Regular readers of the blog know that there is a small gallery of Washington pundits that I simply cannot abide; not because I disagree with their views, but because I despise the predictability of their positions, the ballast of their prose, and the intellectual laziness of their work.
Fareed Zakariais enormously important to an understanding of many things, because he provides a one-stop example of conventional thinking about them all. He is a barometer in a good suit, a creature of establishment consensus, an exemplary spokesman for the always-evolving middle. He was for the Iraq war when almost everybody was for it, criticized it when almost everybody criticized it, and now is an active member of the ubiquitous “declining American power” chorus. When Obama wanted to trust the Iranians, Zakaria agreed (“They May Not Want the Bomb,” was a story he did for Newsweek); and, when Obama learned different, Zakaria thought differently. There’s something suspicious about a thinker always so perfectly in tune with the moment.
Indeed. Fareed Zakaria is a man who writes Gallup polls in paragraph form. Nice to see the media take notice.
Regular readers know that Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman, and Joe Klein regularly jockey for the status of political pundit I most despise. Well, Dr. Krugman pulled into the lead with his stunning endorsement of “death panels” as the royal road to America’s fiscal health on yesterday’s edition of “This Week with Christiane Amanpour”:
When Klein isn’t busy singing in the Obama gospel choir (along with Jon Meacham, Ezra Klein, Eugene Robinson, and everyone else who thinks Obama is failing because Americans are too base to grasp his transcendence), he’s usually nursing exceptionally dumb ideas for political reform. You know, the type that would grind a sophomore political science seminar to a halt?
At the moment, Klein’s problem du jour is that the American system of government doesn’t work effectively — by which he means it doesn’t provide the outcomes he likes. What does Klein propose as a tonic? A system that blends the worst aspects of populism and progressivism and then marinates with a throwback to the ancient Greeks. Behold:
But what if there were a machine, a magical contraption that could take the process of making tough decisions in a democracy, shake it up, dramatize it and make it both credible and conclusive? As it happens, the ancient Athenians had one. It was called the kleroterion, and it worked something like a bingo-ball selector. Each citizen — free males only, of course — had an identity token; several hundred were picked randomly every day and delegated to make major decisions for the polis. But that couldn’t happen now, could it? Most of our decisions are too complicated and technical for mere civilians to make, aren’t they?
Well, with tough questions like that Klein certainly couldn’t have a response. Or could he???
Actually, the Chinese coastal district of Zeguo (pop. 120,000) has its very own kleroterion, which makes all its budget decisions. The technology has been updated: the kleroterion is a team led by Stanford professor James Fishkin. Each year, 175 people are scientifically selected to reflect the general population. They are polled once on the major decisions they’ll be facing. Then they are given a briefing on those issues, prepared by experts with conflicting views. Then they meet in small groups and come up with questions for the experts — issues they want further clarified. Then they meet together in plenary session to listen to the experts’ response and have a more general discussion. The process of small meetings and plenary is repeated once more. A final poll is taken, and the budget priorities of the assembly are made known and adopted by the local government. It takes three days to do this. The process has grown over five years, from a deliberation over public works (new sewage-treatment plants were favored over road-building) to the whole budget shebang. By most accounts it has succeeded brilliantly, even though the participants are not very sophisticated: 60% are farmers. The Chinese government is moving toward expanding it into other districts.
So, to review:
The U.S. should be taking lessons on democracy from the People’s Republic of China.
The system obviously works because the Chinese chose to expand sewage treatment over roads — in a country that just had an 11-day, 74-mile traffic jam.
All farmers are apparently idiots.
We ought to replicate the particulars of the Greek system that executed Socrates and routinely put losing military commanders to death.
The Federalist Papers’ explicit recognition of the supremacy of a republican form of government over a democracy was only meant to hold until things got really hard.
Joe Klein thinks the ideal form of organizing a free people is modeled off of a game of Bingo — which one imagines is perhaps how he got his column.
On most days, the New York Times’ opinion page is a gallery of liberal stereotypes. There’s Maureen Dowd, whose “liberating” neo-feminism somehow renders her as joyless as a puritan schoolmarm; Frank Rich, the kind of “tolerant” liberal whose Cliff’s Notes understanding of history leaves with him only three totalitarian regimes to compare Republicans to; and then there’s Thomas Friedman…
Friedman is inarguably the Times’ greatest success story. His books are consistent best-sellers and he’s a regular fixture on television and the lecture circuit. This mostly owes to the fact that Friedman substitutes enthusiasm for erudition. He’s an emotive presenter, but his ideas usually center around haute couture social engineering (his affection for “the green economy”) or aging conventional wisdom (how “The World is Flat” became a hit over a decade after globalization was a household concept is beyond me).
I introduce these criticisms as penance for what I’m about to say: Thomas Friedman has gotten something completely and commendably right.
In his new column, “Call White House, Ask for Barack” (a title that owes to a wonderfully direct James Baker quote featured in the piece), Friedman argues that it’s time to throw up our hands and leave the Israeli-Palestinian peace process behind … at least until an outside factor motivates the parties towards substantive work. It’s a rare tour de force and an enticing look into what a significant public intellectual Friedman could be if he spent less time on fashionable shibboleths. Among the best passages:
It is obvious that this Israeli government believes it can have peace with the Palestinians and keep the West Bank, this Palestinian Authority still can’t decide whether to reconcile with the Jewish state or criminalize it and this Hamas leadership would rather let Palestinians live forever in the hellish squalor that is Gaza than give up its crazy fantasy of an Islamic Republic in Palestine.
A rare — but decisive — win. Here’s hoping to more like this from Friedman.