The Messy Process of Democracy
All complex societies are fragmented. Democracies particularly so. Dictatorships and autocracies act as if they are not. They try to suppress dissenters, which they can do in the short term but not forever. Consider the autocrats from China to Russia to Turkey. Ask most human beings where they would prefer to live, and the overwhelming majority will opt for an open society, one in which they can choose how to live their lives. Yet in open societies there is always tension and prejudice against and between minorities, classes and incomes. Prejudice is impossible to eradicate. But the law is the crucial issue. And in most free societies the law protects the rights of minorities.
Britain under Margaret Thatcher was a tense, divided country as it transitioned from old industries to new. Recall the riots in France in the 1960s, and look at the hold the left-wing unions still have on the country. Spain has only now agreed on a government after a year without one. And that was after two elections in two years.
The US has always been filled with different interest groups and occasional outbursts of violence. I am specifically speaking of the upheavals that took place between 1963 and 1970. These disturbances started as protests against the Vietnam War. Then the 1964 race riots in Los Angeles led to the burning and looting of the Watts neighborhood. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago became a murderous battleground. Protests at universities culminated in the shooting at Kent State University and Jackson State College.
The US, along with other countries, is going through another phase of social tension. Well before the election, the Occupy Wall Street movement raised the issue of income disparity. The deaths of unarmed black citizens by police opened up the wounds of racial discrimination. The push towards legalization of all kinds of sexual identities clashed with religious standards. The safe-space movement on campuses focused on avoiding any kind of conflict (except against Zionists). The issues of immigration and security against Islamic terror emphasized other fault lines in American society. At the same time, major issues of debt, taxation, infrastructure and alienation from government had not been addressed.
What became clear was that things were not working as well as they should on many levels, and when that happens, pressure for change builds up.
I do not know for certain which vision is right. Perhaps both, none, or a combination. I can see the good and the bad. The only thing I do know is that when a system does not work, it needs change. If that change doesn’t work, we need to change again until we find the one that does.
Jewish life, wherever you look, is fragmented too. In the US in general, Conservative and Reform Jews vote Democrat. That is the legacy of a long social tradition in Judaism. Orthodoxy tends to vote right, both to protect religious choice and to support Israel unreservedly. Jews, particularly visibly Orthodox Jews, are used to discrimination, name-calling and hate crimes. Interestingly Jews still remain the most affected. Although there has been a spike in anti-Muslim incidents this year, they are still way behind the amount of petty hatred directed at Jews — though, of course, you wouldn’t know that from the press.
Israel, too, has had protests against inequality — and the country is in constant turmoil. It is fractious, furious and unpredictable. It wants peace. It wants security. It wants compromise. It wants none. And the same goes for religion. One wing rejects any change, and the other pushes for more. Wherever one looks, the conflict and tension continue.
This chaos is not new. The Talmud itself reflects this dichotomy. “Wise scholars bring peace to the world.” That’s one view. “Any wise scholar who is not as hard as iron (or does not attack like a snake) is no wise scholar.” If the Talmud is confused, it is no surprise that we are! We might hope for compromise — and although there is no sign of it yet, I can guarantee it will happen. History might work slowly, but there are always cycles. Human society has shown itself perfectly capable of changing for the better when it sets its mind to it.
You can’t have a democracy if one side always wins. This time, the Democrats lost. They now have to decide what kind of party they want. Will they do as the Labour Party in Britain has done and turn further left to the point where they become unelectable? Or will they go back to the drawing board to rethink core doctrines and politically correct policies, and find more popular representatives? An effective opposition is the core of a healthy democracy.
In almost all cases that I can think of, politics has failed to resolve conflicts permanently. Conflicts are only resolved when one side completely defeats the other. Or when people choose to meet each other — to decide not to hate, and to see the humanity in the other side. Some humans choose that path. Others cling to hatred. As the old Yiddish proverb goes, “What common sense cannot achieve, time will.”
So I am quiet embarrassed. Not so much by the result of the election, but by who now represents the United States. But I am not without hope. Democracy works, for all its limitations. Perhaps the new team will do a better job and learn that confrontation is not the best way to achieve things. We have many things to be be thankful for in our democratic societies. And in Jewish life, we wake up every morning and say, “Modeh ani” — “I am thankful” to be alive.