Once upon a time, long before a career in the rabbinate was even a remote thought, I was a political science major in college. Politics and the political process fascinated me as far back as I can remember, and they still do. Although we all now know that the “Camelot” image of the Kennedy years was carefully constructed to hide its very real human flaws, I grew up quite entranced by its magic, believing that a life in politics was a noble calling… at least until Watergate. But the fascination remains…
For political junkies, even rabbinic ones, the current season of presidential primaries has been a godsend (no pun intended). Nothing so far has gone according to conventional wisdom, and the establishments of both major political parties are struggling to come to terms with unsettling insurgencies from unlikely quarters. The surprisingly robust candidacies of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have left party elders scrambling to figure out how to avoid what they view as an impending electoral disaster, and the more “conventional” candidates desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and when the world as they know it changed.
All these years later, I am watching all this play out through a rabbinic lens, and it doesn’t look quite as confusing to me. What comes to mind, repeatedly, is a verse from the Book of Proverbs (29:14), attributed by tradition to a middle-aged King Solomon. B’ein chazon, yiparah am. “Without vision, a people come apart.” Or, as the late Governor Mario Cuomo translated that Solomonic wisdom into classic contemporary political insight in an interview in The New Republic in 1985, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
It’s pretty clear to me (and by now, I would think, to a whole lot of candidates) that trying to make any headway in the current political climate by “campaigning in prose,” without some kind of compelling vision for a way out of what is deeply frustrating the American electorate, is a largely futile exercise. And that’s exactly what we’re witnessing.
Think about it. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, albeit it in radically different ways, are successfully playing to the deep-seated resentments of the American electorate, disgusted with politics as usual, by saying that they have a way to transcend the current unhappy state of affairs and reach a better place. They’re providing, loosely defined, a vision.
Trump’s vision is “making America great again,” by building a wall on the Mexican border to stem illegal immigration, barring Muslim immigration, upgrading the American military, and bombing the daylights out of ISIS. He’s got it all figured out, and all you have to do to feel better is buy into his vision. He’s short on details– extraordinarily short– but long on visionary pronouncements, and he shows no patience whatsoever for inconvenient truths. And to the point– he won overwhelmingly in New Hampshire by providing an alternative (admittedly a bizarre one) to the status quo of American politics.
Bernie Sanders, preaching what he calls “Democratic socialism,” is promising a dispirited middle class that income inequality is at the root of all that is wrong with their lives, and that he will make their lives much better by waging war on Wall Street and its “one per centers.” And he won overwhelmingly in New Hampshire, against an estimable opponent, by winning over unprecedented numbers of voters, particularly millenials, to his vision.
I don’t mean to equate Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders by making these observations. Actually, I don’t agree with either of them, though it is far easier for me, after the debacle of 2008, to appreciate what Bernie Sanders is trying to say. There’s plenty to be unhappy with in the culture of big money that dominates American politics, and he is capable of campaigning in poetry when he puts his mind to it. I just don’t love his poems. I’m not a socialist, and America is not a socialist country. But Donald Trump strikes me as a megalomaniacal opportunist playing a role in his own reality show. He’d say anything to anyone, at any time, to gain the nomination and win the prize. He is campaigning in neither poetry nor prose. It is more like protracted, random rants. But he, too, is articulating a vision, albeit a bizarre one. And he just won an important primary.
B’ein chazon, yiparah am. “Without vision, a people come apart.” Solomon’s insight from thousands of years ago still resonates with meaning
today. What we are witnessing in the current political campaign, writ large, is the detritus of years of perceived paralysis in our political system, devoid of vision, with the resultant impatience of the electorate. The emphasis on competence and experience that has fueled past political campaigns seems almost irrelevant right now, replaced by those who would purport to have an idea of how to get to a better future.
I guess the good news is that people want very much to be hopeful that the future will be better. They long to be inspired. The bad news is that there are some very strange ideas floating around of how to get there.
We need some better poets…
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.