The New Romans

Thomas Friedman has an editorial in today’s New York Times about the decline of the two-party system and the possible rise of a new third party in the next round of presidential elections. A third party that would say

“These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”

This refers back to a passage he quotes from Lewis Mumford:

“Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”

 There are a number of big problems with Friedman’s analysis of our situation. For one thing it comes from Thomas Friedman who is perhaps second only to Bill Kristol in being consistently wrong about things (think Enron & Global Crossing, web stocks, the Iraq War . . .).

Second, this analysis comes out of more time spent by Friedman hanging out in Silicon Valley. One fundamental mistake Friedman makes is consistently misreading the nation’s problems with Washington as being the same as those of Silicon Valley executives. Actually, the two sets of problems are quite different. Whatever they might say, the business people just want government to work: they want it to keep the people quiescent, to see to the education of kids and the protection of property rights, and to keep the business environment relatively stable.

They don’t want anything revolutionary or anything that will open the doors to sweeping changes. What business wants is a return to the bipartisan consensus building that we’ve been running on for more than 60 years.

Now, IF a third party were to emerge out of the entrepreneurial/ established high-tech business interests that have been picking up Friedman’s bar tab lately, they would only accuse the two established parties of lying as part of an elaborate sham to establish a new party that would then proceed to go straight back to business as usual.

Trouble is, that’s precisely what Obama tried to do: sell himself as a change agent and then just run things more or less as they’ve always been run. What went wrong? Well, the economy, stupid, for one thing. People are discontent and scared and looking for reasons why. Another is the brinkmanship the Republican party has now embraced–the willingness–eagerness–to make the entire country fail if that failure is blamed on the other side. A third is the now far more active fecklessness and stupidity of the American electorate–who elect a man on a platform of change, quail at any large changes that might be proposed and then blame that man for not effecting change. This is a pathological and deeply irresponsible electorate. The ungovernable-ness that grips California–the inability to support either stasis or change, let alone negotiate a dilemma–now grips the country as a whole.

We ARE the new Romans, only we  aren’t the Romans of AD 200 or so,  losing our “inner go” to fend off those barbarians and keep rolling back the frontier. We are more like the Romans of a few hundred years earlier who lost their their “inner go” to make tough decisions for themselves, or even to put on the semblance of doing so. We are the Romans on the road to civil war.

This is not a problem that will be solved by a presidential candidate from a new party. The crisis we averted a year or so ago was, indeed, caused by an elite of reckless high-stakes gamblers. But in the end, that elite showed they could pull their fat from the fire in the last instance. This sort of problem might perhaps be better addressed by a new party.

But our crisis now is different. Our problem is that the populace has gotten extremely comfortable with a life of economic and political parasitism and they really have no comprehension whatsoever of the system they’ve been living off of. They only comprehend that they always want to collect winnings at the tables, to enjoy an always growing economy and to celebrate military victories won by someone else’s children . . . and they want to feel morally righteous doing so.

This is not a crisis that calls for truth, this is a crisis that calls for better lies. And I don’t think Thomas Friedman or Silicon Valley has got them.