Tom Friedman’s Sunday column is largely devoted to the idea of a third party rescuing America from the “stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.” In response the very reliably leftwing Steve Benen attacks Friedman’s work as “lazy”. In Benen’s view, Friedman effectively “endorse[s] the entirety of President Obama’s agenda,” but, instead of calling for “more and better” Democrats, turns to amorphous fantasy. “It just gets so tiresome when this crowd argues, for the umpteenth time, that a magical entity can emerge that will agree with Democrats but not really, establish a ‘consensus’ among people with sincere disagreements, and govern successfully without all the messiness that comes with a massive democratic system.”
What neither Benen nor Friedman considers is that there may be no answer to the problems they identify. In a passage that Benen quotes, Friedman walks right up to the edge of just such an impermissible thought – but turns around at the last moment:
Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.
Benen and Friedman refuse to confront the clear import of this observation: There is at least the distinct possibility that “pretty good” or more likely “suboptimal” may be all that we are going to get, and all that we can expect. Friedman indulges in familiar references to the fall of the Roman Empire, as simplistically summarized by 2oth Century historian Lewis Mumford, and is thus able to displace one trite notion with another, but the familiarity of the idea does not make it false: America’s period of world political and economic primacy, with all that accompanies it, may simply, inevitably, be passing.
If this proposition is correct, then the phenomenon ought to permeate every aspect of American life – including a political system whose dysfunctions will tend to exacerbate and be exacerbated by parallel cultural and economic dysfunctions. The party that best exploits this situation may prosper for a time, but will sooner or later become identified with its major elements, and in turn be associated, quite rightly if also unfairly, with fundamental threats to a vanishing “way of life.” It was the Republicans’ turn in ’07-’08. It’s been the Democrats’ turn since, and so Republicans can campaign under the slogan “restoring American greatness” – a phrase that is as empty as “hope and change,” and that becomes laughable when associated with certain rather less than “great” candidates and activists.
Yet, if conservatives are wrong about everything else, they may be right about this one underlying fact: A certain idea of American greatness may be slipping into the past. From that perspective, “steady incremental decline” may even begin to look like one of the better open paths. Unfortunately, that something is true does not necessarily imply that it is something to run on, or even much worth running on Sunday.