Thomas Friedman’s Third-Party Obsession

I like Tom Friedman.  I like reading him, which I make a point of doing quite often.  He’s a liberal, but he’s more of a center-left liberal than a far-left one.  He realizes the Republicans and Mitt Romney have nothing to offer the nation except the specter of a third George Bush term with a dash of Ronald Reagan romanticism sprinkled in for good measure.  And he isn’t shy about letting you know about it, either.

But, like a good bartender, he knows how to spread the graft around evenly.  As brutally honest as he’s been with the Republicans, he’s been equally open about his disappointment with Barack Obama.  In fact, he’s been a royal pain in the ass about it at times.  And while it’s hard for many of us on the Left to admit it, the painful truth is that for all the hoopla over his election in ’08, the President simply hasn’t delivered on his promise.  Sure he’s done a lot to help the country dig out of the worst financial nightmare since the 1930s, and Friedman, to his credit, has acknowledged that. 

When the economy was going over a cliff in early ’09 and the Republicans were ostensibly offering another dose of Hooverism as a tonic, Obama correctly rejected the offer.  We could argue whether the stimulus was, well, a stimulus, but it did manage to stave off a second Great Depression.  And, with Europe now spiraling toward what some fear is a meltdown thanks to its austerity fixation, America is one of the few countries whose economy is actually growing, albeit at a much slower pace than most would prefer.

The problem, as Friedman sees it, is not so much one of intent but of vision, or lack thereof.  In an op-ed piece in The New York Times “Wasting Warren Buffett,” he decries the lack of pushback and narrative building.

Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the G.O.P. has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it? My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading.

Obama is like that contractor who manages to fix the leaky roof in your kitchen without letting you know why he needs to do it.  Then along comes a competitor who tells you that the roof was fine to begin with and that the other guy just took your money without really doing all that much.  The political vacuum that has often, sadly, defined this Administration has been incredibly frustrating to watch for those of us who can count and who know a thing or two about history and economics.  In the real world – the world that votes but often doesn’t pay much attention – it’s almost as though Obama’s efforts amount to nothing, because at the end of the day his message, as well as whatever swagger he had during the ’08 campaign, got lost in the chaos of trying to prevent Armageddon.  It’s hard to prove things could’ve been worse; it’s even harder when you can’t explain why.

So, like most disgruntled centrists, Friedman’s thoughts have drifted to an all-too-familiar option that many of us on the Left have flirted with over the years: third-party candidates.  We’ve seen them come, we’ve seen them go.  The most famous of them – Ralph Nader – virtually sank Al Gore’s chances of becoming president in 2000.  For all the uproar over Bush v. Gore, the simple truth is that had Nader not been on the ballot in Florida, Gore wins the state and the election hands down.  Case closed.  Third-party candidates mean one thing and one thing only: defeat for the incumbent party.  Just ask Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush what they think of John Anderson and Ross Perot.

Still, even with the statistics right there in front of him, Friedman is defiant as ever.  One can certainly understand his disenchantment with the two-party system; in fact, given the current state of politics in this country, it’s laudable, maybe even enviable.  No one who has been paying careful attention over the last few decades could seriously believe that the nation’s political process is not seriously broken and corrupt.  It now ranks just above third-world status and, were it not so pitiful, it would be comical.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams must be rolling over in their graves.

The problem with Friedman’s “obsession” isn’t his zeal for a transfusion of fresh blood into a cancerous body politic, but rather the utter impracticality of such a transfusion.  For all the merits of a third-party candidacy, the simple, inescapable fact is that it will never work, not in the United States anyway.  Like it or not, for much of its history, the country has had a two-party system.  First it was the Federalists vs. the Democrats; then it was the Whigs vs. the Democrats; and, ever since Lincoln, it’s been the Republicans vs. the Democrats.  There’s something about those Dems, hey?

In Europe, where there are multiple parties vying for political power, what you have is ostensibly coalition governments where two, often conflicting, ideologies are constantly battling it out within the same government.  That’s because one party seldom gets more than 50% of the vote.  The winner usually only gets a simple majority; hence they are often forced to join ranks with the second- or third-place finisher.  The 2010 general elections in Britain underscore this point.  Because no party was able to secure the seats needed to effectively win and govern, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government.  How would you like to be a fly on the wall when David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit down to tea and crumpets?  Think that’s weird?  Look what happened in Greece recently – this from the country that invented philosophy.  The neo-Nazis and the socialists split the vote.  Go figure.  And you think we’re screwed?

The real target of Friedman’s contempt should be the quality of the parties vying for power in America, not the quantity.  Let’s for the moment assume that Friedman gets his wish and we have several, viable third-party options to “challenge” the supremacy of the decrepit Repulsivicans and Demograbs; let’s also assume that we could suspend that silly little rule that says a presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the general election – hey, it’s a fantasy, just go with it.  How does Thomas Friedman suggest these viable third parties compete with their bigger, better financed counterparts?  By using Monopoly money?  Maybe they could hold their first convention at Marvin Gardens.  If they win, they can have their precession on the Boardwalk and Park Place.

Of course I’m being a dick, but the point I’m trying to make is that if you don’t actually deal with the root cause of the rot that’s infected the American political system in the first place, then it just multiplies and spreads to everything else.  Like the Borg in Star Trek, it assimilates everything within its reach.  If Ralph Nader had actually become president, do you really think he wouldn’t have been corrupted by the same powers that made sure we got George Bush and Al Gore to choose from instead of John McCain and Bill Bradley in 2000?  And while we’re at it, those same powers have done a pretty good job on the current president haven’t they?

To paraphrase a well-known slogan, “It’s about the money stupid!”  Those who don’t have it often get screwed by those who do.  Ronald Reagan was famous for saying many things, most of which were irrelevant and insipid.  But there was one thing he said which bears repeating here.  “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

So my advice to Tom Friedman would be simple.  Give up your third-party dreams and focus your venom where it belongs: at the feet of those who have stolen our country and bought our elected officials.  When we solve this dilemma and end our long-standing national nightmare that jeopardizes our very Republic, we won’t need a third or fourth party; two will be quite sufficient thank you.



steve said…
One wonders if Obama loses will there be any soul-searching among the Dems, any impetus to reclaim their lost progressive mojo? Or is the system so drunk with cash that a real two party system is a pipedream (and basically all we'll ever have is a corporate-dominated one-party system with two brands, like catsup and ketchup)? If that is the case, a third party may be the only way to inject new life into American politics and avoid a massive checking-out by most of the electorate. Of course, with the current laws which shut out third parties, and the media's subservience to the status quo, how is that ever to happen? The more one looks at the corporate stranglehold on this country, the more one feels some violent shock or disaster may be the only way to break it. How tragic that our leaders have sold out their country for a mess of pottage. Never have so few, received so little for so much.
Anonymous said…
Friedman's obsession about the need for a viable third political party in the U.S. might be more credible if he hadn't once suggested that it be funded by hedge fund managers. In doing so, he exposed another of his all-too-familiar tropes; that the country would be better served it its leadership were placed into the hands of technocrats. But weren't these the same geniuses who bet the country's ranch on reckless securitization, only to hold their hands out for government bailouts when the roof collapsed?