Thomas Friedman: Complexity goes beyond left or right

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

The American body politic has experienced two big — and enormously revealing — shocks in the past month.

The first was political, administered by the Democrats' first debates, which revealed a party whose leading presidential candidates were considerably farther to the left on some key issues — borders, national health care, treatment of illegal immigrants — than many mainstream Democrats, not to mention independents and moderate Republicans looking for an alternative to Donald Trump.

The second was moral, administered by Trump's supporters at his North Carolina rally last week. As Trump trashed Rep. Ilhan Omar, who immigrated from Somalia, his supporters broke into chants of "Send her back!" It was something out of a 1930s German or Italian fascist newsreel.

Combined, the two shocks help to explain a new poll's finding that a significant number of voters feel that no candidate speaks to them. This group is often called "centrists," or "moderates."

I'm in this group, but I prefer not to call myself a "centrist." That label implies someone whose views are mush. My views are not mush. They just emerge from a different approach to politics.

For decades our politics — and that of many industrial democracies — were defined by the same basic grid of left-right binary choices: You were either with capital or labor; for big-government solutions or small-government solutions; open to trade and immigration or more closed to them; prioritizing "green" over growth and embracing new social norms, like same-sex marriage, or opposing them.

The accelerations we're now going through in climate change, technology and globalization call for a different approach — one best articulated by Linton Wells, a defense analyst and expert on resilience. Wells argues that to find the solutions to today's wicked problems you should "never think in the box and never think out of the box. You have to think without a box."

Or, as future-of-work strategist Heather McGowan puts it: The accelerations in climate change, technological change and globalization are so interdependent that "our old two-dimensional grid with its binary choices between left and right is insufficient to respond to them. It requires a more complex, three-dimensional set of policy tools and responses."

I think voters intuit that — that their world is being reshaped and too few politicians are helping them to navigate it.

Trump just threw complexity out the window and went full dog whistle on race to hold and expand his base. Democratic candidates are being more serious, but their need to win primaries tugs them back to the old binary checklist — even though the real solutions require a left-wing wrench, a right-wing hammer and all sorts of new tools and combinations we've never imagined.

For instance, if we want to stem the flood of immigration at our southern border, we have to understand what's driving that immigration. It's a combination of extreme weather — particularly droughts threatening food security — misgovernance, gang warfare and America's own drug addictions. Together, these are destabilizing weak Central American states.

The right response has to be a mix of policies: to mitigate climate change; to help improve governance and policing in Central America; to tighten U.S. border security so people cannot just walk in; to tighten rules on who can seek asylum; and to send back those who don't qualify for asylum. We also need an immigration policy that embraces the desperate who qualify for asylum and welcomes high-energy and high-IQ legal immigrants.

Without answers from Column A and Column B and a few new ones in between, you'll never have a real immigration solution or a coalition to implement it.

Or take the problem of rapid technological changes in business and work. If we just let raw capitalism reign — when machines and those who own them can replace so many more humans and globalization can enable companies to be winners-take-all across the globe — "we'll continue getting extreme income inequalities, rapid environmental degradation and giant global monopolies," notes Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future.

But the answer, Gorbis says, is not socialism and abandoning markets, but a vibrant state that can use taxes and regulations to reshape markets in ways that redivide the pie, grow the pie and create more "public wealth" — mass transit, schools, parks, scholarships, libraries and basic scientific research — so that more individuals, startups and communities have more tools to adapt and thrive.

The right question on education is not whether college should be "free." It's what should be taught there and who should teach it. Or take the problem of climate change. To be sure, we need to pass certain laws — to phase out coal plants or improve auto mileage. But climate change can be mitigated in the time we have only by leveraging the power of markets with the right incentives, taxes, standards and regulations.

Never have our problems required a more complex amalgam of tools and constituencies to fix, never has the dominant medium of politics — today, Twitter — been more simplistic and never has the president wielding that medium used it so crudely. That's a problem.

For Democrats who want to be serious: How do they think without a box against an incumbent president who speaks without a box — without any restraints? How do they offer complex solutions to complex problems when Trump just wants to scare enough white Americans into voting for him by hammering four women Democrats of color as being insufficiently patriotic?

I don't have the answer, but I'm working on it. We all should be.