Thou Shalt Not Destroy the Center

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

November 11, 2005

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. For instance, Shanghai's deputy mayor told me that as his city became more polluted, the government simply moved thousands of small manufacturers out of Shanghai to clean up the air.

Forgive me, Heavenly Father, because I know that China's political system is hardly ideal - not even close - and is not one that I would ever want to emulate in my own country. But at this time, when democracies, like India and America, seem incapable of making hard decisions, 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.

Well, you get the point. At a time when we are busy lecturing others about the need to adopt democratic systems, ours and many others seem to be hopelessly gridlocked - with neither the left nor the right able to generate a mandate to tackle hard problems. And it is the yawning gap between the huge problems our country faces today - Social Security reform, health care, education, climate change, energy - and the tiny, fragile mandates that our democracy seems able to generate to address these problems that is really worrying.

Why is this happening? Clearly, the way voting districts have been gerrymandered in America, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and Tom DeLay-like political manipulations, is a big part of the problem. As a result of this gerrymandering, only a small fraction of the seats in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures are really contested anymore. Therefore, few candidates have to build cross-party coalitions around the middle.

Most seats are now reserved for one party or the other. And when that happens, it means that in each of these districts the real election is the primary, where Democrats run against Democrats and Republicans against Republicans. And when that happens, it produces candidates who appeal only to their party's base - so we end up with a Congress paralyzed between the far left and far right.

Add to this the fragmentation of the media, with the rising power of bloggers and podcasters, and the decline in authority of traditional centrist institutions - including this newspaper - and you have what the Foreign Policy magazine editor Moisés Naím rightly calls "the age of diffusion."

"Show me a democratically elected government today anywhere in the world with a popular mandate rooted in a landslide victory - there aren't many," said Mr. Naím, whose smart new book, "Illicit," is an absolute must-read about how small illicit players, using the tools of globalization, are now able to act very big on the world stage, weakening nations and the power of executives across the globe. "Everywhere you look in this age of diffusion, you see these veto centers emerging, which can derail, contain or stop any initiative. That is why so few governments today are able to generate a strong unifying mandate."

This is a real dilemma because a vast majority of Americans are just center-left or center-right. Many surely feel disenfranchised by today's far-left, far-right Congress. Moreover, the solutions to our biggest problems - especially Social Security and health care - can be found only in compromises between the center-left and center-right. This is doubly true today, when the real solutions require Washington to take stuff away from people, not give them more.

But our politics no longer rewards good behavior. Ronald Reagan, the most overrated president in U.S. history, lowered taxes and raised government spending, triggering a huge spike in the deficit. But because he did it with a sunny smile and it happened to coincide with the decline of the Soviet Union, he is remembered as a Great Man. The senior George Bush raised taxes and helped pave the way for the prosperity of the 1990's. He also managed the actual collapse of the Soviet Union without a shot being fired, using unsmiling but deft diplomacy. Yet the elder Bush is somehow remembered - including, it seems, by his own son - as a failed president.

Add it all up and you can see that we have put ourselves in a position where only a total blow-out crisis in our system will generate enough authority for a democratic government to do the right things.

Let us pray.