Great piece by Matt Welch on Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, & co.
Do something. Is there a two-word phrase in politics more loaded with disguised ideological content? Embedded within is both an urgent call for powerful government action and an up-front declaration that the policy details don’t matter. The bigger the crisis, the more the urgency, the sparser the detail. On September 30, 2008, in a classic of the do-something genre, Brooks argued that the Troubled Asset Relief Program should be rammed through Congress over public objections because the federal government needed “to give people a sense that somebody was in charge, that something was going to be done.” Did that “something” involve buying up toxic assets? Introducing or relaxing certain banking regulations? Taking over or winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Not important. “What we need in this situation,” Brooks declared, “is authority.”
American discourse is saddled with a large and influential do-something school of political punditry, a cadre of pragmatists from Meet the Press to your local editorial board who are forever seeking to solve the country’s problems by transcending ideology, demanding collective citizen sacrifice, and—always—empowering authority. In their new book That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Friedman and Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum lament that people “in positions of authority everywhere have less influence than in the past,” due to a “corrosive cynicism” preventing “the collective action that is required.” America, David Brooks wrote in March 2010, “is suffering a devastating crisis of authority,” resulting in a “corrosive cynicism about public action.” The similarities are not accidental.
Brooks and Friedman may be the most prominent practitioners, but the do-something school is evident just about anywhere the political class is talking shop. Here is former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum at CNN.com on September 26, lamenting that the “old rules” of bipartisan cooperation “have broken down,” unlike those bygone days when “the imperatives of the Cold War inspired a spirit of deference to the president.” There is centrist Matt Miller at Washingtonpost.com the day before, writing an imaginary speech (a favored tactic of the do-something set) for an imaginary independent presidential candidate (ditto) who rejects “the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed” in favor of “a bold agenda equal to the scale of our challenges.”
As Welch has pointed out in this piece and elsewhere, when politicians do take the advice of the “do something” crowd, and that advice results in spectacular failure, . . . they blame the libertarians.
Personally, I get a kick out of how editorial page editors at places like the NY Times and Washington Post fill out their columnist positions. The elite op-ed pages are just brimming with ideological diversity, from big government conservatives like Brooks, Bill Kristol, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat, to big government moderates like Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and Matt Miller, all the way to big government liberals like E.J. Dionne, Paul Krugman, and Nicholas Kristof.
I mean, that pretty much covers all the possible opinions, right?