Running for office these days, whether in Israel or the United States, has devolved into a game of slogans over substance. The rules of the game are remarkably simple. Be all things to all people. Speak in the most populist and emotive terms about the problems that plague us without committing to bold policy solutions that might turn away one or another constituency. Focus more on the failings of the other guy and less on your own novel ideas. Play it safe. Take few risks. And above all else, do everything possible to deny voters the opportunity to choose between clear alternative futures.
So what do we get in exchange for the politics of slogans over substance? A disengaged and disillusioned electorate, declining voting rates, and elected leaders who give us more or less of the same. The problem of course, in an ever-changing and increasingly fraught world, is that more of the same will sooner or later spell disaster. (Climate change, income inequality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, international isolation…choose your poison.)
My screed is triggered by Bernard Avishai’s recent pre-election opinion piece in the Israeli daily Haaretz (“If Herzog wants a revolution, here’s what he has to say”, February 14, 2015). Economist Avishai lays out a powerful case for attacking income inequality through an economic growth that can only be achieved by resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, and by shoring up relations with the Arab world and with the international community. But Avishai goes further. He implores Herzog to stop playing it safe and to make a compelling case for an alternative future.
“It is not too late,” Avishai writes in Herzog’s imagined voice. “Give me and my team the chance to change things, to face realities bravely, cooperatively, and work with our allies to improve things. Give Tzipi Livni the chance to rebuild our foreign relations, Amos Yadlin the chance to put our defense forces back in a realistic posture, Manuel Trajtenberg the chance to budget for the things we need, Erel Margalit the chance to grow our industries, Shelly Yachimovitz the chance to help our poorest. Stop focusing on the nonsense – on bottle deposits and contributions. This is the most important election of your lifetime. Imagine what another five years of Bibi and Bennett really means. We can change things.”
And I would add one more suggestion to Avishai’s to-do list for candidate Herzog. Make history by committing to include the newly-unified Arab political party as a meaningful voice in a Labor/Hat’nuah-led governing coalition. Ideally as a coalition member, or minimally by distributing significant leadership and policy roles to Arab MKs. Let’s hope that such intra- and inter-party discussions are already taking place. And, oh yeah, make achieving a negotiated two-state peace a cornerstone of your campaign platform. (Yes, I’m an eternal optimist.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in the US, we prepare for what will likely be a more-of-the-same 2016 presidential campaign. Republican hopefuls are already sparring to burnish their turn-back-the-clock credentials, while the Democratic nomination seems assured for the play-it-safe Democrat Hillary Clinton, assuming she wants it. Lots more to follow on US presidential electioneering, of course. We’ve got 20 long months to go…
But let’s take a minute to consider the policy consequences of this tired but true aphorism: a camel is a horse created by a committee. (How do you spell “Affordable Care Act”, a reform that certainly plugged some holes in a badly leaking health care system, but which falls far short of the only real solution that we will sooner or later need to adopt: single-payer, non-workplace-based healthcare. Or, as I prefer to call it, Medicare for all.)
Perhaps what Campaign 2016 needs most is people like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, and – yes folks – even a Rand Paul. Candidates who don’t poll-test every word and idea. Candidates liberated by the knowledge that they can’t win, and who are therefore more likely to tell us what they really believe is good for this country. People who offer clear alternative futures that allow us to have a meaningful debate about the challenges of a new era.
One of these days, the politics of more of the same will come crashing down on our heads. I, for one, hope that it’s sooner rather than later.