One of the saddest changes that has occurred in the political conduct of western democracies over the last 20 years has been the tendency of election victors to gloat.
For example, ever since the US presidential election of 2016, President Trump continues to gloat over his victory, reminding people almost daily that close to 63 million people voted for him. Of course, he conveniently fails to mention that just under 66 million people voted for his opponent and that the 3 million-vote difference was in her favor not his.
This week in Israel, we witnessed a similar situation. An untested retired 3-star general and former IDF chief of staff decided to challenge the incumbent prime minister and, although the general had never previously run for office, he received just about the same number of votes as the incumbent. Quite amazing to be sure. Yet, Prime Minister Netanyahu claims he scored an outstanding victory.
Of course, it is likely that President Rivlin will ask Netanyahu to form the next government, as he seems to have the support of most of both the smaller right wing and religious parties. However, Benny Gantz’s performance as a first time politician was impressive nonetheless and some will see it as a successful rebuke of the sitting prime minister.
In both cases, and others that we have witnessed in Europe as well, the political leadership has failed to heed the words of Mishlei (i.e. Proverbs) 24:17 that says: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
The cause of this shift, of course, is the movement away from the concept of a civic religion, which used to be the operating political basis of democracies. What was that? Simply a policy that an election would be held and the day after the loser would graciously state that for the good and welfare of the political entity involved, the people had to band together and support the winner so that the community can move forward.
When a civic religion informs the operative values of the electorate, progress is possible even after a bitterly contested election. On that topic, Chuck Knox of blessed memory, the former coach of the Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills was fond of saying: “Winning and losing are both very temporary things. Having done one or the other, you move ahead. Gloating over a victory or sulking over a loss is a good way to stand still.” Indeed!
Civic religion, for those not familiar with the term, is a sociological theory that a nonsectarian quasi-religious faith exists within a political entity with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. The concept goes back to the 19th century, but in current form, the theory was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 in his article, “Civil Religion in America”.
Political sociologist Anthony Squiers argues that this results in a concept called “the politics of the sacred.” The Politics of the Sacred, according to Squiers are “the attempt to define and dictate what is in accord with the civic religion sacred and what is not. It is a battle to define what can and cannot be and what should and should not be tolerated and accepted in the community, based on its relation to that which is sacred for that community.”
Western democracies traditionally have been examples of this theory but, sadly, one by one they seem to be abandoning those values and sinking to gutter level politics from which a return to mutual respect becomes all the more challenging.
Which brings us back to gloating. Anyone with half a brain knows that gloating over someone else’s loss demonstrates the smallness of the person who gloats rather than demeaning the loser. The days following an election are not the time to gloat but the time to coalesce around the basic values that brought the nation in question to this time and place.
It was former US Senator John McCain who, during his lifetime clearly stated on many occasions: “Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again.” Truer words were never spoken and let’s hope our current leadership takes the time to internalize them.