With the silly hats, banners, dancing, merry-making, and pep-rally atmosphere, Republican and Democratic political conventions in the U.S. can look pretty darn silly when you view them from overseas.
Back in 1980, when I was a young high school student on summer exchange living with a French family, we all sat and watched the GOP convention as they nominated Ronald Reagan. I still clearly remember the feelings of embarrassment as they looked down their noses at the goofy conventioneers and my lame attempts at trying to explain the spectacle in my broken French.
Since then, I’ve watched many conventions from abroad. For the past two decades I have done it from Israel and have had my share of conversations with Israelis to explain the U.S. system, why the conventions happen, and why they aren’t pure entertainment and a big waste of money.
The longer I’ve lived here, the easier that conversation has been - the more I find I appreciate these crazy conventions. They are a successful mechanism for bringing together the disparate groups with varying agendas into these two political parties, rallying them around two candidates, and giving the voters two clear choices. The conventions may be big, silly and showy, but their goal is to fire up the grass roots, and appeal directly to the American voters via their television sets.
This is an utterly foreign concept to our crazy jigsaw of an Israeli political system, where votes are fractured and splintered into tiny parties that get assembled together into a big confused octopus of a government after the voters have their say. The real power lies not in the ballot box, but by the dealmakers who assemble that puzzle.
This year is the first time I’ve watched the conventions with outright envy. My jealousy centers around the very reason that some people thought the conventions couldn’t be taken seriously: pandering to women voters.
Both parties used their conventions to make clear, unadulterated efforts to appeal to American women. These were girly conventions - the First Ladies were incredibly prominent, in the case of Michelle Obama, it can be argued that her appearance drew more attention than her husband's. The fuzzy personal Mitt Romney video meant to show off his sensitive side, represented an effort to close the substantive gender gap with President Barack Obama.
This year, so much of the buzz among the political pundits and analysts is centered on women voters - it was all about the single Moms, about the soccer Moms. It was non-stop.
When was the last time you heard an Israeli politician or even a political pundit talk about the women’s vote? Or, as a friend asked me, can you imagine Sara Netanyahu being asked to get up on a podium and talk about what it was like to date Bibi and what they talk about over the dinner table? Or even Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich talking about her life as a single Mom?
Somehow, the many women’s issues that are front and center in Israel, all of the buzz about exclusion of women, about the economics of women’s lives, the high cost of child care, don’t make it into the mainstream political conversation. They get plenty of discussion in the media, by hard-working non-profit organizations and from the grass roots - but are rarely embraced by mainstream politicians seeking votes.
For some reason Israeli women are not expected to take their gender into account when we vote - we are supposed to be tribal, sticking to our ethnic and religious and left-right divisions, voting automatically with the men of the tribe.
Is that just the reality of Israeli politics? It could be, but I suspect it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a centrist party made a clear effort to directly appeal to the interests of women - not a single sector of women, but all women, it could be rewarded electorally (are you listening, Yair Lapid?)
Though Tzipi Livni didn’t openly play the female card in the 2009 elections - save the occasional "girl power" event, her party’s outsized success came, to a large extent, from women voters who were excited about the prospect of being represented at the top. But, of course, that famously came to naught. Despite the fact that Kadima won a higher percentage of the vote and a greater number of seats in the Knesset than Likud, the prime minister’s post went to the candidate who was best able to better work the smoke-filled rooms, do the deals and put together a coalition. That part of the local political equation is not going to go away anytime soon. Ultimately, it’s going to take a real man to bring women’s issues front and center in the Israeli political conversation.
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