The Decline and Rebirth of American Democracy
You know American democracy is in trouble when The New York Times is running an op-ed encouraging the United States to embrace a monarchy. Of all the things I thought I’d never read, asking the United States to revisit deposing King George III more than 230 year ago was probably at the top of the list.
Then there is the Iranian government deciding to broadcast the three presidential debates live — as a way of displaying the US’ moral decay. Who would have believed that a country that so strongly censors any American message would choose to broadcast our debates unrestricted as a way of telling its people, “You think Iran is bad, but just look at these nutcases.”
To be sure, it’s not as bad as all that. But how did we get to this place — the single most embarrassing presidential election of our lifetime?
It all comes down to one thing: values — values, and their erosion in American discourse.
Over the last few presidential cycles, I’ve lamented how the values debate is centered on abortion, gay marriage and contraception. In a fascinating twist, not one of those has played a role in this election. But their continual focus over the last two decades through repeated election cycles meant that America had no serious discussion about substantive values that might renew the republic.
For example, there has been little to no discussion about the decline of the family, the rise of divorce, the increasing sexualization of women, what values should be brought to bear on the discussion of immigration, how we should respond to evil governments that brutalize their people, growing narcissism and self-focus among our youth, what defines success and whether honesty should come before the lust for power.
This depraved election is not a function of the erosion of the United States, per se. America is still a majestic and mighty nation, undoubtedly the greatest country on earth. But it is a function of the almost complete dearth of a serious values discussion.
I’m not sure that anything really substantive has been highlighted in this election. Instead, we have focused for months on Hillary Clinton’s email server and foundation, and Donald Trump’s interactions with women and online insults.
To be sure, the candidates did, at times, address serious policy differences, such as Obamacare, immigration and foreign policy. But these have been small lights in an otherwise dark constellation.
The decline of substantive public discourse is also a function of the demise of religion — or should I say religious influence — in America. Indeed, though America remains one of the most religious nations on earth and the most religious in the Western world, where have we seen its influence in this election? Has a single religious figure of note weighed in authoritatively on the behavior of the two candidates?
No. Evangelical Christians are behind Trump because they fear the appointment of liberal Supreme Court justices. Mainline Protestants, I presume, are behind Clinton because they often cannot distinguish between their own social-activist values and Democratic talking points.
The Jewish community has been torn by a critical dilemma. Trump seems better for Israel because he opposes the genocidal Iran deal, supports Israeli settlements and opposes a two-state solution in which a Palestinian state will quickly be overtaken by Hamas. But is his behavior in accordance with Jewish values?
Clinton she says she’ll have a better relationship with Israel than Obama, but does little to differentiate herself from Obama’s policies and was indeed the architect of many of his policies, most notably the heinous Iran deal, which will forever live in American foreign-policy infamy.
Looming over this election is the specter of Syria and how little anyone cares about the near-genocide of Arabs that has taken place on President Obama’s watch. I believe that history will judge him harshly for his omission. But right now, Americans seem too enthralled with the vast entertainment provided by this circus-like election to care.
America was, and must once again be, a serious nation that is responsible, ultimately, for setting global moral standards. Yes, we don’t want to police the world. But, no, we don’t want to be like every other nation, either. We don’t deny we’re the most powerful nation on earth with the best values. We value personal freedom, human rights, human dignity and human liberty.
It is thus to our great discredit that those defining American attributes have had such a small role in the conversation during this campaign.
No British — or American — king is going to save us. And brutal dictatorships like Iran are certainly not the answer either. The US has always known that power must lie with the people, because it is they, not the elites, who can be trusted to safeguard human liberty.
I have no doubt that from the shards of this bizarre presidential election, American democracy will be reborn. I also have little doubt that the renewal of American values will not come from some messiah figure — on the right or the left — but from average Americans, who slowly restore the republic to the decency, substance and seriousness it has always represented.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including the recently published “The Israel Warrior.” The winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year competition, he is the Founder of The World Values Network, one of America’s premier organizations defending Israel in national media. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.