The Simpletons

David Brooks, Thomas L. Friedman, and the banal authoritarianism of do-something punditry


That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, Current Affairs, 380 pages, $28

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.

Simplicity is great for depicting basic problems. That Used To Be Us, one of a spate of America-in-decline tomes to come out in 2011, correctly identifies many of the country's most glaring ills: the lousy economy, runaway deficits, widespread political irresponsibility, gratuitous regulatory burdens, a labyrinthine immigration system, grossly underfunded retirement and medical promises, a public education system treading water, and so on. Matt Miller's imaginary presidential candidate is right to point out that "neither of our two major parties has a strategy for solving our biggest problems," especially the baby boomer entitlement time bomb. David Brooks' pop sociology is especially effective at breaking down complex political trends into binary choices. 

But clarity going down is not the same as coherence getting back up. Many intractable problems get that way because they're hard to solve, because there are powerful interests with a vested stake against reform, or because the policies in question are cemented in place by the perennial political impulse to do something. That Used To Be Us starts off with a contrast between a gleaming new convention center in Tianjin, China, that was built in 32 weeks and a lousy D.C. Metro subway stop in Bethesda, Maryland, where "the two short escalators had been under repair for nearly six months." Modern China—which has taken the role that Japan played for American declinists two decades ago—is all about bullet trains; modern America is all about potholes. That may sound like an invitation to critique transit spending efficacy and public-sector work rules in the United States, but it's not; the authors insist that the difference in results is chiefly a question of will.

"The American political and economic systems, when functioning properly, can harness the nation's talents and energy to meet the challenges the country faces," Friedman and Mandelbaum write. But "America's future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things. It also has to be a function of our will actually to do those things again.…What the country needs most is collective action on a large scale."

We never do hear precisely how it was that the annual expenditure for D.C.'s infrastructure—let alone the nation's—proved insufficient for meeting demand or preventing disrepair. In fact, we don't hear anything about that annual expenditure at all. Nor do we hear much about how President Obama has already been throwing scores of billions of dollars at infrastructure, particularly of the transportation variety, since his inauguration. Instead of anything approaching specifics, Friedman and Mandelbaum simply declare that "to assure the nation's economic future we will have to spend, more, not less, on some things: certainly infrastructure and research and development, and probably education as well." Probably!

When details don't matter, it's easy to be dazzled by the politicians you're trying to influence. Friedman and Brooks always have a nice word to say about the school-reform cred of both Education Secretary Arne Duncan (liberally quoted throughout That Used To Be Us) and his boss when it comes to making those tough post-ideological choices to improve our schools. "Obama has taken on a Democratic constituency, the teachers' unions, with a courage not seen since George W. Bush took on the anti-immigration forces in his own party," Brooks wrote in March 2010. "In a remarkable speech on March 1, he went straight at the guardians of the status quo by calling for the removal of failing teachers in failing schools." 

It's always nice when presidents give good speeches, which may be one reason why the do-something school is always volunteering to write them. But at the time Brooks was publishing those words the president already had a relevant track record of governance, one that included dumping an unprecedented $100 billion into the education status quo via the stimulus package alone, thus ensuring the exact opposite of the line Brooks swallowed: keeping failed teachers in failing schools. Obama had signed into law the euthanasia of Washington, D.C.'s school voucher program, violating a centrist-pleasing campaign pledge to make decisions based on science (the science in this case showed that the program was working). The president's ballyhooed Race to the Top initiative, which incentivizes states to embrace charter schools and more closely link teacher evaluation to student performance, amounted to less than 5 percent of the education stimulus money.

Education is the most important of the "five pillars of prosperity" that constitute what Friedman and Mandelbaum call "the American formula" (which in turn is beset with "four major challenges," which stem from failing to ask "the two questions that are crucial for determining public policy," which doubtlessly trigger arbitrary number sets of their own). Education is the reason they most frequently cite for the recent economic growth of China, Singapore, and South Korea, which would certainly be news to the high school dropouts powering the entrepreneurial revolution in places like Wenzhou (See "China's Black Market City," page 24). Why, education is so important that the co-authors volunteered to write an imaginary letter from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama saying: "Today…more than ever before, our national security depends on the quality of our education system. That is why I don't want to be secretary of state, Mr. President. Instead, I want to be at the heart of national security policy. I want to be secretary of education."

With all that emphasis on education, particularly from two authors who made their careers talking about foreign policy (Mandelbaum is a Johns Hopkins University Sovietologist), you'd think there'd be some concrete, hardheaded proposals for overhauling a K–12 education system in which real spending per pupil has increased threefold in four decades. Instead, we get do something. "We do not know the exact mix of policies that is needed for 'more' education, a subject on which there are many views," they write. "We leave to the education experts the definition of what is sufficient in all these areas to produce more education for all. We do, though, think we know what is necessary to produce what the country needs. We believe that six things are necessary.…" Thereafter tumbles a list that includes such content-free gems as "students who come to school prepared to learn, not to text."

From Banality to Authoritarianism

Do-something punditry means almost never considering the possible benefits of getting the government out of the way of a given issue, since that would be "ideological" and require walking away from the world's largest problem-solving tool. Pragmatism also means never having to say you're sorry about the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation, the capture by industrialists of the regulators who were supposed to constrain them, or even the basic failure of government action to produce the promised results. By the time such flaws make front-page news, there is always a new crisis requiring urgent intervention. And if all else fails, you can blame it on the competence of the government that followed your advice.

Pragmatic problem solvers (including the vast majority of the nation's newspaper editorial boards) were foursquare behind the invasion of Iraq. And if detail-free simplicity is inadequate to the current task of economic recovery, it was downright frightening in the service of banging the drums for a major war. 

Friedman was among the most influential "liberal hawks" who gave non-Republican respectability to the idea that toppling Saddam Hussein was crucial to defeat Islamic terrorism in the wake of 9/11. On what would become a notorious Charlie Rose Show appearance in May 2003, he argued for the use of deadly force as a demonstration project to Islamists everywhere: "What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think…we care about our open society?…Well, Suck. On. This.' That, Charlie, was what this war was all about."

This kind of playground chest thumping was par for the course. David Frum, lately seen putting his shoulder on the wheel of a third-way political organization called No Labels, was at the time the war began attempting to purge the last intervention skeptics from the Republican Party. "They began by hating the neoconservatives," Frum wrote in a National Review cover story titled "Unpatriotic Conservatives" in April 2003. "They came to hate their party and the president. They have finished by hating their country. War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen —and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them."

David Brooks at the time was withering in his contempt for those who lacked his interventionist conviction, writing in The Weekly Standard in March 2003 that "any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion—that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed—but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis. But those who actually have to lead and protect, and actually have to build one step on another, have to bring some questions to a close."

In 2011 such do-something authoritarianism reappears in the national conversation whenever the subject moves to China. Friedman, for example, has expressed preference for China's political system over America's for years now. "There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today," he wrote in September 2009. "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.…Our one-party democracy is worse. The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing."

This was no one-off. On Meet the Press in May 2010, moments after complaining how the Internet can enable "a digital lynch mob" of people who disagree with you, Friedman fantasized about playing dictator: "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." That Used To Be Us, perhaps due to Mandelbaum's more sober presence, takes pains to insist that "our problem is not China, and our solution is not China," but the book's very title comes from (fittingly enough) a Barack Obama quote fretting about China's superior rail systems and supercomputers.

Not only does China offer a tempting (if illusory) vision of enlightened scientists routing around that messy democracy stuff; it also provides what Al Qaeda can no longer quite muster: a palpably dangerous competitor with which to scare complacent Americans into collective action. That's not an exaggeration. "When the West won the Cold War, America lost the rival that had kept us sharp, outwardly focused, and serious about nation-building at home," Friedman and Mandelbaum lament. "As the Cold War ended," David Frum writes at CNN.com, "the party struggle intensified." No wonder Matt Miller's imaginary presidential candidate is on the case: "We can no longer allow China's brazen currency manipulation—nor its routine theft of American intellectual property—to tilt the playing field unfairly against American jobs."

Although younger than the authors under discussion, I am old enough to remember domestic politics during the Cold War, and I'm here to tell you that there was no political consensus. Americans were deeply, bitterly divided, particularly over how and even whether to prosecute the Cold War. Richard Nixon was made vice president due to his Cold War hawkery; John F. Kennedy then tried to out–Cold War him in 1960. There were hugely divisive and deadly wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War affected nearly every presidential election from 1952 to 1988. Nostalgia for pre-1989 political comity is nostalgia for a country that never existed. And we saw under George W. Bush the many pitfalls of whipping up political consensus by demonizing a common enemy. 

Perhaps strangest of all, Barack Obama is already on board this particular anti-China bandwagon and has been since long before taking the oath of office. He has even taken to using Friedman's signature (and characteristically incoherent) line of "nation-building at home" in his stump speeches, although it did take Friedman 35 references across 15 columns to persuade White House speechwriters. What does a guy have to do to win the affection of pundits whose advice he has taken?

My Way, or the Third Way

This fall Thomas L. Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum, and Matt Miller were all talking about Teddy Roosevelt's third-party "Bull Moose" run for president in 1912. (In fact, they were all paraphrasing the same Richard Hofstadter quote about how the role of third parties is to sting like a bee, then die.) This must have sounded like old hat to David Brooks, who during the 2000 presidential primary season was holding up T.R. and his relentless, independent-minded government activism as the model for John McCain (a suggestion that McCain, one of the most prominent do-something politicians in America, readily embraced). After losing to the more "humble" George W. Bush, Brooks and McCain were both licking their wounds in 2001, openly pondering Bull Moose–style defections from the GOP, when the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, giving America an urgent new task.

Five months later in The Weekly Standard, Brooks envisioned a "huge opportunity" to "create a governing Republican majority" under Bush, echoing "precisely the aggressive foreign policy and patriotic national service themes that John McCain struck in the 2000 primary season," including "rogue-state rollback," "nation-building," and "a summons to national service." President Bush, Brooks gushed, had finally "broken the libertarian grip on the GOP." On the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention, Brooks performed an end-zone dance celebrating "the death of small-government conservatism," arguing that Republicans now "must embrace" a Teddy Roosevelt–style "progressive conservatism" if they want "to become the majority party for the next few decades." With two major Brooks-supported wars under its belt, along with a new prescription drug benefit, an important new federal education initiative, and an overall increase in government spending of more than 60 percent, you'd think that the co-author of "National Greatness Conservatism" would have expressed satisfaction with his handiwork.

Think again. "There are two major parties on the ballot," Brooks wrote in August 2006, "but there are three major parties in America. There is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the McCain-Lieberman Party." Like Friedman's "radical centrists," Frum's "No Labels" movement, Miller's presidential independent, and other 2011 works of political fiction, Brooks' McCain-Lieberman Party advocated both raising taxes and cutting benefits, maintaining America's energetic foreign policy leadership in the world (especially in the Middle East), "invest[ing] in human capital so people can compete," and above all returning to a kind of political "civility" and seriousness worthy of a great country. It's the dream that will not die. 

 "Write it down: Americans Elect," Friedman enthused in July, talking about another premature third-party movement. "What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out." 

Back in reality, the only plausible independent presidential scenario in the 2012 race looks roughly like this: The Republicans nominate someone their own base distrusts and dislikes (call him "Mitt Romney"). The Tea Party and grassroots right grumbles about not having a choice. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) finishes a respectable third or even second place during the primary season, but along the way the GOP establishment trashes him and the sprawling, independent-bent political movement that has sprung up around him. Having no re-election to run for anymore, Paul decides to go rogue and run as an independent.

If the establishment centrists were at all serious about third party or independent runs, they would greet such a development with enthusiasm. But Paul is an ideologue, you see. He wants to apply his rigid libertarian philosophy to significantly scale back the federal government, instead of using flexible post-ideological pragmatism to give government more power. 

On September 26, David Brooks pinned the blame for what he is now calling America's "Lost Decade" on "the ideologues who dominate the political conversation" in the United States. "Orthodoxies," he warned in his column, "take a constricted, mechanistic view of the situation. If we're stuck with these two mentalities, we will be forever presented with proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand." 

Fortunately for Brooks—and unfortunately for us—there is a distinct third way. Though vague on details, it involves increased taxes (especially on energy), short-term spending boosts, long-term entitlement cuts, and roughly the same foreign policy commitments as today. It calls for renewed citizen engagement, a return to political civility, and a rejection of coarse cynicism. Better teachers, trained workers, and cleaner air. Although advocated by pundits from all over the traditional political spectrum, the program is remarkably uniform when it comes to giving the government more power. Just don't call it ideological.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author (along with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (Public Affairs).