Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden views an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Aug. 18, 2011Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

The American Elite Declares Its Independence From America

A decade-old Tom Friedman column serves as a Rosetta stone for the elite embrace of China; with comment from Tom Friedman

Lee Smith
January 05, 2021
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden views an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Aug. 18, 2011Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Why is America’s political, corporate, and cultural establishment so eager to mimic and embrace China, a country that our outgoing intelligence chiefs identify as a daunting threat to American interests? Consider the response to the coronavirus. It was Beijing that pioneered the lockdown measures being implemented by mayors and governors like California’s Gavin Newsom and New York’s Andrew Cuomo. The fact that lockdowns were never before part of the American public health playbook and are being widely applied in ways that have been rejected by the Supreme Court seems to have only cemented their appeal to those who look to China as a model.

With the unemployment rate at 6.7%, and the largest economy in world history in ruins, what could America’s ruling class possibly have in store for us next after it has used the lockdowns to facilitate the largest transfer of wealth in human history. After all, it is not the coronavirus, which has a 99.7% survival rate, that has plunged nearly 8 million Americans into poverty over the last nine months while destroying 40% or more of local stores and restaurants even in wealthy states like New Jersey. Those numbers are the result of an offensive waged by the American political and corporate elite that aims to legitimize the destruction of private wealth in the name of public health.

Where did all the money go? Ask the owner of Washington, D.C.’s hometown paper, Jeff Bezos, who as the founder of Amazon has added $80 billion to his personal account by supplying citizens confined to their homes by unconstitutional edicts that have shuttered local businesses and keep children from going to school while also sucking up the CIA’s data into Amazon’s proprietary cloud services. Facebook, Twitter, and Google did their part by blocking negative stories about the Biden family’s lucrative involvement with China from reaching the public before the election—earning seats for their executives on the Biden transition team. All in all, it seems fair to say that the top-down merger of corporate monopoly and party interests that is taking place in Washington looks a lot more like China than it does like America.

The enthusiasm with which large portions of the American corporate and political elite have apparently embraced the Chinese one-party model—complete with an ever-growing appetite for state control of information and warrantless surveillance—against the messiness of life in a democratic republic under the rule of law was prefigured in an article written by New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman more than a decade ago. In a Sept. 9, 2009, column, “Our One-Party Democracy,” he expressed dissatisfaction with Republican obstructionism. “There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy,” wrote Friedman, “and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.”

He continued: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

Why the urgency for America to be more like China, way back in 2009? Because, according to Friedman, “one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

Friedman wasn’t flattering dictators. At the time he wrote his column, Americans had yet to understand that the high-end Chinese-made goods they consumed—Apple computers, Nike sneakers, etc.—were often manufactured in slave labor camps. The horror of harvesting organs from political prisoners was not yet fully known. Instead, the American political and corporate establishment saw China’s massive workforce and growing consumer market as the linchpin of the new economic order—globalism, the flat, borderless world that the New York Times columnist and others had written about with great optimism. What they imagined was a China that wanted to be more like America—and an America that could stand to learn a thing or two from its eager junior partner.

I spoke with Friedman recently about the article and related matters. “If you look at my books and writings since I left the Middle East, a lot of my focus has been on how America realizes its full potential in the 21st century,” he told me. “I am not interested in China. I am interested in America. I think China has the worst political system in the world. I think America has the best political system in the world. But I think that China today is getting 80% out of its bad system and America is getting 20% out of its good system. And that worries me a lot.”

‘New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman, 2016
‘New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman, 2016Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press

Yet while Friedman wasn’t advocating China’s autocracy as a model, others saw it as such. Congressional Republicans were refusing to sign on to two of Obama’s key domestic issues, universal health care and “clean tech”—two seemingly pragmatic, future-oriented proposals that only hidebound ideologues could oppose. Friedman’s column was a response to the apparent failure of the system to deliver common sense reform.

However, the abject failure of Obama’s environmental initiatives illustrates the considerable drawbacks of Friedman’s commonsense statist model in practice. Most famously, Obama’s Department of Energy awarded Solyndra, a California solar panel manufacturer, loan guarantees worth more than half a billion dollars only to see its investment go up in smoke when the price of a key ingredient used by Solyndra’s competitors dropped dramatically. At the same time, fracking ushered in the age of cheap natural gas, turning the United States into a net energy exporter and creating jobs for millions of Americans. It wasn’t bitter Republican fossils who thwarted Obama’s forward-looking green initiatives; it was reality.

Friedman told me that he wants America to stay on top. “Because I am worried that America is not realizing its full potential to lead and innovate, I am not above—shamelessly—using China to scare people into action. To that end, I often use China as today’s ‘Sputnik,’” he said, referring to the Soviet space program that inspired, and frightened, a generation of Americans to reach for the stars. “I will do whatever it takes to get Americans to understand that we can’t just be dumb as we want to be forever and remain the world’s biggest economy and strongest superpower.”

But it’s not clear to most Americans why it matters that, as Friedman wrote in 2009, “China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” Americans tend to distrust the wisdom of government bureaucrats who believe they can decide which technologies are likely to succeed better than markets can. Maybe bureaucrats in countries like China or Germany are good at this kind of thing; American bureaucrats have been historically bad at it for at least the past half-century. If America could once afford vast, failed attempts at social engineering like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, we can’t now.

Californians have seen what the vision of central planning American-style looks like in practice—rolling electricity shortages, brownouts, even blackouts, in the country’s richest and most populous state. China, meanwhile, operating within a set of more pragmatic constraints, seems to have understood the limits of clean tech, which is why it ramped up coal production last year—equal to the European Union’s total capacity—while cutting its investments in renewable energy. So much for China’s fleet of driverless solar-powered electric cars.

Friedman may be interested in innovative policies that inspire Americans to dream and build and lead, but that’s not what galvanizes the political, corporate, and cultural elites who quote him. For them, the goal isn’t to compete with China but to reshape America. So what exactly is their vision of the future? One-hundred percent clean and renewable energy—with half the country living below the poverty line? World peace—with Western powers implementing lockdowns pioneered by communist party apparatchiks?

None of that makes any practical sense, but the architecture of their utopias is irrelevant, so long as those drawing the plans have the power to reward their friends and to punish anyone they identify as an enemy.

Compared to the American elite, China’s one-party autocrats are at least clear about their aims: They want to destroy us, not their own people. So it’s not China that our establishment is actually modeling itself after. This is what democracies look like when the elites grow too powerful and turn against the people they believe themselves to rule by right.

Beijing didn’t force Washington to sign a climate agreement that demanded more of American consumers and industry than it did of China. That was Barack Obama’s decision. He chose to do it for the same reason that the Biden administration plans to reenter the Paris Climate Accord and has prioritized returning to Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. The American political establishment uses international agreements to force the people they govern to do things against their will. Americans opposed the Iran deal by a 2 to 1 margin, so did their representatives in the House and Senate. In reimposing sanctions on Iran, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign showed that Americans were right and Obama was wrong—terror states are less threatening to America and its allies when they have less money to spend on terror and on building nuclear weapons. But real-world results don’t deter Joe Biden and his aides from promising to reenter the Iran deal at the first opportunity; the point is to shove the deal down everyone’s throats—Americans, Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, the 80% of Iranians who hate their own theocratic government—to show who really has the power.

Similarly, even though Obama was plainly wrong on clean tech, Biden’s term begins with promises that his Green New Deal will somehow create millions of new jobs. Yet it is certain that if he and Kamala Harris make good on their vows to end fracking, they will eliminate millions of real, existing jobs in the middle of a bad economy. “Environmental justice,” as the Biden team calls it, means laying waste to a vital economic sector in order to remake America—as what? As a place where people who say words like “Green New Deal” call the shots, and other people lose their jobs for being on the wrong side of history.

Friedman’s 2009 article is important today because it marks the historical moment early in Obama’s first term when a segment of the country’s establishment defected en masse from the Republican to the Democratic Party—thus unifying the American elite under a single political banner, and enabling them to wage war on the rest of the country. Friedman’s piece ends with a quote from a “global trade consultant,” who explains: “Globalization has neutered the Republican Party, leaving it to represent not the have-nots of the recession but the have-nots of globalized America, the people who have been left behind either in reality or in their fears. The need to compete in a globalized world has forced the meritocracy, the multinational corporate manager, the Eastern financier and the technology entrepreneur to reconsider what the Republican Party has to offer. In principle, they have left the party.” And indeed, that’s exactly what happened.

Democracy has always had its discontents, even before Plato. Ours is often indeed a chaotic mess. What has protected our fragile experiment in living together all these years, despite no shortage of unscrupulous political and business leaders in both political parties, is not the two-party system nor the series of checks and balances written into the constitution. Rather, what has kept the peace, when there has been peace, is a set of unspoken agreements that manifested themselves in national symbols, heroic stories, and sentimental myths. And that’s why these were targeted in a campaign of desecration sanctioned by the establishment that began even before The New York Times’ 1619 project, the COVID lockdowns, and the George Floyd riots.

America isn’t a beacon of freedom, however flawed and thus sometimes dimly flickering—rather, its history from George Washington to Donald Trump is nothing but a chronicle of systemic racism. So what if local shops, family-owned restaurants, and small farms were ruined by Amazon’s monopolistic practices under cover of COVID regulations? Americans deserve what they are getting—and Jeff Bezos’ warehouses are always hiring. Aren’t Google, Twitter, and Facebook using their government-protected monopolies to censor speech? Yes, and you should thank them for their service in protecting you from Russian disinformation.

And in return for abolishing large sections of the economy along with large chunks of the U.S. Constitution, what vital matters of state and society has this establishment addressed, and what great innovations has it inspired? Whose poverty has it alleviated by waging war on Americans, by shipping their jobs overseas and sending their children off to die and kill in pointless military engagements, and by throwing open the country’s borders to immigrants, whether legal or illegal, to take the remaining jobs, at a time of radical social and economic dislocation? Whose interests does a new wave of immigration serve? The answer isn’t American workers or families. It’s large corporations who want skilled and unskilled labor on the cheap.

According to Joe Biden, our political and corporate leadership is not even capable of protecting Americans from a respiratory disease with a 99.7% survival rate even with two vaccines in distribution. And yet the darkest days of the pandemic, says the president-elect, are ahead of us. He can’t be talking about the coronavirus—as cases increase, the survival rate is rising. No, what will make the coming days worse is even more draconian responses, further intended to impoverish and terrify Americans.

It’s easier to control people when they’re scared and poor. If the goal is social transformation, which is the term that Biden and Harris use, then it stands to reason that the poorer and more desperate people there are, the better. How about a $600 check from the government in return for us taking away your business and your right to work with no legislative or judicial authority? And no more questions about why hundreds of elderly COVID patients were shoved back into nursing homes by order of New York’s Emmy-winning Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Being treated like an animal by dictatorial autocrats and bureaucrats with no reasonable recourse is a normal condition of life in most of the world. Just not in America. Not until the political, corporate, cultural and academic elite of the richest and most powerful country on Earth decided they weren’t rich and powerful enough and broke their unwritten compact with the rest of society in the hopes of getting richer and more powerful.

China isn’t the the problem. It’s us.