Samuel Heilman
Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

A New Voter Ready for What’s Good Enough

For all my life until this year, the only national elections I voted in have been in the United States. Next Tuesday, I will for the first time cast a ballot as an Israeli, having ended a lifetime in the Diaspora and at last become a citizen here last August, amid the pandemic. As I have pondered the electoral system and choices here, I have concluded that my new country suffers from what I call “too much democracy.” What do I mean?

It seems that for every opinion and concern Israelis have, some politicians have tried to tailor a party list of candidates that focus specifically on those voters who share those opinions and concerns. So of course, there are a variety of religious parties that seem to speak to various religious and ethnic interests, which of course are nuanced. And there are an assortment of lists that represent socialist, nationalist, settlerist, rightist, secularist, ethnic, Arab, communist, pragmatist, or some other special interest. And since, as the old joke argues, two Jews can hold five opinions at least, there is a plethora of parties trying to, slice, dice, blend or often compartmentalize those opinions. In addition to all that there are parties who champion a strong leader and others that emphasize the breadth of their list of candidates. Moreover, as if that were not enough, when the votes are all cast and no party gets a ruling majority, as is often the case, these various groups need to create coalitions and decide who and what they wish to represent yet again. In the end, many of the political distinctions turn out to embody and be divided by what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” That is those who seem to share some common concerns and close relationships get caught in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity of their leaders and voters to quite small details of differentiation that become huge ‘matters of principle’ or clashes of ego or calculations regarding the next elections and what they think will help them hold onto or wind back voters to their party. In all of this, it seems to be the search for the ideal becomes the enemy of good.

Of course, with so many parties and choices and people voting for lists of candidates, there is less incentive for parties to try to accommodate those who disagree with them or to create what is sometimes called “the big tent.” Instead, there are appeals to their bases, and those bases are many in number.

In the U.S., while many voters complain about the two party-system (occasionally there are some minor parties that skew the national or state vote, but most Americans have learned to live with the limitations and know that often they have to ‘hold their noses’ and vote for the lesser evil of the two or maybe three choices. It seems less democratic and people often bemoan having to make such a choice, but when it is over, we learn to live with the results for the full term (at least when the contenders face reality and accept the certified results, as has been the case until the insanity of the Trump-addled Republicans 0f 2020).

Israelis need to begin to think about their votes as less of a search for the ideal and more as finding something real they can live with. That will require candidates and party leaders who can get past their egoistic assumptions that they alone have the perfect recipe for leadership. It will also necessitate voters who can decide what is the absolute minimum they want or will tolerate in a candidate. And, I believe it will oblige people to choose the parties that have indicated that they the hold largest bloc of support.

As Yossi Verter argued in the pages of Haaretz, “there must be a big party, with at least 23 or 24 seats, at the center of the next government” because if there are too many small parties in it, the center will not hold and each small partner in the coalition will have to power to pull it apart and we will find ourselves again where we are now in short order – searching for the elusive perfect that is the enemy of the good. It is clear now that only two parties qualify: the Likud led by Netanyahu and Yesh Atid led by Lapid. We know what a Netanyahu government is like and what its single most important goal is, to keep Netanyahu in power.

For those satisfied with that, the choice is clear. For voters who have had enough of that, to choose a small party in the hope that they will coalesce with Yesh Atid and cede leadership to it, is to be hoping for something closer to perfect instead of settling for something good enough for now. We have seen how little parties can make unthinkable deals suddenly real.
My American experience has taught me that “good enough for now” is the better and more realistic option. Let’s get real. There is always a future, or as we say in Hebrew, “yesh atid.”

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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