Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

What Good Can Come from the Pandemic?

What good could come from the coronavirus? Maybe the pandemic will help improve politics.

As a chronic optimist, despite the health crisis and the developing economic disaster, I think something positive might develop out of the mess we’re all in. Of all places, it might bring some good to the political arena, which of late has been overwhelmed by populists.

Many of the the most popular and pernicious leaders who have come to power in recent years have done so mainly by dint of their communication skills: they know how to talk in ways that make crowds want to listen. Their accomplishments have  mostly been in cultivating a strong core of supporters whose loyalty to their leaders is tied to the latters’ expressions of hostility to minorities or anyone perceived as threatening the supporters’ pride, control, or sense of either.

Today, in the midst of the pandemic and impending economic crisis, perhaps voters will begin to demand more of their leaders. As long as life was moving on in what seemed like a relatively safe and clear trajectory, encouraging words and sporadic attacks on one’s neighbors was sufficient. With macroeconomic statistics looking good and no major wars on the horizon, leaders like Trump and Netanyahu maintained popularity without any significant accomplisments or plans and despite growing accusations of corruption. Now, with deaths from corona and the virus itself out of control, health care near collapse, and no vision for economic recovery, it may be that electorates will look for something more promising, like practical solutions.

Moreover, as the depth and breadth of the disaster becomes clear, opportunities for new leadership are posed. Angela Merkel, whom most of us know as the Chancellor of Germany and one of the world’s most powerful political leaders, was a researcher in quantum chemistry (with a doctorate in that field) when she stepped into the world of East German politics with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Lech Walesa, an electrician and union activist, amidst turmoil in Poland, was democratically elected its president and led it on a new course.  Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, studied forestry. Potential leaders in all fields may be able to and should be encouraged to step into the dirtied world of politics, help clean it up, and take part in re-shaping our democracies.

Of course, people with previous political experience or at least some involvement are much more likely to succeed. And some fields, especially sorts of public service, are much more compatible to the transition than others. People with business backgrounds, accustomed to seeking profit rather than understanding the citizen, generally seem to be far less fit: thus Avi Gabbay, Nir Barkat and others have been failures. Yet a wide range of public servants, from army officers to public managers, from teachers to foresters, have all proven themselves capable of developing the skills needed to identify and address the needs, problems, and challenges facing their countries. Today, honest and devoted citizens from all walks of lives should be thinking about and asked to engage, not as individuals but as movements to reshape and recapture control over our threatened societies.

It may be that in the desperation likely to spread together with the pandemic, people will make hasty and wrong choices. It may be that unrest will widen social divisions. But it may also be, as I hope and believe, that some of the gifted people in the wings will step forward and begin work on the re-building that we clearly have before us. If so, we must all work together to help bring them in to the arena that is now so sullied.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. Her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2018) won the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.
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