Last year I took aim at Thomas Friedman's op-ed "Generation Q" suggesting all this crazy social-media stuff was breeding apathy in our youngsters and they'd never get off their butts and vote. (They did, in record numbers, thanks in no small part to social media.)
This time it's David Brooks, lamenting the demise of a permanent ruling class in Washington in a piece he called "Missing Dean Acheson." Among the more outlandish passages:
He then goes on to imply this new affliction - where citizens of the world for the first time have a chance to substantively rebuff the decisions of Brooks' beloved governing elites - is responsible for the downfall of the Doha round of trade talks, as well as our inability to stop genocide in Darfur, impose sanctions on Zimbabwe, and prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.
This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem...Moreover, in a multipolar world, there is no way to referee disagreements among competing factions. In a democratic nation, the majority rules and members of the minority understand that they must accede to the wishes of those who win elections.
First, do we really have to re-hash the mind-numbingly long list of colonialist and non-democratic injustices, committed in all areas of the globe, that were either ignored, condoned or even caused by this "permanent bipartisan governing class" in Washington from the 40's to the 80's?
Second, the laundry list of global failures Brooks cites exists precisely BECAUSE a small group of people who think they know what's best for everyone else tries to assert its will on a majority. There's no better example of this than the World Trade Organization. Like it or not, the WTO has earned a reputation as one of the most insulated and least transparent multinational organizations ever created. The agreements negotiated there (by unelected bureaucrats, no less) rarely have the majority support of the people they are intended to serve.
If David Brooks expects Indian farmers (or American steelworkers or anyone else) to simply let themselves go bankrupt in the face of overwhelming, subsidized competition, then he's missing one of the most basic rules of capitalism - the system works best when people act in their own interest. In a few decades perhaps free trade will even out economic conditions and improve everyone's lot in life - I certainly hope so. But when the best answer you have for people who will certainly lose their livelihoods is "we'll have to get back to you," you can't expect those farmers to tell their starving kids that David Brooks says it's all for the best.
Brooks' rhetoric about democracy and trade also raises an eyebrow. In the United States, once a major trade agreement is finalized, the President invariably asks the Congress to give him "fast-track" authority - i.e., cede Congress' right to amend legislation and agree to an up-or-down vote by a date certain. Fast Track has been called a lot of things, good and bad - but as a former legislative assistant to a Senator for trade issues, I've never heard it called "more democratic."
Brooks isn't about to change his world view but could learn about how the world works in 2008 by participating in a few global online discussions. The days of a permanent governing class with one-way decision-making are coming to an end - just as the days of an elite beltway pundit corps with one-way communication have already ended. The days of trade deals negotiated behind closed doors are coming to an end, just as the days of non-transparent online communication have already ended.
Interestingly enough, the people Tom Friedman was completely wrong about - young people who use social media aggressively and participate in the political process - will finalize the downfall of the permanent governing class David Brooks laments.