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November 11, 2018 9:09 am

Making Sense of the Midterm Elections

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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The US Capitol building. Wikimedia Commons via Martin Falbisoner.

Everyone seems to agree that the midterm elections in the US have been particularly bitter and antagonistic. But as an outsider who is now an insider, I am amazed at the current mood of anger, anxiety, frustration, and hatred in America. One shouldn’t generalize of course, but I see around me a bunch of spoiled children fighting in a playground, where every one of them is a sore loser. The pathology is simple: Blame everyone except yourself.

The results have shown us nothing new. The US is a country seriously divided between young and old, rural and urban, male and female, and ethnic minorities. There are plenty of crazy, violent bullies, but in general, most Americans — whatever their prejudices — prefer to try to get along with others.

The split decision means that we are in for another round of dysfunction in which vindictiveness will likely impede cooperation and progress. With the House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats and Senate by the Republicans, we can expect another session of bitter conflict and little chance of solving any of the core issues and challenges that face the country. It is a sad sign of the times.

Americans often ignore the long tradition of antagonism, animosity, corruption, and immorality that is more the norm in American history than the exception. Gerrymandering is endemic. Voting districts are engineered in such a way that only a few districts across America are genuinely democratic. Of course, what we mean by democracy is highly debatable. Some countries prefer constituency. Others have various forms of proportional representation. America also has an Electoral College, which was designed to give the different states a degree of balance and equity within a federal system. The system was designed for chaos — or checks and balances, whichever you prefer.

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I was brought up in Britain, where there was no such romantic notion of virgin political birth. It was always a matter of accommodation. And there was an aura of cynicism around politicians and politics. Whenever one party held power for too long, regardless of how efficient, popular, or ideologically dogmatic, there would come a time, inevitably, when the established order would be overthrown.

Churchill won the war and lost power. The Labour Party under Attlee completely overhauled the social and political landscape, but still eventually lost to the Conservatives. Macmillan, Wilson, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron — the baton was always handed over, usually with acrimony. Thatcher was hated, Blair was loved and is now hated. Remember Labour leader Michael Foot? Lovely man. Everyone liked him — but he was a disaster. Yet Britain has survived, and despite its current mess, is still a pretty good place to live in — even for Jews!

For all the US legislative deadlocks, different kinds of presidents, policies, systems, contradictions, prejudices, crazy individuals, and dangerous lunatics, it is a great place for most people — including Jews — to live in. Is there antisemitism? You bet. Jews are still being and always have been attacked across the nation. So is every other minority. And even so, America thrives. Otherwise, why would so many try so desperately to get in? The only alternative model is that of China — authoritarian, meritocratic, and doing very well economically and raising millions out of poverty to wealth. But who would want to live there other than for business? The flow of migrants is coming this way, not that way.

It ought to be a given that all members of the human species should be nice to each other. But that doesn’t happen. Politics, religion, any area of human activity, even sport, can descend into violent conflict. So why can’t we all get along? We have been praying for peace for thousands of years. Why are we still praying every day for it? How come if everyone agrees that it would be a good thing, we are no closer now than we were then?

And who do we blame — God or us? My advice: Be positive. As Monty Python’s anthem goes, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Look to yourselves and fight to protect your values. As that great American intellectual Alfred E. Neuman once said: “What, me worry?” So I don’t.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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