10/03/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2013

Land O' Goshen! Now The Government Shutdown Is Causing Thomas Friedman To Write Half-Decent Columns!


What is happening? A day after the government shutdown forced the scales to fall from the eyes of the editors of the Washington Post, Thomas Friedman -- the Dean Of The Blame Both Sides crowd -- has written a column that's actually somewhat clear-eyed about what's going on, and -- perhaps more remarkably -- structurally sound, in terms of writing. Check out this opening paragraph:

This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.

What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point — creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government.

Look at that. He gets right to the point with this. Points off for that Gladwellism, obviously, but you'll notice that there's no dude with pink hair selling nectarines in some far-flung locale, no taxicab wisdom, no hotel concierge standing in as the vox populi speaking only for the benefit of Friedman's deadlines. It's as if he took someone's very good advice.

What's more is that this passes the Fallows Test -- there's no mucking about with the notion that there is Congressional gridlock or "two sides failing to come together." It's a clear-stated account of the situation: There's one political party, struggling to resolve an internecine war between a faction that prefers to operate in the vicinity of traditional norms of governing, and a faction that wants to take those norms and subject them to total impeachment:

And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules — namely majority rule and the fact that if you don’t like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head — then our democracy is imperiled.

Friedman goes to specifically cite a number of conditions that are causing all of this mess, one being the success the GOP has had in redrawing the district maps (gerrymandering, if you're nasty!) to their favor. As Friedman notes, this has resulted in a very limited "risk of political punishment for the Tea Party members now holding the country hostage."

There is something to this. Last night's "Daily Show" featured Jon Stewart and John Oliver going on a really funny riff on this:

But Friedman should be a bit careful here. It's very possible to overstate the significance of redistricting. John Sides and Eric McGhee have analysed this in depth, and their basic conclusion is that "redistricting doesn't guarantee results":

Consider how quickly the reality in Florida has shifted. In 2001, Republicans in Florida drew districts that reflected the state’s anti-Democratic geographic bias, but by 2008 (the year of the updated C&R numbers) this bias had disappeared and in 2011 Republicans were shoring up an eroding position. Could their efforts hold back the tide for the next 10 years? Maybe. But based the last 10, I wouldn’t be terribly confident.

And in another long riff on the same theme, Sides and McGhee specifically cite a very underappreciated electoral factor: "Democratic votes are increasingly concentrated in urban areas where they are more likely to waste votes with large majorities."

And it doesn't end there. Back in August, Jonathan Chait sized up the possibilities that the business lobby -- which dislikes Obamacare but is terrified of government shutdowns and debt ceiling breaches -- might be able to use its influence to tame the House GOP's wildebeests. Chait noted that this hopeful notion just stumbles headlong into a wall of reality:

The business lobby’s frustration is directed at the most obstreperous of the House Republicans. But those Republicans are also the most invulnerable to outside pressure — they come from solidly partisan Republican districts and have no chance of defeat. As long as the House is run by Republicans, the House leadership will rely on those Republicans.

The only way to get them out of the way is to change the party that controls the House. But that would require business lobbyists to turn against the most vulnerable Republicans, who also happen to be the Republicans most willing to go along with their agenda. And there is simply zero prospect that the business lobby will commit to defeating the Republicans who are friendliest to their goals and flipping control of the House back to Nancy Pelosi.

In terms of the current internal GOP battle over what to do about the government shutdown, the same dread logic applies. From the Democratic Party's perspective, you'd really prefer to knock out the most vulnerable Republicans, and regain the upper hand in the House. But in this case, the Venn Diagram between "vulnerable House Republicans" and "House Republicans that want to end the nonsense right now with a clean continuing resolution" has a lot of overlap. And in the current environment, any Democrat who wants to mount a campaign for the seats of vulnerable Republicans might get beat to the punch by a well-funded GOP primary opponent. In other words, there are good odds that any attempt to fight the extremity will just end up compounding it.

So there are layers to all of this, factors that reinforce other factors -- and I've not even mentioned the simple fact that Democrats seem to really struggle to get their voters turned out for a midterm election. (The vaunted campaign infrastructure that got President Barack Obama elected twice wasn't really deployed in 2010, and I wouldn't expect it to show up in 2014 either. It seems to exist solely for the purpose of electing Obama.) Nevertheless, it's nice to see Friedman wading out into the waters of political science for a change. I'd encourage him to swim a few laps, if only because he'll discover a world that's way more intelligent and profound than the world in which one emotionally rhapsodizes on the interconnected nature of political reality and Kevin Costner movies.

One final thing I should point out here. Friedman writes:

Finally, the rise of a separate G.O.P. (and a liberal) media universe — from talk-radio hosts, to Web sites to Fox News — has created another gravity-free zone, where there is no punishment for extreme behavior, but there’s 1,000 lashes on Twitter if you deviate from the hard-line and great coverage to those who are most extreme. When politicians only operate inside these bubbles, they lose the habit of persuasion and opt only for coercion. After all, they must be right. Rush Limbaugh told them so.

Say what you want about the limitations of partisan media, but if you really want to place some square blame on the failure to hold "extreme behavior" accountable, you should direct this at those within the legacy media's commentariat-gang of self-styled, lawful-neutral David Broders-in-waiting. Those are the folks who wrote column after column in which they clearly staked out a non-extreme position, then neatly defanged their own stance by constantly punishing "both sides" for perceived infractions. These pundits saw themselves as professionally obligated to never simply call out Rush Limbaugh, as Friedman does here, without also providing someone on the left to make everything all nice and equivalent.

And those actions are precisely what created this consequence-free space for extremism to flower and flourish. But I guess if Friedman threw darts in that direction, they'd land awfully close to home.

Our Democracy Is at Stake [The New York Times]

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