in revenues and investments in the sources of our strength. But that, alas, is not what we’re getting, which is why there remains an opening for an independent Third Party candidate in the 2012 campaign.”
These are glum times not just for the 23 million working-age Americans without steady jobs but for hyper-employed commentators who have built comparative fortunes whispering into and occasionally bending the world’s most powerful ears. “I’m a sap,” a morose-sounding New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed the day before Friedman’s outburst. “I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.” But now that the president had unveiled a dead-on-arrival, soak-the-rich jobs package in a televised address designed more to please his progressive base than to actually solve problems, even David Brooks—who in March 2010 deemed Obama “the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington”—was forced to admit the unbearable: “This wasn’t a speech to get something done.” But noble dreams die hard. “I still believe,” Brooks insisted, “that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems.”
Do something. Is there a two-word phrase in politics more loaded with disguised ideological content? Embedded within is both an urgent call for powerful government action and an up-front declaration that the policy details don’t matter. The bigger the crisis, the more the urgency, the sparser the detail. On September 30, 2008, in a classic of the do-something genre, Brooks argued that the Troubled Asset Relief Program should be rammed through Congress over public objections because the federal government needed “to give people a sense that somebody was in charge, that something was going to be done.” Did that “something” involve buying up toxic assets? Introducing or relaxing certain banking regulations? Taking over or winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Not important. “What we need in this situation,” Brooks declared, “is authority.”
American discourse is saddled with a large and influential do-something school of political punditry, a cadre of pragmatists from Meet the Press to your local editorial board who are forever seeking to solve the country’s problems by transcending ideology, demanding collective citizen sacrifice, and—always—empowering authority. In their new book That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Friedman and Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum lament that people “in positions of authority everywhere have less influence than in the past,” due to a “corrosive cynicism” preventing “the collective action that is required.” America, David Brooks wrote in March 2010, “is suffering a devastating crisis of authority,” resulting in a “corrosive cynicism about public action.” The similarities are not accidental.
Brooks and Friedman may be the most prominent practitioners, but the do-something school is evident just about anywhere the political class is talking shop. Here is former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum at CNN.com on September 26, lamenting that the “old rules” of bipartisan cooperation “have broken down,” unlike those bygone days when “the imperatives of the Cold War inspired a spirit of deference to the president.” There is centrist Matt Miller at Washingtonpost.com the day before, writing an imaginary speech (a favored tactic of the do-something set) for an imaginary independent presidential candidate (ditto) who rejects “the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed” in favor of “a bold agenda equal to the scale of our challenges.” That agenda is virtually indistinguishable from the Brooks/Friedman playbook: higher energy taxes, more money for infrastructure and schools, and national service for the young, all while somehow cutting government spending over the long term.
There are some obvious rejoinders to this fictitious excrescence of the “radical center” (Friedman’s preferred term). As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out in response to Miller, “many of those calling for a third party are refusing to reckon with an inconvenient fact: One of the two parties already occupies the approximate ideological space that these commentators themselves are describing as the dream middle ground that allegedly can only be staked out by a third party. That party is known as the ‘Democratic Party.’ ” By dreaming up a third way to deliver ideas and rhetoric already associated with Barack Obama, the centrists are making the implicit admission that the president is ineffectual in the face of GOP intransigence.
But there is an even less charitable explanation. Because do-something punditry inevitably appeals to whoever holds power—what president doesn’t want to rise above partisanship to get things done, particularly if the solution amounts to a blank check to government?—pragmatic centrism has been implemented to a much greater extent than any of the “rigid” ideologies it abhors, whether they be trade unionism, social conservatism, or across-the-board libertarianism. Put another way, we live in a David Brooks/Thomas L. Friedman world, but now that the results have come in they are trying to wash their hands of the whole experiment.
The Limits of Simplicity
Simply making fun of Thomas L. Friedman’s writing style is not enough to expose the pervasive temptation of pragmatic punditry. But it is important. “The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer,” journalist Matt Taibbi wrote in a justly celebrated 2005 New York Press slam of Friedman’s bestseller The World Is Flat, “is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that’s guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.” In a Wall Street Journal review of That Used to Be Us, Andrew Ferguson describes “being pelted with clumps of words that Thomas L. Friedman, alone among native English speakers, could have devised.”
What do such clumps look like? Try to make sense of this paragraph from a December 2010 column: “More than ever, America today reminds me of a working couple where the husband has just lost his job, they have two kids in junior high school, a mortgage and they’re maxed out on their credit cards. On top of it all, they recently agreed to take in their troubled cousin, Kabul, who just can’t get his act together and keeps bouncing from relative to relative. Meanwhile, their Indian nanny, who traded room and board for baby-sitting, just got accepted to M.I.T. on a full scholarship and will be leaving them in a few months. What to do?” What indeed?
But Friedman didn’t earn his success by tapping into a mass market for mixed metaphors. Like David Brooks and the best from the do-something school, Friedman is an extremely gifted simplifier, boiling down complex phenomena into one-liners that you can’t quite get out of your head. Surely you’ve heard that “no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other,” a clever 1996 insight that isn’t exactly true but close enough for government work. Friedman’s 1989 book of Middle East reporting, From Beirut to Jerusalem, remains the classic text for making shorthand sense out of geopolitics’ most hopelessly complicated problem. When Andrew Ferguson writes that “Friedman can turn a phrase into cliché faster than any Madison Avenue jingle writer,” it’s not just an insult.