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Are Liberal Citizens Better Citizens? Thomas Friedman and Good Governance

November 22, 2009

In a globalized world, two key factors — imagination and good governance — set prosperous nations apart from their rivals. That, at least, is what Thomas Friedman claims in his most recent column. The United States, Friedman writes, possesses the “open, free, no-limits, immigrant-friendly society” necessary for innovation to take place – a stark contrast to China, where political dissidents do jail time and Internet sites are censored. Yet the United States is quite obviously lacking in good governance. While our leaders may not agree on health care or financial regulation, few would deny that our health care system is broken or that capitalism has run amuck in recent years.

So what went wrong? In accounting for America’s bad governance, Friedman points to several culprits: the influence of money in politics, the gerrymandering of political districts, cable TV news, unending political campaigns, groupthink on the Internet, and multinational corporations. America is, in short, not polarized so much as Balkanized, and money increasingly decides which voices get heard.

Friedman’s diagnosis of the problem seems to me correct. I’m not sure, however, that the solution is as simple as he makes it. Friedman writes:

The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things.

Undoubtedly, we need better citizens. Yet, in order to have better citizens, we need better governance. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. The more corporate lobbyists influence public policy and the outcome of elections, the more citizens tend to withdraw from politics – which, in turn, makes the lobbying problem even worse. Similarly, if better governance dependence on a well-educated citizenry, it is essential that citizens have access to responsible media outlets. But a FoxNews or MSNBC is driven less by a desire to educate than by ratings, with the result that extreme — and often ill-informed — views are much better represented than subtle analysis. Citizens can’t insist that the media adhere to higher standards if they are not aware that higher standards exist in the first place. So instead, we devote our energies to debating whether the Tea Party protesters are racists (they aren’t) or health care reform will result in death-panels (it won’t).

The second half of Friedman’s solution is as troubling as the first. Friedman urges citizens to pressure political leaders to raise taxes in order to “do the hard things” – leaving no room for the possibility that “better” citizens might be something other than “liberal” citizens. Friedman begins with a populist sentiment (“we need more engaged citizens”) and transitions – unannounced — into the liberal sentiment (“we need to pass Obama’s agenda”). Either America needs health care reform, cap-and-trade, and financial regulation above all else or America needs more civic participation. The latter will not necessarily produce the former. (I wish it would.) In this respect, Friedman’s solution is a part of the problem, which is the assumption on the part of everybody that no reasonable person would disagree with me, and that the influence of money is pernicious only when it conflicts with my agenda.

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