On election day in 1984 I was stuck in LA freeway traffic, heading to the polls, planning to vote against Ronald Reagan, when I heard Walter Mondale concede on the radio. Not much point in voting. That moment perfectly typified my alienation from American electoral politics. Not only was I out of touch with the vast majority of the electorate; there was literally nothing I could do. My vote wouldn’t matter. Mondale had already given up.
Actually, my alienation had begun at least four years earlier. Many people nowadays forget how shocking it was to some of us when Reagan emerged as a credible presidential candidate. He was on the far right of the Republican party. He announced his candidacy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 – a clear dog whistle to the Old Confederacy. He also seemed like a bit of a clown, basing his policy pronouncement on colorful but false anecdotes, claiming that trees created more pollution than cars, exaggerating his military service, not knowing the difference between Grover Cleveland (the president) and Grover Alexander (the pitcher). And he was an actor, a professional entertainer! How could he be president? Yet he won in two landslides.
A former political junkie and activist, I gave up on politics for a while after 1984. I placed myself in a kind of internal exile. I flipped past the front pages of the LA Times and skipped to the sports section. I cancelled my subscription to The Nation and The New Republic. I stopped canvassing. I couldn’t name my Congressional Representative, much less my State Senator. It was a sad, sometimes awkward time (especially around my father – a big Reagan fan), but it also opened up new vistas for me, separate spheres of life that transcend politics. Friendship. Country music. Great American fiction. Kindness and empathy at the most intimate level. Modern art. Torah study. Rabbinical school.
In fact, it was in rabbinic school that I encountered the book of Ecclesiastes, a text that eerily paralleled my disenchantment with political action. “What profit for a man in all the work he does under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes and the Earth stands forever.” Politicians come and go, I thought. They may do a little good, shine a brief light, but then their opponents win, and we start over. What profit was there in their work? For Ecclesiastes, written, according to tradition, by King Solomon in his old age, there’s no famous moral arc that bends towards justice. There’s no arc at all, only a circle, as the sun rises and then sets.
While I lapped up the words of what seemed like a perfect desultory text, I also read Robert Gordis’ masterful commentary to Ecclesiastes. He, like many Jewish thinkers, wondered why this tribute to existential gloom was chosen as the primary book to study on Succot, the “festival of our joy,” our holiday of happiness. What’s happy about hopelessness, about getting nowhere? He pointed out that abandoning our sometimes wild ambitions to repair the whole world frees us up to bring what little joy and happiness we can to our small corners, our families, our work places, our neighborhoods. For Gordis, Ecclesiastes celebrates the quotidian, by eschewing the grand schemes. We’re happier at home with friends and family then we are knocking on doors, insisting on social change that may never come, or even if comes will be overturned by the next administration.
I didn’t stay stuck in Ecclesiastes. I started caring again, voting again, reading, canvassing, mostly for losing candidates. And then – what do you know – Barack Obama. Twice! But now, the dawn of the Age of Trump? Internal exile again? Back to the comforting, cyclical cynicism of the elderly King Solomon?
Maybe, but I’m not sure I ever abandoned the old King, or his essentially tragic view of human experience. I think he might be worth another look. A week or so before the election, a friend of mine told me she was optimistic about the American spirit. We won’t choose a man with the soul of a fascist, she assured me. I wanted to share her optimism, but I was in a gloomy mood, and I argued. What, I asked, makes us think we’re any different than say Serbians, or Argentinians, or Turks, or any of the multitude of people and nations that ultimately embraced dictatorial darkness? Ah, so you’re a pessimist, she said, and we changed the subject.
Maybe I am a pessimist, but for me it’s weird species of pessimism, a pessimism so radical that it meets optimism on the other side, the way radical political movements strangely converge at the extremes. Still a student of Ecclesiastes, I’m so pessimistic I’m happy. I know without doubt that large political groups will often make disastrously destructive decisions but that just frees me up to opt out, at least for now, and be the very best person I can be to my family, my friends, my co-workers. The sun sets, but it rises again. Until then, I’m back here in exile, hopefully doing some good in different ways.