That Used to Be Us:

How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back

Thomas Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum

400 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.

America faces a torrent of crises in education, governance, climate change, infrastructure, and labor, to just name a few. In these dark times, one would readily welcome a book by a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and a respected political scientist that incisively diagnoses these problems and offers an ameliorative policy prescription. That Used to Be Us, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, is no such book. The main substance of the authors’ work is a mostly vapid account of contemporary national issues. Their proposed solution to make American political institutions responsive to these predicaments—running a third party presidential candidate to rejuvenate policy making—is a remote and, in their account, incoherent possibility.

Resting on our Laurels

Following U.S. victory in the Cold War, Friedman and Mandelbaum narrate, America as a whole rested on its laurels. “We are going to do a terrible thing to you,” they quote the words of Georgi Arbatov, a Soviet expert on the United States, at the end of the Cold War. “We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Absent some existential threat or “Sputnik moment,” the authors believe that “we as a country have failed to address some of our biggest problems” in a host of areas, including education and immigration reform, green technology, and climate change. Revolutions in I.T., coupled with globalization, have put countless domestic jobs in the double vise of outsourcing and automation. The national debt and budget deficits keep mounting under a paralyzed and polarized government. In short, “America today is not healthy – economically or politically.” And such quandaries, Friedman and Mandelbaum write, “have worsened to a point where they cannot be ignored but they also cannot be effectively addressed without collective action and collective sacrifice.” Not only are America’s Post-Cold War ailments severe, then, they have advanced well beyond a simple cure.

Yet despite the evident decline looming before us, even as China ascends on our heels, Friedman and Mandelbaum remain “frustrated optimists.” Yes, the aforementioned policy problems fester. But if we return to what the authors dub the “uniquely American formula for prosperity”—reinvesting in the ever-sturdy “five pillars” of public education, infrastructure, immigration, research and development, and prudent economic regulations—a bright, reinvigorated future awaits the country.

Making a Kitschy Case

Whatever allure this pragmatic program holds, however, is quickly lost in the authors’ shoddy presentation and shallow argumentation. Friedman and Mandelbaum reiterate the above points ad nauseum over the book’s course, under kitschy headings like “The Terrible Twos” and “Homework x 2 = The American Dream.” There is “The War on Math (and the Future)” and “The War on Physics and Other Good Things.” Sometimes the authors even break out in song to make their point, as they do lamenting our broken political system with “Fallin’ & Flyin’” from the film Crazy Heart. It goes on for a whole page. Maybe they can’t help it.

Moreover, Friedman and Mandelbaum marshal the overwhelming majority of their evidence from distinguished but ultimately unenlightening testimonials: CEOs, venture capitalists, top-tier college presidents, leading economists, and wonky politicians, all of whom give their two cents about America’s problems. It is a veritable army of what political theorist Samuel P. Huntington called the “Davos Men.” Their names in the index read like the guest list to the World Economic Forum, or perhaps the Bilderberg Group. Yet even these luminaries fall back on the same platitudes, filling block quote after block quote with their mantra of “more R&D, more education, better infrastructure.” If we are truly resting on our laurels in the wake of a Cold War triumph, as the authors argue, then this monotonous account assures we will continue snoozing.

Syndicated Chatter

In some ways, the authors and their authorities simply state the obvious—or worse, the bromidic. Most of Friedman and Mandelbaum’s readership will gain little out of this book besides a chance to nod their heads in vigorous assent with the authors’ points. Everyone’s already on the same page—literally and politically. Terms like “education” and “infrastructure” riddle every chapter of That Used to Be Us, and for good reason; they are little more than neo-liberal tropes, signaling initiatives that any upper-middle class, well-educated, urban individual who still subscribes to the Sunday New York Times (in print) can really get behind, without even putting down today’s paper or their soy latte. Such broadly agreeable ideals are the bread-and-butter of inoffensive editorializing, peppering the vast ideological spectrum spanning from Freidman’s epic “World is Flat” saga to the all-too-frequent columns of the milquetoast master David Brooks. Merely syndicating this routine is getting America nowhere.

To be sure, the authors’ are all worthy policy goals. But the chattering of the columnist class will not achieve any of them. In fact, it is fair to say there have never been more good ideas out there to improve America. The ever-growing blogosphere, for example, incubates novel thinking from the sundry likes of tenured academics to freelancers. But these bright approaches to the country’s problems simply never come to fruition. And that is because, as Friedman and Mandelbaum rightly address at the book’s finale, “our political system has become paralyzed.”

Third Party Fallacies

If a reader can get past the authors’ fictionalized account of Alexis de Tocqueville as the 21st century international consultant presenting a PowerPoint on the decay of American political institutions (seriously), he or she will find a bleakly accurate picture of contemporary politics. Friedman and Mandelbaum recount “the perverse political incentives” of lobbying and demagogic reelection, as well as regulatory capture that stifle positive ideas and the candidates who support them. This is a far cry from the constructive political environments under the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower that the book cites as models of effective governance.

Unfortunately, without seriously considering avenues like lobbying or campaign finance reform (they only mention Citizens United once), That Used to Be Us settles on an “independent presidential candidate” as America’s political savior. Never mind that it has been empirically shown time and again that multiparty systems like that of continental Europe only arise from proportional representative voting schemes, as opposed to America’s single-member district design, or that the two entrenched (i.e. moneyed) major parties have made it extremely tortuous to get on the ballot at all. Friedman and Mandelbaum dismiss all of this: “A third party succeeds not by winning elections but by affecting the agenda of that party that does win.” Fair enough.

The authors’ next proposition, however, scuttles the whole third party enterprise. The agenda of fixing America’s decrepit infrastructure, revamping education, pursuing cleaner energy, and the like emanates from what Friedman and Mandelbaum call “the radical center.” Citing a Pew poll taken in October of 2010, the authors note that 37 percent of voters identify as independents, more than either Republicans (29 percent) or Democrats (31 percent). “In this sense,” they write, “the United States already has a three-party system, but the third party—the radical center—has no formal platform or political leaders representing it.”

This assertion is fallacious. If the authors bothered to look beneath the surface of this superficially convenient poll, they would find that independents are in fact quite polarized. It is true, as a separate Pew poll conducted from February to April earlier this year asserts, “that a growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse.” Yet these independents do not espouse the centrist, pragmatic agenda of Friedman and Mandelbaum. “Rather than being moderate,” the more recent survey notes, “many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.” What we have is not a burgeoning, moderate monolith, but an increasingly polarized and incongruous electorate, one that a middle-of-the-road candidate will fail to consolidate.

From here, Friedman and Mandelbaum promptly descend into incoherence. Tracing American political history from the Bull Moose Party to the present day, the authors excitedly assert, “[the] electoral success of the Tea Party movement in 2010 also suggests that the moment for another influential independent presidential candidacy may have arrived.” “Many of those who counted themselves members of or sympathizers with the movement,” they continue, “called themselves political independents.” This is certainly not the “radical center” on which Friedman and Mandelbaum are banking America’s future; their dream third partier promotes “raising more revenue through increasing taxes, including energy taxes” and “investing more money in education, infrastructure, and research and development” (albeit alongside streamlining the country’s social safety net). I fail to see quite how the authors expect to square the steel circle of Rand Paul’s minarchism or Michelle Bachmann’s tax-phobia with the book’s prudent policies. If this is the sizable “center” about which Friedman and Mandelbaum wax optimistic, it is “radical” indeed.

That Used to Be Us, then, provides a half-baked solution to its rather hollow gloss of America’s decay. One can only hope the timing could be worse.

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