Why most politicians ignore social problems

For the past five years, as a member of Jerusalem’s City Council, I have held the portfolio for the elderly, the portfolio for the advancement of people with disabilities, and the portfolio for public health. In all three, I was happy to find willing and eager partners among social activists to deal with a wide range of issues in each of these fields. In terms of the elderly, we formed a council for the elderly that spun off numerous committees that promoted such causes as informing Holocaust survivors of their entitlements, creating a network of volunteers for home-bound elderly, and many other initiatives. For the disabled, a committee I formed managed to see to the establishment of a department for accessibility and to set a national precedent by giving preference to companies that employ disabled in city tenders, among other things.

Most of these initiatives won the personal endorsement of the mayor. Yet almost none of this work was covered by any of the media, and not because we didn’t try. We were repeatedly told that old and disabled people don’t interest anyone and won’t sell papers. I don’t know if this is true or not – I tend to think that people are genuinely interested in what their society looks like – but in any case we never got the chance to put the matter to the test. Considering the average politician is dependent on media coverage, as long as the media refrains from addressing these issues, the average politician will refrain from dealing with them as well.

In political campaigns, and certainly the one now underway in Jerusalem, social causes have been almost completely ignored. To my sorrow, most of the campaign focuses on people’s pictures, slogans, and a mixed bag of claims that are mostly untrue. Other parts include empty promises, often completely unrelated or beyond the ability of a candidate to implement. A huge amount of time and resources is spent on wasted paper propaganda that few read and even fewer care about. The large majority of the posters are designed to penetrate a given name into someone’s consciousness in order to make them more familiar with the name and more amenable to it when it appears on the ballot. One of the consequences of this sort of campaign is that one’s accomplishments, interests and aspirations receive little attention and the winner is usually the one whose blind ambition and confidence lead them to a willingness to spend outrageous amounts of money to get elected, at almost any cost.

Apart from that, most parties don’t put social progress very high on their agenda. The people living on the periphery of society tend to vote less, and therefore, what doesn’t bring votes doesn’t get done. Moreover, politicians are always looking to the next election and want to be able to show results. The results of investment of resources in social causes usually take more time to be seen than the average term and therefore provide another reason for bumping them down the ladder of priorities. A third reason why politicians don’t deal with social issues is that more and more parties are sectorial, and matters such as the elderly and improving their wellbeing have repercussions for a variety of populations from different backgrounds, whereas the average politician, if he is religious or Ashkenazi or a settler or belongs to any other portion of the population, won’t devote himself to a cause that might –unintentionally! – benefit someone else from a rival sector.

Another reason parties don’t confront social issues is that most parties don’t really function today except around election time, and on a local level, there’s a growth in local lists that have no ideological or broader political backing whatsoever. What this means is that a politician on a local list in a local election will spend the overriding bulk of his time doing things that will get him immediate attention, won’t cost too much money or effort, and will be marketable for the next election: one of the reasons I had the privilege of being able to address some of the pressing social problems in my city was that I had the backing of a party, all of its resources and an ideological stand that encouraged me to do so. Unfortunately, most of the other socially active politicians I know are no longer even on the ballot. In the end, one conclusion is that anyone who really has a heart for social matters and wants to see them advanced in the political sphere has to back a real party and not a local one that will shy from addressing any matter without an immediate return.

With the press, the parties, and the kind of campaigning as they have developed today, it is not surprising – though wildly disappointing – that Israel is now suffering from social gaps and crises despite the fact that I think the average Israeli would want to see it otherwise. It seems that the only way that this neglect will be corrected is if the public makes its concerns heard, as it began to do two summers ago, and no less important, support political parties – and not just photogenic and talkative candidates – with both a clear ideology and the wherewithal to realize it. In addition, it has to resist the temptation to create sectarian boundaries instead of trying to overcome them. Here’s hoping some of these things will begin to happen.

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 Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the Department of Government at Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed a Master's degree and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than a decade.
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