Friedman Eschews Centrism, Embraces Partisanship

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

Every now and then, something seemingly impossible happens: A Tunisian street vendor’s public suicide sparks a wave of revolutions against neocolonial autocracy, or a nation driven out of its collective mind by anything to do with race elects an African-American president, or the San Francisco Giants win a World Series. But to followers of the American political discourse, such cases might as well be the sun rising in the east compared to what happened on Sunday — for on that day, pathologically centrist New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman beat his case of both-sides-do-it-itis long enough to write a column decrying the particular insanity of the modern Republican Party.

Given his history of calling for a centrist third party to rise up and slay the two-headed Democratic-Republican monster, an earlier Friedman likely would have derided the Feb. 12 column “We Need a Second Party” as excessively and dangerously partisan. Nonetheless, he writes a litany of truths that most politically engaged Obies hold to be self-evident: The GOP has “cut itself off from reality,” presenting an “incoherent mix of hardened positions” wrapped in “a cartoon version of Ronald Reagan,” and “maybe the best thing would be for it to get crushed in this election and forced into a fundamental rethink.” Republicans have even been “captured by the coal and oil lobbies”? Someone get this radical hippie a bongo drum!

Friedman is right to think that the GOP is heading for a major realignment, but this has less to do with untenable levels of craziness than simple demographic math. Ever since the late 1960s, Republican electoral fortunes have hinged on the “southern strategy” first devised by the cutthroats of the Richard Nixon administration, channeling the implicit racism of white voters into a broader opposition to the agenda of social justice. But with minority voters making up an ever-greater portion of the electorate, the master plan that has guided right-wing messaging from Nixon’s “law and order” to Reagan’s “welfare queens” to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton commercial to Newt Gingrich’s recent “food stamp president” will have to be discarded and a new political coalition built on its ashes.

Still, even with diversity and multiculturalism dragging this ugly era of political rhetoric to a close, there is no reason to believe a saner Republican Party will fix the problems that people like Friedman have with the two-party system. In keeping with a political science principle called Duverger’s Law, the incentives toward polarization and strict ideological discipline will be as strong as ever, progress will depend as much as ever on the good faith of party insiders and the centrist third-party Messiah of Friedman’s dreams will be as unable to gain lasting traction as any independent presidential candidate from Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 to Ralph Nader in 2000.

What reforms could make a difference in enabling plausible alternatives to the two-party duopoly? Maurice Duverger himself would advocate amending the Constitution to incorporate proportional representation, a system designed to ensure that a party receiving X percent of the votes will receive roughly X percent of the seats in Congress. Such systems are used in many European representative democracies, and while they have their downsides (such as the emergence of neo-fascist parties in several European legislatures), they are undeniably more open and democratic than leaving multidimensional ideological disputes to be resolved through major-party backroom dealings and Congressional committee assignments.

But like many Americans, Friedman focuses on the presidency, and proportional representation can’t apply in elections for only one open seat. A sensible reform he has advocated in the past is ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of choosing just one. There are a number of procedures for counting ranked-choice ballots, but all of them negate the spoiler problem facing independent candidates, in which a Ralph Nader draws votes away from an Al Gore and enables the election of a George W. Bush. (For those on the right, replace Nader, Gore and Bush with the various Republican presidential contenders and Mitt Romney.)

While it’s heartening that Friedman has thrown his establishment-approved weight behind game-changing ideas like ranked-choice voting, his vision of the free and open political landscape that electoral reform would enable is still confined by the stale two-party boundaries such reforms would destroy. Instead of a natural split between Tea Party economic conservatives and Christian Coalition social conservatives, or progressive Democrats and Blue Dog corporate sellouts, or any of the other complex ideological divisions currently masked by the two-party system, Friedman’s ideal third party is what he calls “a Tea Party of the radical center,” whose ideological planks consist of resistance to the ideological planks of the now-irrelevant Democrats and Republicans.

This is why it’s so exciting that Friedman has now come out and said what has seemed obvious to many of us for years: The inmates of the Republican Party have taken over the asylum. With any luck, this will force him to admit that the diverse array of American political disagreement is far too multi-faceted to be captured on a simplistic spectrum from liberal Democrats to moderate centrists to conservative Republicans, and that planting one’s self directly between the two major parties doesn’t constitute a coherent political ideology. But considering his history of intellectual laziness, don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: Friedman is entirely back to normal in his Feb. 19 column, “A Third Voice for 2012,” promoting the candidacy of former Comptroller General and moderate centrist David Walker. According to Friedman, among Walker’s virtues is his willingness to support a compromise deficit reduction plan containing $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in new taxes, a ratio that has been matched and even exceeded in plans proposed by President Obama and rejected by Congressional Republicans.