Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Personality or Policy: Which Do We Really Vote For?

When Americans or Israelis go to the polls, what do most vote for: the policies of the candidates, or their personal traits? Based on what the media cover, it would seem to be mostly the latter. However, a closer look at the results of recent election campaigns in both countries paints a different, or at least far more complex picture.

Let’s take the Israeli case first. The country’s longest ruling prime minister – Bibi Netanyahu – has several personal strikes against him. First, a self-admitted adulterer (in the 1990s), on national television no less! Second, a widely reported penchant for stinginess, i.e., not paying for anything out of his own pocket – whether restaurant bills (including when not prime minister) or even recently asking for a tax rebate for all renovations in his private Caesarea home because he conducts some governmental business there (something that no previous PM ever considered, and even the PM office legal advisor has opposed). Third, an inability to tolerate anyone around him, who might be a potential competitor in the future; the list of such “Bibi political discards” is staggering.

Fourth, and more “up-to-date”: three major indictments and an upcoming (consolidated) criminal trial. This after he declared in 2008 on Israeli TV Channel 2 (my translation): “A Prime Minister who is up to his neck in investigations does not have a moral and public mandate to make critical decisions for the State of Israel because there exists real doubt (I say “real” and not unsupported) that he will make a decision based on personal interest regarding his political survival, and not the national interest. The right thing to do is for this government to go home” (https://www.the7eye.org.il/257711).

So how to explain such an obviously severely flawed personality being “reelected” time and time again? (The quote marks, because other than in 1996, he has been elected as leader of the largest party and not directly). The answer in a nutshell: his policies. One can disagree or agree with the things that he has done (and there are strong arguments in both directions), but it is clear that a large plurality of Israelis appreciate his tough stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians, his economic leadership, and his general foreign policy vis-a-vis friends and foes alike. Thus, while the media spend almost all its energy on “Bibi the personality”, a good part of the public doesn’t care much for his many flaws – it’s what he does, not what he is, that counts for them.

When we turn our attention to the U.S., the issue becomes a bit muddied. By all “objective” accounts, President Trump is a deeply flawed individual in so many ways that they need not be recounted here. What about his political program? Here, of course, one can argue about this or that policy, but by now it is clear that in most of the important areas he failed – in some cases, miserably. His “good friend” in North Korea has not given up any nuclear ambitions; by removing the U.S. from the Iranian nuclear treaty, Trump has enabled the Iranians to move full speed ahead to once again enrich their nuclear stockpile; his tariffs policy has failed – the U.S. trade deficit is higher in 2020 than it was in 2016; he has given “democratic” dictators a virtual free hand: Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Bolsinaro et al. Domestically, under his watch and even with his indirect encouragement, white nationalists were declared by the FBI to be America’s main domestic terror threat; Corona – around 280,000 American deaths (in reality, closer to 380,000 when one looks at “excess deaths” during this whole period) because Trump refused to have the Federal government coordinate any program (other than disbursing some cash to American citizens) – even pooh-poohing the severity of the pandemic.

And yet, he almost won the 2020 election! Because of policy or personality? Even most of his staunchest supporters don’t believe many of his canards and fake news tweets. What they do like is what he stands for: keeping “white” American values (i.e., stopping illegal immigration from Latin America; even making it harder for Asiatic students to study in the U.S.); “kicking ass” against the federal government’s elite Establishment, and of course ensuring that the Supreme Court stays conservative – hopefully revoking Roe vs Wade (abortion), loosening religious restrictions when they controvert liberal policies (e.g., gay marriage),. And protecting religious freedom where threatened (e.g., the very recent Supreme Court decision to annul New York’s restrictions on church and synagogue attendance).

All of this is somewhat paradoxical as political parties in Israel and the U.S. don’t put much effort into their respective election platforms – and the media hardly even mention them. Nevertheless, the electorate does take notice – not so much what the candidates (or the parties) say, but what they actually do. Quite clearly in both countries, the public cares a lot less about the flaws of the candidates (reminder: boring “Sleepy Joe” won the election) than it does about the laws that they will promote one way or the other.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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