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Monday, November 17, 2008

Thomas Friedman: "Finshing Our Work" (5 Nov 2008), New Yorker profile

I'm still going through the piles of newspaper that have accumulated on our dining table over the past 10 days.  Just today I finally got to Thomas Friedman's morning-after column:

The title, "Finishing Our Work", refers to the American Civil War.  The opening two paragraphs:

And so it came to pass that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States.

A civil war that, in many ways, began at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, ended 147 years later via a ballot box in the very same state. For nothing more symbolically illustrated the final chapter of America's Civil War than the fact that the Commonwealth of Virginia — the state that once exalted slavery and whose secession from the Union in 1861 gave the Confederacy both strategic weight and its commanding general — voted Democratic, thus assuring that Barack Obama would become the 44th president of the United States.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the column does not expand on this theme, since I am interested in reading/thinking more about it.  Instead, Friedman offers some ideas on how Obama won the election, and quotes at length a Harvard political philosopher, Michael Sandel.  Some excerpts I found interesting:

There may have been something of a "Buffett effect" that countered the supposed "Bradley effect" — white voters telling pollsters they'd vote for Obama but then voting for the white guy. The Buffett effect was just the opposite. It was white conservatives telling the guys in the men's grill at the country club that they were voting for John McCain, but then quietly going into the booth and voting for Obama, even though they knew it would mean higher taxes.


Why? Some did it because they sensed how inspired and hopeful their kids were about an Obama presidency, and they not only didn't want to dash those hopes, they secretly wanted to share them. Others intuitively embraced Warren Buffett's view that if you are rich and successful today, it is first and foremost because you were lucky enough to be born in America at this time — and never forget that. So, we need to get back to fixing our country — we need a president who can unify us for nation-building at home.

And somewhere they also knew that after the abysmal performance of the Bush team, there had to be consequences for the Republican Party. Electing McCain now would have, in some way, meant rewarding incompetence. It would have made a mockery of accountability in government and unleashed a wave of cynicism in America that would have been deeply corrosive.

And later, towards the end of the column:

Bush & Co. did not believe that government could be an instrument of the common good. They neutered their cabinet secretaries and appointed hacks to big jobs. For them, pursuit of the common good was all about pursuit of individual self-interest. Voters rebelled against that. But there was also a rebellion against a traditional Democratic version of the common good — that it is simply the sum of all interest groups clamoring for their share.

"In this election, the American public rejected these narrow notions of the common good," argued Sandel. "Most people now accept that unfettered markets don't serve the public good. Markets generate abundance, but they can also breed excessive insecurity and risk. Even before the financial meltdown, we've seen a massive shift of risk from corporations to the individual. Obama will have to reinvent government as an instrument of the common good — to regulate markets, to protect citizens against the risks of unemployment and ill health, to invest in energy independence."

This does seem to be Obama's mandate--a post-partisan, post-ideological reconception & reinvention of government as an instrument of common good.  Perhaps the central problem that the Republican party has is that, over the past couple decades, it abandoned the idea that government has any capacity to contribute to the common good, as Friedman describes.  

On the other hand, it will be a challenge for Barack to say no to the traditional Democratic agenda; case in point, the first issue and political battle that's come to the fore in the two weeks since his election--a potential bailout of the Detroit auto companies, which congressional Democrats and, of course, the big labor unions, are pushing for strongly.  It's worth noting that the labor unions helped elect Barack--but also worth noting that they were up in arms when Barack named Jason Furman his main economic policy guy (see this news article from June: ; and also

(A couple links on Michael Sandel, the prof who's quoted by Friedman: 

It's not clear to me if Friedman's quotes are from an interview or some recent writing.)

Finally, here is a length profile of Thomas Friedman that ran in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago, and also Friedman's own website:


Matteo said...

Hi Suman, there is an interesting video with a debate between Richard Lyons and Andrew Rose on Thomas Friedman's "The world is flat".
It's available on the Berkeley\Haas web site video room:

Suman said...

Ciao Matteo! Belated thanks for the comment..and also happy new year to you.

I still haven't watched the video of Prof Lyons, but I do plan to. Actually, soon after reading the profile of Friedman in the New Yorker, I was at the public library (in your neighborhood!), and I picked up a copy of "From Beirut to Jerusalem"--his first book, about his experiences as a reporter in those places, in the late '70s and early '80s.

I've been reading it intermittently--I'm only about half way thru--but I'm glad I picked it up, as it's become so timely, now that Israel is trying to go after Hamas in Gaza.

I just finished the section where Friedman describes Israel's '82 invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of Basir Gemayel by the Syrians, and the ensuing massacres at Sabra and Shatila:

powerful stuff...