Let’s momentarily leave aside the question of whether voter fraud is a problem that justifies voter ID laws. (Anyone interested in the issue should consult the studies produced by my CRC colleagues, most recently here, and the new book by John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky.)
Instead, let’s note that proponents of voter ID laws – mostly conservatives – justify the measures as safeguards to voting. Opponents on the Left may not believe that claim, but at least voter ID supporters explicitly argue that democratic voting procedures are sacrosanct, deserving respect and protection.
Meanwhile, there are Americans who are ambivalent, to say the least, about democratic voting rights, but they’re not on the conservative side. To find them, you need only look to the New York Times’ op-ed pages, where columnist Thomas Friedman sighs with longing at the “great advantages” enjoyed by China’s “one-party autocracy” over our “one-party democracy,” because that Communist nation “is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people.” Or stroll over to the Huffington Post, where professor Daniel A. Bell hymns “the success of meritocracy in China,” as opposed to “Western-style democracies,” where “less talent goes to the bureaucracy.”
And don’t forget Andy Stern, a paragon of the Left and “community organizing,” who long served as head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and now serves as Labor Leader in Residence at Cornell. He wrote a famous piece on China’s “superior model,” which mocked our inferior system and leaders in both our major parties (namely, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and President Obama). Our democratic policy debates are insignificant to Stern, compared to his thrills at “reading the emerging outline of China's 12th five-year plan.”
Why do the nonprofit world’s defenders of “advocacy” never raise a fuss over the likes of Friedman, Bell, and Stern? Why isn’t the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy furious? Where are the denunciations from Democracy Now! and Demos? The SEIU, by the way, did issue a statement of outrage when a Pennsylvania judge (a Democrat appointee) recently upheld the state’s voter ID law, but the union has been silent on its former leader’s views.
Professor Bell isn’t well known, but Friedman has been beating this drum for years. My friend Jonah Goldberg has made a cottage industry out of poking fun at Friedman’s China envy (my favorite examples of Jonah’s scoffing are here and here). And no wonder Jonah can’t resist, when you consider a few of Friedman’s greatest hits in this vein, such as telling “Meet the Press” that “I have fantasized – don’t get me wrong – but that what if we could just be China for a day?” Then there’s his prayer in the New York Times:
Dear God in Heaven: Forgive me my sins, for I have been to China and I have had bad thoughts. Forgive me, Heavenly Father, for I have cast an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved.... I cannot help but feel a tinge of jealousy at China’s ability to be serious about its problems and actually do things that are tough and require taking things away from people. Dear Lord, please accept my expression of remorse for harboring such feelings. Amen.
meritocracy is incompatible with multi-party competition at the top and one-person one vote for the selection of top decision makers. Hence, the task in China is to improve meritocracy and learn from parts of democracy, but not from what many democrats today would consider to be its core element.
That “core element,” just to be clear, is the right to vote for your rulers. Similarly, in the column where Friedman prayed for forgiveness because he casts an “envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system,” he then derides Americans’ “lecturing others about the need to adopt democratic systems” because our own “gridlocked” system is well-nigh worthless.
Friedman wrote those words in 2005. In the following year’s election, our gridlocked democracy put Friedman’s preferred party in charge of both houses of Congress, and the next election cycle swept his preferred party into thoroughly un-gridlocked control of both political branches, where it held the Presidency, a 79-seat majority in the House, and a filibuster-proof Senate.
I recognize that Friedman, Bell, and Stern hem and haw to various degrees about the downsides of China’s glorious system. They’re not the same kind of animal as, say, President Obama’s mentor Frank Marshall Davis, who actually joined the Communist Party and thought GM, but not Stalin, was erecting an “Iron Curtain.” But how can that excuse their weak attachment to Americans’ voting rights, which stems from their anger at Americans’ failure to elect leaders who are sufficiently left-wing and pro-environmentalist to please them?
By the way, lest you imagine these wisemen are really the meritocratic geniuses that they imagine themselves to be, I’m happy to disabuse you. Friedman, for example, once rhapsodized over China’s “moon shots”: “I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments” such as “a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities.” That nonsense was exploded in the Washington Post by the non-conservative pundit Charles Lane, who observed that one of those great Chinese Communist meritocrats, Liu Zhijun, after eight years as minister of railways in charge of China’s $300 billion high-speed rail project, is now
ruined, and his high-speed rail project is in trouble. On Feb. 25 , he was fired for “severe violations of discipline” – code for embezzling millions of dollars. Seems his ministry has run up $271 billion in debt…. But ticket sales can’t cover debt service … [and] safety concerns also are cropping up…. Liu’s legacy … could drain China’s economic resources for years. So much for the grand project that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times likened to a “moon shot” and that President Obama held up as a model for the United States.
Even more amusing, Andrew Stern praised the “aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai,” ruler of 32 million people in the city of Chongqing. “While we [i.e., our democratically elected officials] debate,” Stern sniffed,
Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China's people-oriented development in Chongqing…. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.
Just months after Stern gushed over Bo Xilai, that hero of public housing was dismissed as head of Chongqing’s Communist Party thanks to a massive corruption scandal that has led, among other things, to his wife’s prison sentence for murder. As a New York Times reporter explained, “friends and critics alike say” that Stern’s poster child possessed
insatiable ambition and studied indifference to the wrecked lives that littered his path to power…. [T]hose who study the topic say that Mr. Bo’s ruthlessness stood out, even in a system where the absence of formal rules ensures that only the strongest advance.
Somehow, I’m comforted that normal Americans, whether they vote for Democrats or Republicans, don’t cast envious eyes on Chongqing but prefer the ups and downs of our two-century-old democratic order.
By contrast, Friedman, Bell, and Stern seem to share some of the power worship that propelled Bo Xilai. One wonders if the same disease afflicts those who see creeping fascism in voter ID laws – but not in the envy of China.