Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Why the Democrats must get on the teshuvah train

The end of Tishah B’Av last Sunday evening marked the beginning of the seven-week period that will come to an end as Labor Day 2021 morphs, toward evening, into Rosh Hashanah 5782.

The time has come to begin preparing to do teshuvah, meaning to take stock of who we are and how we live our lives—and how better we can live those lives in the year to come, both for ourselves and for the world around us.

If only the people we elect to work for the public good understood the concept of teshuvah—especially those in the Democratic Party. Elections are supposed to be a performance report on how well our politicians have served us, but Republicans and Democrats both know that elections are nothing of the sort, so there is no reason for them to do teshuvah for their failures. Campaigns today are not about where candidates stand on issues and how they have served those issues. Campaigns are all about blinding voters to the truth of things with distortions and lies.

One of the greatest weapons in politicians’ armories these days to accomplish voter blindness is fear. They find something voters truly fear and then do their best to turn that fear into votes—either for themselves or against their opponents.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats actually understand the role fear played in 2020; it was a weapon that actually helped Republicans, even if they do not seem to realize it. The weapon the Grand Old Party thinks it has going forward is Donald Trump; at least, virtually every Republican running for re-election in 2022 seems to think so. Trump, however, lost convincingly in 2020—not so much because more voters favored Joe Biden, but because so many voters feared Donald Trump. It was that fear that let Biden flip five states Trump won in 2016—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those states rejected Trump in 2020 because Trump scared them.

Something else, however, scared voters in 2020—socialism. The Democrats, as I wrote in a column last November, should have swept a huge majority into the House of Representatives in 2020, but instead they lost seats in the one part of the federal government that was purposely designed to be the most sensitive to voter opinion. Simply stated, people did not like the direction Republicans told them the Democrats were taking. Democrats also should have wrested control of the Senate, by a narrow margin at least, but the best they could achieve was a 50-50 split.

Socialism—or, rather, the fear that the Democrats are socialists in disguise — is the reason why the Democrats did so poorly in the congressional races. The GOP, taking its lead from its party’s standard-bearer, effectively sold many American voters on the notion that the Democrats were shifting to a far-left, socialist agenda bordering on communism. Trump said as much during the 2020 campaign when he referred to then Sen. Kamala Harris as “a communist.” As Trump told a Fox News interviewer, “She’s not a socialist. She’s well beyond a socialist.”

Over and again, voters were told that the Democratic party had been taken over by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.), and “the Squad”—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).

No less than the American way of life was at stake, Trump said in a campaign speech last August. The Democrats were “a radical movement” out “to completely dismantle and destroy” that life. The choice, he said, was between protecting it or turning the country over “to violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals who threaten our citizens.” The message resonated with too many Americans, even if Trump himself did not.

Another sign that too many Americans bought that message can be seen in how poorly the Democrats fared on the statewide level. One of the outcomes of an election in any year ending in a zero is redistricting. State legislatures are poised to begin redrawing their state’s election districts for the next 10 years. Obviously, the party in control of a state’s legislature will divide its state in a way that most benefits it. Because Democrats did not do well in state legislative elections, Republicans have a huge redistricting advantage. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice recently released a study that showed Republicans will have complete control of the new boundaries for 181 to 188 of the country’s congressional districts, compared to a maximum of 74 districts for Democrats.

The idea that labeling an opponent a socialist is a powerful election weapon also is borne out by recent surveys. In a 2020 Gallup poll, 53 percent of respondents said they would not vote for a socialist presidential candidate, no matter how qualified, while 45 percent said they would. That is why Gallup terms socialism an “electoral liability.” If voters will not vote for a socialist presidential candidate, it is not likely that they would vote for socialists in other races.

The message to the Democrats, as I wrote last November, is this: Either stick to the middle of the political road or get shoved onto the shoulder.

Instead of sticking to the road, at least one segment of the party is aiming for the shoulder by declaring war on the rest of their party. The GOP will have no reason to resort to “divide and rule,” as Alexander the Great’s father Philip II of Macedon coined it, because the Democrats are doing the dividing all by themselves.

A sizeable contingent of Democrats, beginning in the House with the Squad, is determined to turn the GOP’s 2020 socialist specter into a 2022 reality. That move is being spearheaded by a political action committee known as the Justice Democrats, which, as its website says, wants to “transform the Democratic Party … by running primary challengers against out-of-touch Democratic incumbents….”

By “out-of-touch … incumbents” the Justice Democrats mean anyone who is more concerned with reaching compromises on critical legislation than with seeing that legislation go down in flames because it is too radical to garner a majority. The country, for example, desperately needs the infrastructure bill President Biden recently worked out with a bipartisan group of senators, but it is not likely to pass the House because the Squad and its allies do not believe it goes far enough. They would rather have no loaf than settle for half of one. Nothing, to them, is better than something.

If their effort succeeds, and those insurgent Democrats do win nomination, the GOP will be handed the one issue that 2020 proved to be its most effective one. Adding to the mix is the anticipated redistricting. A so-called safe Democratic district today may not be as safe as it was in 2022, so if a Democrat running in such a district is considered too radical for voters in November, it could cost the Democrats the House next year.

The first incumbent the Justice Democrats have set their 2022 sights on tells us all we need to know. It is Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents New York’s 12th Congressional District. She is a lifelong liberal who often leans to progressive. What Maloney is not is an advocate of the Squad, which means she must go.

To counter this insurgency comes Team Blue PAC, which House Democratic Caucus chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York recently formed with Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and New Democrat Coalition co-chair Terri A. Sewell of Alabama. As Gottheimer said in an interview, “the only way we can win the majority is to have a big-tent party.” The Justice Democrats want that big tent torn down.

Sticking to the middle road, as I argued last November, is the only thing that will keep the Democrats relevant judging by last year’s results and the poll numbers.

Judaism, as that column noted, has much to say about the middle path. Deuteronomy warns us against going anywhere but down that middle path (see, for example, Deuteronomy 5:19 and 28:13). Even the king must travel down the middle (see Deuteronomy 17:20), and, by extension, so must all leaders of the people. Proverbs urges us to “Survey the course you take, and all your ways will prosper. Do not swerve to the right or the left.” (See Proverbs 4:26-27.)

Maimonides, the Rambam, put it this way: “The right way is … that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes,… not being nearer to the one than to the other….” (See his Mishnah Torah, Laws relating to moral dispositions and ethical conduct, 1:4.)

The Squad, the Justice Democrats, and their ilk are not interested in being “equally distant from the two extremes.” For them, it is all or nothing at all. In the end, they — and we all in this country — will get nothing. Survey after survey makes that clear.

Republicans may think embracing Trumpism is the path to victory. The “ism” they should be zeroing in on, though, is socialism.

The Democrats need to get on to the teshuvah train before it is too late.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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