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Making Meaning, Making Plans, Making Peace

Now that the noise, worry and effort of the most expensive, most negative election season in American history is past, we can return, presumably, to our lives. ‘Change’ has won the day, so how will our lives change over the next two years? Here’s what five Jewish writers have to say about what happened, with implications for what happens next.

You Can’t Demoralize Your Base

By Paul Rogat Loeb

Money and fear drove this election. The fear came because people have lost their money — their jobs, their savings, their homes, with 17% of Americans unemployed or underemployed. It would be hard for any party to prevail in such circumstances. Looking back to Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, when one in six Americans were out of work, the Democrats swept in 1934, in both the Senate and House. But they had a president who overtly challenged the “money changers” of Wall Street, and representatives that did far more to address the economic crisis.

The Obama administration has had real accomplishments, but it compromised so as to mobilize the Republican base while totally demoralizing its own. By letting an obstructed Senate lead on issues like health care, Obama allowed corporate-beholden senators such as Ben Nelson, Max Baucus and Blanche Lincoln to become the prime public face of the Democratic party, and it was a pretty ugly picture. By placing veteran Wall Street allies like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers in key visible roles, Obama also made it exceptionally hard for the Democrats to distance themselves from the resurrected classic narrative that blames the liberals for simultaneously coddling the undeserving poor as well as their presumed bosses, the Wall Street bankers. Although Obama challenged the destructiveness of recklessly speculative capital, his criticisms were ambivalent and fleeting. And though the Democrats did make an issue of the flood of corporate dollars unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, even that was brief and inconsistent.

As a result, grassroots Democrats were angry and demoralized. When they did participate, it was reluctantly and often only in the final days, while the most predatory companies in America blanketed the airwaves through anonymous attack ads. Key voting segments that had carried the Democrats in 2008 never made it to the polls. Disgruntled to begin with, and never really reached by volunteers, they decided that the entire game of politics was simply too corrupt for them to participate.

The blame isn’t entirely on Obama, though. The Roosevelt era had organized citizen movements that actively pressed the president from day one. Those who carried Obama to office didn’t create follow-up movements, or engage enough people in them to give them clout. Instead, most spent far more time griping about the shortcomings of the Democrats than engaging their neighbors, rallying in the streets, showing up at town halls and community meetings, or doing anything else that could have actually changed America’s politics in the directions they wanted. If we want a better politics we’re going to have to act now, with enough persistence to once again turn the tide.

Paul Rogat Loeb ( is the author of the updated new edition of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times,” and “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear.”

Slouching Toward Gridlock

By Katha Pollitt

Americans are hurting — losing jobs, homes, hope — and they lashed out against the Democrats for helping Wall Street instead of Main Street. No, Americans are basically pretty conservative and a little bit racist too — they heaved Democrats out of office because the first black president was too liberal, pushing through the stimulus, auto industry bailout and health care, and, with his Kenyan father and international upbringing, not a “real American.” Those are the two storylines Democrats will be debating as we try to move forward from the debacle of the midterms.

The problem is, both positions are partly true. No party in power can expect to do well with 10% official unemployment — much more if you include those who’ve stopped looking for work — and a terrible housing market. If the economy had picked up, Obama would have looked like a genius to voters, even though, actually, the president doesn’t have all that much to do with the ups and downs of capitalism. On the other hand, the success of far-right candidates like Rand Paul, the new Kentucky senator who has expressed doubts about the Civil Rights Act of l964, and the defeat of outspoken progressives like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, suggests that voters are not necessarily going Republican because, as progressives like to think, no one is putting forward the progressive case clearly and vigorously enough. To a lot of Americans, Obama is just too far left, even though to those on the left end of the spectrum, he’s a big disappointment. Moreover, since we will now experience more or less total gridlock in Washington at least until 2012, we will never know who is right.

On the plus side, at least we now know that it isn’t always possible for wealthy amateurs to buy their way into office by spending the equivalent of the national budget of Belgium.

Katha Pollitt writes the “Subject to Debate” column for The Nation and is the author of several volumes of nonfiction and poetry.

Rebellion Against a Sellout

By Dovid Efune

As I watched the electoral results unfold, I felt like I was watching an episode of the hit TV medical mystery drama “House,” with pundits and pollsters attempting to place a finger on the hot button issue of discontent. It seemed to me, as is often the case on the show, they were in actuality only skirting around the symptoms of an underlying major malady.

According to polls, while most voters agreed that the economy is a primary matter of concern, far fewer laid the blame for their financial woes at the feet of President Obama himself. Having said that, more than half of all voters do consider this election a referendum on the President’s performance in general and have now strongly voiced their disapproval.

What took place was nothing short of an electoral seismic shift, and such a shift doesn’t take place in answer to one single issue or another, but to address an overwhelming sense of betrayal, a departure from core values and ideals.

When was the last time in the history of American politics that public disappointment gave birth to a new movement? A movement, no less, that is dedicated to reminding America’s leaders of the founding principles of their country and of its place in the world?

In truth, American politics runs much deeper than the superficial issues that many are faced with. Though there are numerous matters of concern, this election was a battle for the American soul, and the clarion call of the nation is loud and clear: President Obama has sold out.

This election result was a statement from a country that is tired of wading in the effacing waters of moral relativism and is demanding from its leaders a return to its founding moral code rooted in justice and clear boundaries of right and wrong, carrying the American identity with pride and conviction.

Dovid Efune is the managing director of the Algemeiner Journal and the Gershon Jacobson Foundation and can be e-mailed at [email protected].

The Year of Many Women

By Irin Carmon

On CNN the morning after election night, a Democratic strategist called Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell “the Snooki of American politics.” That’s true, to the extent that she was an entertaining exercise in un-self-aware buffoonery with little impact beyond that: a television creation now relegated to a profitable punchline.

For women, last night’s election was at best a mixed picture. Relatively moderate businesswomen like Linda McMahon in Connecticut, and Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, were unable to close the deal, despite their millions. The idea that female political leadership could plausibly emerge from the boardroom was, for now, refuted.

Or should we say refudiated? The cartoonish, Sarah Palin-sponsored O’Donnell and Sharron Angle in Nevada were also trounced. Palin’s anti-intellectualism was poison to Jewish voters who might have been eyeing the McCain ticket in 2008, and it seems safe to assume that her raft of willfully ignorant “Mama Grizzlies” had the same effect on Jewish voters this year. Though Republicans trumpeted their own year of the woman, women’s interests are not advanced by those who not only support policies that limit women’s choices, but who tar all female candidates with their own unseriousness. (The two newcomer “Mama Grizzlies” who did prevail as governors, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, have a chance to prove that they’ve actually read the Constitution.)

Despite the grim losses for the Democrats, the general repudiation of the lazy supposition that women will vote for women, no matter how unimpressive or reactionary, is a silver lining. So is the fact that outspoken liberal Jewish feminist Barbara Boxer held on to her Senate seat, despite ads depicting her as uppity for demanding she be called Senator. It was women voters’ mistrust in Connecticut that helped topple McMahon in favor of (Jewish Democrat) Richard Blumenthal; as of this writing we don’t know if they did the same to Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck in Colorado, who polled very poorly with women. His opponent, Michael Bennet (the son of a Jewish Holocaust refugee), with pro-choice bonafides, looked to women to make up the difference. For the sake of women’s interests, let’s hope it worked.

Irin Carmon is a staff writer at

A Referendum on Liberalism

By Jonathan S. Tobin

For the last two years since the overwhelming Democratic victory in the 2008 election, Jewish liberals have dismissed the rising tide of discontent over the Obama administration’s policies as the rantings of extremists and racists. The Tea Party movement, a genuinely populist uprising generated by Obama’s decision to force down the throats of an unwilling Congress and electorate a stimulus boondoggle and a health care bill that massively expanded government power, has been ascribed by elite opinion as based in hate rather than reasoned differences with the president’s ideology-driven policies.

But now that the midterm election has served effectively as a referendum on the president’s performance, it’s more than clear that attempts to ignore or put down the voters’ dissatisfaction with the liberal cast of the administration’s record won’t work. The historic repudiation of Obama illustrates that such attitudes are hopelessly out of touch with political reality.

This election was decided on economic issues and the odds are the 2012 presidential race may similarly hinge on unemployment and the public’s revulsion against tax-and-spend liberalism. But in the intervening two years, foreign policy issues may prove increasingly important. President Obama’s off-and-on hostility toward Israel’s government and his feckless efforts to cope with Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons are examples of a foreign policy that is every bit as disastrous as his domestic failures. Those on the Jewish left who invested in the idea that J Street, a lobby group that sought to whip up support for Obama administration pressure on Israel, could supplant the mainstream AIPAC lobby now find themselves more isolated than ever. This is due to the increased number of conservative Republicans in Congress who are ardent supporters of Israel, and the defeat of J Street-endorsed Democrats such as Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania.

Like the president, who seems to lack the flexibility and the temperament to tack to the center and save his presidency in the way that Bill Clinton did after a similar debacle in 1994, the Jewish left finds itself at a crossroads. The repudiation of Obama’s policy agenda may not lead the majority of Jewish voters to rethink their lockstep liberalism, but it ought to remind them that contempt for the sensibilities of a country that is still basically center-right is a self-defeating political strategy.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine and a contributor to its blog at He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected].


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