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What's wrong with US

The future of America

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That Used To Be US By Thomas L Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum Little, Brown 380 pages, Rs 599

What is wrong with America? Plenty, as we all know. But if you believe Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Thomas Friedman and foreign policy guru Michael Mandelbaum four main challenges stare in the face: adapting to globalisation, keeping up with the information technology revolution, coping with outsize budget deficits and managing growing energy consumption and climate change threats. The American political system, the authors write, has failed to meet these challenges because it has become paralysed by partisanship and lack of imagination.

What this means in real terms is that productivity is plunging, budget deficits are soaring, dependence on imported oil is rising, students are scoring lower on international achievements tests than their peers in other countries, infrastructure is decaying and jobs are continuing to slip out to low-cost countries. There is a gnawing fear that America is slipping and the future will not improve on the past - a grim harbinger of the end of the fabled American Dream. A declining America, the authors insist, will be bad for business and bad for the world.

So what does America need to do to come out of this mess? In this well-argued and thought-provoking tract, the authors believe that its politics deserves a "shock therapy" to reboot and revitalise the nation. The two major parties have become dangerously inflexible and intransigent. The Democrats believe steadfastly in big government. The Republicans insist that the government is the culprit and a minimal state is the way forward. "Neither approach. " say the authors, "will give the country the policies it needs to succeed in the decades to come. "

More worrisome, they write, is the way the two parties have hardened their positions over the years, leading to an unprecedented polarisation of politics. Democrats who stood for progressive change are the new conservatives - or the reactionary liberals, as some say - who stubbornly defend every federal programme. The Republicans, who used to be the original conservatives and believed in fiscal prudence, now back cutting taxes without reducing spending and drive US deeper into debt. The polarisation has led to a near-complete collapse of bipartisanship and the ability of the political system to work out painful compromises. "Business as usual in American politics, " write the authors, "is a recipe for national decline. "

So the authors propose a notso-novel prescription of a third way, a "hybrid politics" that would seek to creatively synthesise the prevailing two hostile ideologies. Others call it the politics of "radical centre". What it essentially means is that America direly needs a dose of centrist politics : a "third way" candidate who would embrace a radical centrist position. So what about a third party or independent presidential candidacy to shake things up?

This is easier said than done. A third party candidate has never been elected president in the US. Even getting on the ballot is an uphill task for such a candidate. Elections are hugely expensive - Ross Perot, the independent candidate during the 1992 elections, put in $75 million of his own money. Most voters believe that the two-party system is inviolable.

But the authors think this is still the best idea to repair America. They say a third party succeeds not by winning elections but by affecting the agenda of the winning party. Historian Richard Hofstadter has compared third parties to bees - after they sting, they die. So the authors would like see the emergence of a "very big bee that can sting both parties in a way they can neither ignore nor shrug off". As example, they point to Perot, who won 18. 9 per cent of the ballot, campaigning against the federal budget deficit. After Bill Clinton won, he reduced deficits and ended up presenting America with the first budget surplus in decades. The authors' belief in a third party candidate who pushes the big two parties and withers away appears to be touchingly na�ve. No politician is altruistic, happy to spend millions of dollars on a campaign, emerge with a bang, goad the main parties into action and fade away.

So the last big duopoly in America - as the authors describe the stranglehold of the Democrats and Republicans - is more difficult to break than the authors believe. One the reasons the political system is stuck is because, as the writers admit, "the sway of powerful special interest groups that work for policies that are at best irrelevant to and at worst counter-productive for the urgent present and future needs of the United States. ". Perhaps America needs to look into the sustainability of the model of pell-mell western capitalism. Since Americans are some of the world's biggest consumers, they need to decide whether extraordinary economic expansion at the expense of the world's finite resources and ecology is sustainable.

These questions have to be answered by the American people and the two parties they have developed strong allegiances with. The 'third-way' solution sounds more like management quick-fix. America has to relook at its engagement with capitalism to fix itself.

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