Rabbi’s Essays

After the Fall
Taking Stock of a Mid-Term Election

Here are a few relevant pieces of information from the 2010 election:

  • It was a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the Democratic Party; the largest loss of seats by either party ever, and the first time since the 1920s that the party has had less than 200 seats in the House of Representatives.
  • About 45 million fewer people voted in 2010 than 2008, but Democrats nonetheless lost voters in virtually all categories, particularly voters 65-years-old and older. Black support remained steady, and Hispanic support rose slightly.
  • Jewish votes for Democrats dropped from about 80% in 2008, to about 67%.

Much of these points of data can be explained by common sense and following conventional historical trends. The party out of power almost always wins the mid-term election. Electoral interests are highest during Presidential years, and then drop off significantly. Only those who are particularly motivated do vote, and those most motivated are the opposition, wishing to recoup the losses of the last election. Occasionally, the inevitable drop in support is mitigated by good economic conditions. It is only exacerbated by a lousy economy. Assuming there are no disasters in the next two years, the Democrats will rebound; not necessarily recapturing the House and maintaining the White House, but certainly adding more seats than they have now.

Jews remain overwhelmingly liberal. I have discussed this phenomenon before. [See “Notes on a Silly Season.”] Usually, a significant drop in support for Democrats — and this year is one — can be connected to that portion of Jews who consider support for Israel tantamount, and wish to “punish” a President who is being less than supportive. Obama, particularly in light of his rocky relationship with the Netanyahu government, has consistently been challenged — mostly unfairly — on his pro-Israel bona fides. Compare this year with 1980. Reagan captured nearly 40% of the Jewish vote, when Carter was perceived as been at best indifferent to Israel’s well-being. In 1984, although Reagan had been rather good to Israel, and the overall American economy was doing well, his Jewish support dropped. Consistent Republican support for Israel has been much more dependent upon their own base of conservative Christian Zionists.

Tea Party Muddle

The most dramatic development in this year’s campaign has been the rise of a loosely organized faction, the Tea Party. Although no more than 15-20% of the electorate, they have had a powerful impact on the Republican Party and the government in general. Tea Partiers are mostly operating from impressions and feelings. This comment is not presented as an insult. As I have noted, most Americans have better things to do than give a great deal of thought to politics and governance. Virtually all of us have voted for individuals although bereft of much information about them or their policy positions.

In the case of the Tea Party, the principal feeling they carry is that government is too big and too intrusive. They also sense that it is corrupt, tending to prop up those with great wealth and influence, before doing anything for the “little guy.” The evidence for these attitudes has been in the huge sums given out by the Federal government for bailouts and stimulus plans that have driven up the budgetary deficit. Further, there was the battle for health care reform — dubbed mostly by its opponents as Obamacare — that: 1. appeared to be corrupted by the open process of deal-making and compromises, a process that in the past might have happened by closed doors; 2. the legislation that demands everyone carry insurance, which seems to be an imposition on individual choice; and 3. the plans to make the entire package affordable by finding savings in the Medicare programs of roughly $500 billion over the next decade.

All of these observations are basically correct. The Tea Party Movement would probably have petered out shortly after the healthcare legislation had been signed if the economy, particularly employment, began to grow. In the absence of any significant sense of a “bang for the buck,” the Movement now represents an influential, perhaps determining, block within the Republican Party.

Tea Party positions are hardly internally consistent, as typified by the slogan, get your government’s hands off my Medicare. The Movement has backed itself into a corner by pushing for balanced budgets but with tax cuts and preservation of that $500 billion in Medicare. The devil might be, as usual, in the details, but the general impression endures; government is out-of-control, too big and destructive of our personal freedom. We are left with some important questions: Is government too big? Can it be too big? Can it be too small?

I think that traditional Jewish thought is useful in this discussion, but not in a conventional way. One of my essays (“Mine and Yours”) analyzes a classic rabbinic position on personal and communal ownership. The mishnaic era (3rd to 5th century C.E.) text shows a clear though qualified bias toward communal practice. The ideal system, the Sages suggest, is that of the kibbutz. Later rabbinic literature moves away from this ideal, responding to the needs of a competitive market. Indeed, the principles of capitalism are fairly enshrined in medieval Jewish practice.

From the start, a communal socialistic economy was an ideal; as the text says, this is the way of the saint. A community of saints, or at least a relatively small community can sustain an ideal communal existence. Larger systems, particularly mixed ones that involve market contact among strangers, cannot be sustained this way, at least if there is going to be any personal freedom and choice of opportunity.

Taken as a whole, the Jewish thinking on communal and personal ownership creates a scale. When the society is small and relatively simple — an agrarian (farmer) or pastoral (herder) community — the organization can be either libertarian or communalistic. Either, everyone is substantially responsible only for themselves or their families, or everyone is responsible for everyone. The rabbis prefer, but do not mandate, the latter. As societies grow larger and more complex, neither the pure libertarian nor pure socialistic alternative is possible. When the common order (government) gets too large, it becomes oppressive. When it gets too small, it starves everyone but the wealthiest from needed services.

The Tea Partiers, I think, might actually recognize this acute balancing act between socialist and libertarians. They sense that government can get too large and intrusive, but with their fears about a cut in Medicare, they also sense that government is necessary, not only for the brute functions on order and security, but also for insuring the foundations of a well functioning society. Most in the Movement are operating on spotty impressions and feelings. They are, however, the surface of a serious discussion on the necessary size of government. It can indeed be too large, and it can also be too small. Unlike the Goldilocks story, there will probably never be a ‘just right.’ American society is very dynamic and constantly changing. Government will therefore continue to feel both too intrusive and too underfunded at the same time.

The Escalator

Large-scale reversals in an electorate suggest an inherent instability within a society. Currently Americans are anxious and have a palpable sense that things are getting out-of-control, or more to the point, out of their control. American troops continued to be mired in Iraq and Afghanistan; nothing seems to be able to stop Iran from pressing forward with the development of a nuclear weapon, or North Korea from acting like a spoiled two-year-old. China is a growing economic juggernaut. The economic and military standing of the U.S. in the world seems to be severely reduced.

Some people bemoan the end of the “American Century,” the eclipse of American centrality in world affairs. Others jingoisticly crow about the U.S. being the greatest, as if simply saying it fiercely and often enough will belie all the comparative statistics of the U.S.’s world standing in such areas of quality-of-life and educational attainment. Needless to say, the circumstances are not as dire or as sanguine.

First, the U.S. has an awfully long distance to fall in order no longer to be the world’s most powerful nation. Its accumulated wealth and military might continues to dwarf even China. Further, as a culture and society, the U.S. is considerably more stable than either China or India. Both of those nations are beset by nearly intractable divisions in languages, cultures, regionally uneven development. It is not difficult to imagine both countries literally breaking up into smaller political states — not unlike the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia — sometime in the next century. Despite the real divisions in the U.S., it is virtually impossible to foresee any breakup of the nation. Japan had its moment. The European Union had its. Now, China is enjoying its time as the principal challenger to American dominance. Perhaps, someday the U.S. will indeed be eclipsed, but it is not going to be anytime soon.

Yet, something is wrong in the country, and the 2010 election indicates that Americans are well aware of this, even if they have little idea of what to do to fix it. The problem might be deeper than decisions about taxes and spending. It might not be specific to the U.S., although it is probably more acute in America than anywhere else.

Modern complex societies are capable of maintaining social stability promising growth and opportunity. Without growth, every person’s gain would come from one (or more) other’s loss. Sooner or later, the system could only be maintained by oppression and then break down. Growth, however, requires space and unused resources. You can see where this is going; particularly in advanced nations such as the U.S. and western Europe.

Society’s dependence on growth puts a strain on more than the environment. For the past thirty years, U.S. dollar inflation has been rather low. It was consistently in double-digits annually in the 1970s, and had a brief spike in the last decade. Otherwise, it has had a small effect on purchasing power. Nonetheless, the cost-of-living for most people attempting to maintain a middle class lifestyle has risen dramatically. The problem is not an economic one per se, but social and psychological.

Technological innovation in recent decades has made a number of products available and affordable for personal use. Early versions of these innovations — hand-held calculators, personal computers, flat-screen TVs, hybrid auto engines, etc. — were quite expensive, and could only be purchased by those who enjoyed the prestige of being an early adapter to the new product, and had the financial means. Prices then began to moderate, and the new “must-get” item became more generally affordable. Yet, and this is the important consideration, the product was still significantly more expensive than item it would replace. Inflation remains low, but Americans feel a need to “trade up.”

The rise in spending has long been known as “keeping up with the Joneses.” Some sociologists call it an “escalator.” One is interested in appearing materially to be like the ones who are an economic rung above, and thus, one’s needs continue to rise. Hence, the floor-space in the average new home has increased over 50%, and the cost of an average (in constant dollars!) as nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Simply put, over time, we pay marginally more for the same thing, but pay a great deal more for more.

The escalator cannot go on forever. It might well have come close to its limit with this most recent crisis. A major contributing factor is that for most Americans, their earnings have not risen beyond inflation, even as their spending has increased. In the 1970s, it was still possible to maintain a middle-class living on the strength of a single breadwinner. In the next decade, a household needed two income earners. Although the economic expansion of the 90s might have eased the pressure a bit, by the end of the decade, two incomes were not sufficient. People resorted to borrowing, particularly on the equity of their houses. The system, as we well know, popped.

What Next?

History is full of epochal changes in which society and cultures are transformed. None of these changes happen very quickly, except in the context of the full sweep of history; nor are they smooth and without real pain and loss. Right now, we might be in the midst of the twilight of one epoch and the commencement of the next. The shift began a few decades ago, bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the development of South and East Asia, especially China. It has rocked Africa, South America, and particularly arid zone from Morocco to Pakistan. North America and Western Europe, with the benefit of very deep cultural and economic resources, have been least effected up to now.

Now, we see the stirring throughout the West. Inexorable change usually brings about inexorable resistance, an arch-conservatism that will display itself in mostly nihilistic forms; being fundamentally against: against immigrants, women, gays, government, taxes, banks, corporations, and, of course, anyone who is perceived as being against them. The language is conservative (“preserve our way of life”) or reactionary (“take back America). The present is terrible and the immediate past might not have been much better, but both are far more preferable to an unknown future. Thankfully, this is the United States with its deep and cushioning resources. Thus, the Tea Party resorts to angry words and ballot activism, rather than the self-immolating violence of ‘al-Qaeda.

Negativity is a passion that ultimately burns itself out. The pre-Socratic Greeks used to argue that the only constant in the world is change. Jews, who posited that are indeed other constants — God, for instance — nonetheless accepted the endurance of change. At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, as the shtetl of Anatevka is being dismantled, someone turns to the rabbi and plaintively asks, “would not this be a good time for the Messiah to come?” The rabbi responds, “we will have to wait for him some place else.”

Jewish tradition does not quite embrace change. After all, the ideal of Shalom is a sort of quiescence, and change is always disrupting. Yet, Jewish tradition does not resist it either. The upheaval of 2010 is indicative that a substantially indistinct future is being pressed upon us. We can either curse the darkness or light a candle and prepare to usher it in.