My Israeli friends are fascinated and perplexed by America’s bizarre election campaign, now focused on upcoming contests in South Carolina and Nevada. They just don’t understand it.
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Israelis are hardly strangers to election campaigns notable for name-calling and hysteria. But they have become accustomed to a slightly higher level of decorum in U.S. presidential elections. Yet this time around, what they are witnessing in America is an angry, off-the-walls, circus-like campaign. Fringe political figures have emerged as seemingly credible candidates, while early favorites, darlings of the political establishment, are desperately struggling. And all of this is happening for no obvious reason that they can see. Why, Israelis wonder, are American voters so distressed and agitated? America faces no immediate crisis, and the American economy is reasonably strong. What is going on, they ask me? And what does all of this mean for Israel?
I tell them that there is no single explanation; a confluence of factors explains America’s current course. But what does seem clear is that Israel will not benefit from the unexpected path that, to date at least, American voters seem to be choosing.
Let’s begin with three reasons for the surging anger of America’s voters. The first is America’s dysfunctional government. No matter who wins the Presidency, the strong likelihood is that the Republicans will control the House and the Democrats will have the votes to sustain a filibuster in the Senate. This means that the deadlock that America’s government has experienced in recent years will continue in one form or another.
In the days when both parties were more diverse, deals could be struck, even in a divided Congress, and political horse trading was common; legislators on both sides of the aisle would from time to time defy the political purity police and cross over to the other side. But those days are mostly over. And the result is that voters take campaign promises even less seriously now than in years past. Politicians and voters alike know that such promises cannot generally be implemented and will not be kept. Why, then, not vote for an “outsider,” who may not keep his promises either but at least offers sincerity and passion?
A second reason for the seething anger of average Americans is the residue of the 2008 financial collapse, from which the wealthiest people quickly recovered and the rest of the citizenry did not. The Wall Street bailouts created an image of American political leaders as complacent, corrupt, and cut off from the people they represent.
This is a matter of America increasingly becoming a nation of haves and have nots, with falling wages for less skilled workers and stagnant earnings for the middle class. Bernie Sanders has been proclaiming this message, and it has resonated more widely than even he imagined. The result is a crisis of political leadership and legitimacy, and a widespread belief that no one in politics is to be trusted. All “outsiders” thrive in such a climate, whether they preach the Sanders message or not.
The third reason for the fury of American voters is the disgust that Americans feel at the system of legalized bribery by which billionaires secure the election of candidates who follow their lead and support their views. Money in politics is not a new problem, but it is the root of all rot, particularly since the Supreme Court’s "Citizens United" ruling in 2010. This decision, by a 5-4 majority, cast aside both common sense and a century of precedent to lift virtually all restrictions on “independent” political expenditures by organizations and corporations. The result was that huge amounts of PAC money could now be used legally to influence election campaigns, disfiguring our politics in the process and sending the message that our government policies and our candidates are for sale.
I am not a supporter of either Bernie or The Donald, but I am grateful to them both for reminding us that political giving by the very wealthy is the reason that our democratic system is in peril. And both have provided alternatives: Trump by using his own money, and Sanders by soliciting small gifts only. And both have been rewarded by the American people, who want the selection of our president to be determined by an election and not an auction.
And why is all of this bad for Israel? Because angry citizens, financially insecure and disconnected from the American political process, have little interest in foreign policy. Absent a direct attack on American soil or an immediate terrorist threat, Americans will focus instead on domestic matters, and will turn to political mavericks who will assuage their anger and respond to their fears. And that is exactly what they have done.
Bernie Sanders is a grumpy socialist grandpa, who speaks eloquently of inequality but knows virtually nothing, and cares hardly at all, about foreign affairs. Donald Trump is a businessman/entertainer, part carnival barker and part attention-getting egotist. He knows even less about the world than Bernie, and has a foreign policy that consists mostly of saying outrageous things to friend and foe alike. Ted Cruz, also a maverick, is a quasi-isolationist, despite the fact that he is a favorite of Israel-loving Evangelicals.
It should be said that Sanders, Trump, and Cruz are all friendly towards Israel. Still, they all hold foreign policy views similar in many ways to the isolationist policies of Pat Buchanan, minus his anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel.
Perhaps Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush will overtake Trump and Cruz in the Republican primaries. I am not counting on it, but perhaps. But I tell my friends in Israel that from where I sit, I am hoping for Hillary Clinton. Believing as I do in a strong and assertive America, in American military strength, and in American leadership in the world, she is America’s best hope, and Israel’s as well.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012, is a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie.