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Elissa D. Barrett

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The Rest is Commentary: Jewish Post-Election Reflection

Posted: 11/09/10 05:32 PM ET

OK folks, the election is over. Except for some close races and uncounted ballots here and there, the results are in, and the political landscape has changed ... yet again.

At the Progressive Jewish Alliance, we reached out to some of our best thinkers to help us make sense of the election results and coverage, both here in California and across the country. We called on rabbis, scholars, writers and activists to share their reflections on the election, and we're sharing them with you below. Enjoy!

David N. Myers

The Torah portion read in synagogue last Saturday, Toldot, recalls the fractious rivalry between Jacob and Esau, whom God describes to Rebecca as "two nations in your womb." One of the most perceptive of Hasidic commentators, the 20th-century Netivot Shalom (Shalom Noach Barzovsky), sees the biblical brothers as representing the competing impulses -- the yetser hatov (the good inclination) and the yetser hara (the evil inclination) -- of human nature.

That opposition seems sadly fitting in the wake of last week's election. Are there not "two nations in the womb" of the American Republic? One nation represents the openness, moral virtue and sense of possibility of the Founding Fathers. This is the nation that elected Barack Obama based on the hope and prospect of change that he represented. The other nation represents the fear, raw nativism and xenophobia of the American populist tradition. This is the nation of the Tea Party, whose rhetoric and worldview recall earlier exemplars of that tradition: Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy and, as Sean Wilentz noted recently in the New Yorker, the John Birch Society.

Much of American history has been a contest between these "two nations," embodying the best and worst inclinations inherent in the American spirit. And often enough, at least often enough to avoid total despair, the America of hope has won out over the America of fear. So it must be after last Tuesday. Tempting as it is to descend to the level of vitriol of the fear-mongers, hope will only come by appealing to the best, not the worst, of the American spirit.

David chairs the UCLA History Department and serves on the PJA Board.

Robin Podolsky

Well, we certainly have a messaging problem. Voters who are furious about unemployment and elitism have voted for those who would reduce government oversight of corporate elites.

Contrast the national situation with that in California. Ads exposing corporate interests, such as the Texas oil companies that tried to roll back environmental law with Prop 23 -- and those candidates who wanted to "run government like a business" and profited from outsourcing and insider trading -- were tough, but fair, and they were effective.

But clear messaging depends on clear thinking, decisive action and a willingness to speak hard truths and take sides.

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely harvest the corner of your field, nor shall you gather in all of your harvest that there is to gather, nor shall you glean your vineyard nor gather in the fallen fruit of your vineyard, but instead leave them for the poor and the stranger..." (Lev. 19:9-10)

There are worldviews in competition here. For market fundamentalists, life is an agonistic struggle of individuals, each of whom is fundamentally alone and solely responsible for her own life. Working class voters are lured to this position by the mobilization of fear and shame.

For Jews, life is meaningful, because we were created around a Divine spark; finite, vulnerable and utterly interdependent, we each achieve our best in kind and just relationships with one another. Economies, being webs of relationships, ought to be regulated to reflect those values so that they offer the broadest opportunity possible. Working class voters are recruited to this position by mobilizing hope and self-respect -- and by following through on promises, such as investment for jobs, deep financial reform and a secure safety net.

Robin is a rabbinical student and served as press secretary for former State Senator Sheila Kuehl.

Peter Dreier

Almost every political pundit has missed the real story of Tuesday's election.

The real winners are America's biggest corporations, banks, the oil and energy industries, the insurance companies, the super-rich and the Chamber of Commerce.

This election was about the economy -- too many Americans have lost their jobs, lost their homes and lost their hope. Family incomes are declining. Poverty is growing. But, in the midst of the worst economy since the Great Depression, the rich are getting richer. Wall Street banks took taxpayer bail-out money, paid their top executives outrageous bonuses and salaries and spent tens of millions of dollars to lobby against reform legislation to protect consumers from bank rip-offs. The richest 1 percent of Americans controls almost 40 percent of all wealth.

The role for progressives over the next two years is to mobilize public anger against big business and the super rich. We need to recognize that some corporations and wealthy Americans are socially responsible and our allies in this struggle. But most are not. So we must keep the heat on the big banks and corporations that got us into this mess, are profiting from this mess, and are using their political clout to thwart legislation that will get us out of this mess.

[Excerpted from "Tuesday's Real Winners."]

Peter teaches politics at Occidental College.

Shayna Gelender

As an organizer, I champion greater public engagement in politics and policy-making. The California initiative process, though, is a deeply troubled mechanism for people to actually get their needs addressed. It is an incoherent way to govern and make new laws; as such, it is dangerous and unjust.

Conscientious and discerning voters, me included, cannot possibly have the full picture of what we are voting on, nor do we know how various measures may impact one another or interact with existing laws. In voting on complex, poorly crafted or unfeasible initiatives, we typically do much more harm than good, despite our best intentions. The Nov. 2 election is no exception.

There are specific instances, however, when a ballot measure is the only way to make a policy change, as was the case with Proposition 25. Our fiscal crisis in California urgently required that a simple majority be able to pass a budget. So, I am cautiously optimistic that the passage of Proposition 25 is a tangible step forward in more fairly allocating resources through the budgeting process. Simultaneously, though, the passages of Proposition 22 and Proposition 26 coupled with Governor Elect Brown's promise not to raise taxes without voter approval will make it incredibly difficult for us to pay for the vital services that most people agree are good things for our society -- for our youth, our seniors and for everyone in between -- especially when people are struggling in hard times.

Shayna serves on the PJA Board.

Aryeh Cohen

The common wisdom among progressives of a certain stripe, it seemed, was that this election was about fear. If only we could defeat the fear or redirect the fear, or show those who fear that they have nothing to fear, the forces of good would win.

Alternatively, conservatives were saying that this election was about anger. Anger about jobs and the economy and the fact that there seemed no end in sight. Both of these narratives were wrong in important ways. The story that the progressives told undercut the anger of those who were angry. "You are not angry," we told them, "you are afraid."

The conservatives who were angry, took their legitimate anger and frustration at a situation that was beyond their control -- the economy, jobs, lost opportunities -- and directed it at the wrong targets -- immigrants, the President, liberals.

The Jewish tradition regards anger warily. On the one hand, a person who gets angry about things that he has no control over is considered as an idolater. That is a person who thinks they can control something beyond their control. This leads to building a golden calf or blaming the economic situation or the crime statistics on immigrants.

At the same time, the tradition fosters righteous anger. God is angry at those who are unjust, and a sage who never gets angry, the Talmud teaches us, is not a true sage. Righteous anger that brings us to actions that further justice is good. It is an organizing tool. Anger that clouds one's vision and brings one to seek an easy target is dangerous.

Aryeh is a Rabbi and professor at the American Jewish University.

Judith Glass

We have just experienced an election with enormous implications for public spending and taxation. Budgets are an expression of a community's values. What do our budget priorities say about our values?

The market economy has real benefits but also real limitations. America has, slowly and painfully, recognized the need for government intervention in the market to provide collective goods -- safe streets, public transportation, clean air and water, a healthy and educated population, domestic and international security, and to protect individuals from long working hours, low wages, unemployment and poverty in old age. We are forgetting this lesson, and, now, in the 21st century, we must reaffirm and extend our commitments both to economic security through social insurance and to public investment in social infrastructure.

Taxes are an obligation of citizenship -- the way that public investment in collective goods is financed. Yet, we have been told that taxes are "too high" even as communal needs have increased. This logic leads to regressive tax policies, where the burden of taxation falls hardest on the weakest.

The flight from taxes over the last 25 years has helped accelerate the unequal distribution of income between the rich and the poor in this country, which is now as unequal as it was in the years before the great depression. Only incomes at the top are rising; wages are stagnant. This situation endangers not only our economic health, but our values of equal opportunity, personal initiative and class mobility.

This is a moment of truth for our society. It was Justice Louis D. Brandeis who said, "We can have a democratic society or we can have a concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both."

Judith serves on PJA's Southern California Regional Council.

 

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