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Dept. of Piling On (Tom Friedman and Democracy Edition)

Yeah, I agree with Steve Benen. And Dave Weigel. And Brendan Nyhan. And Steve Kornacki. And especially with Jamelle Bouie, who writes that Tom Friedman “is clearly uncomfortable living in the world as it is, where voters matter, interests are heard, and political disagreement is important. Friedman’s ideas are True, and if voters would just step aside, he and his could fix the country without having to persuade anyone."

Putting aside the particulars of the Party of Friedman (and as Benen points out, the agenda that Friedman thinks requires a whole new party sounds suspiciously like 99% of the Barack Obama agenda, making Friedman’s column even more of a mess), I want to just underline what Bouie said. Truly accepting democracy involves accepting difference. That might be difference in opinion -- some people, even given the exact same set of facts, may reach different conclusions about public policy. Indeed, people might disagree on the facts, and that’s democracy, too, no matter how frustrating it seems. That’s one. Second, it might be difference in interests, which means that believing in democracy means believing that unions and old people and even Wall Street rich folks have a legitimate right to work for things that benefit themselves, and to see the world as it looks from where they sit. From the point of view of democracy, there are no “special” interests (although of course from the point of view of any particular political actor, there’s nothing wrong with opposing those interests which conflict with one’s own interests). And in a democracy, we want politicians to “worry” (to use Friedman’s word) about the interests of their constituencies. So that’s two. And then there’s a third, overlapping type of difference to accept in a democracy: the differences involved in who individuals and groups are, the differences that words such as “diversity” try to get at. If you’re going to try to have a nation of over 300 millions built on more or less open immigration and freedom of thought, worship, and the rest of it, you’re going to have astonishing differences between people, and if you want that nation to be a democracy, you’re going to have to accept that the way that all the differences, and even the way those people think, is not going to be the same. Not just interests or opinions, but values, priorities, cultural reference points. The whole shebang. 

From Madison and Federalist 10 on, the United States has always been a gamble that democracy from difference can be an enormous strength, despite the evident and frequently frightening dangers involved. And there have always been those who don’t get that, and think there’s an obvious consensus that would be reached if only politics or partisanship or nefarious special interests didn’t get in the way. What they -- what Friedman and those like him -- miss is that in a real-world democracy, consensus is both an impossible and a foolish goal. True democracy involves plenty of conflict, difficulty, pain, and frustration, although it also promises the exhilaration ofpublic happiness. If you don’t like what’s happening in a democracy, the solution is to persuade others to adopt your ideas, or mobilize people who already share your ideas, or form a coalition with others whose ideas or interests you can live with...but not, never, to assume that your ideas are the obvious and only correct ones that everyone would adopt if only...whatever.