Descent into demography

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 11/24/16

2016 has been a hard year for liberals and progressives around the Western world, but the election of Donald Trump, and the racist Alt-Right that have ridden in on his coattails, is the capstone on a year many of us would rather forget.

This election was not about common ground. It was not about compromises or progress. It was screaming “stop.” Stop to the rising healthcare premiums, stop to the disappearing jobs, stop to the changing demographic face of America, stop to social change that many found disconcerting.

It was a fearful cry.

One of the key characteristics of the Trump voter is social anxiety. Will their kids be as stable as they were in the country of their birth? Will newcomers get fasttracked to the middle class? Will someone listen to them if they are not a minority? Trump won because low-propensity white voters turned out in historic numbers in swing states, and the multiethnic Democratic coalition did not. America’s changing demographic face led Trump to campaign that “this would be the last election” in which a Republican would stand a chance, as amnesty for illegal immigrants would ensure a locked-in Democrat majority.

Demographic fears are something that should be familiar to Israeli voters. The now infamous statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Arabs voting in “droves” turned out his base to vote for the Likud in 2015. When given the choice between a prime minister that many might have issues with and a threatening demographic situation, Israeli Jews voted ethnicity first for fear of the others coming to get them.

It is not just the Right that has used demography in political campaigns in Israel.

Still today, many in the Center and the Left call for a two-state solution based on the demographic futures that they fear, and believe that this strategy will win over voters to their cause. This strategy has failed for the past decade and continues to create further obstacles to the political possibilities of the Arab parties in the Knesset needed to support a Center-Left coalition, something essential if the Center-Left ever wishes to form a government.

The descent into demography, to looking at someone’s racial identity as political destiny, is a challenging phenomenon for liberal democracies. If racial minorities are seen as demographic threats, every interaction with the minority is threatening and every child born is seen as another solider in the battle for supremacy.

This type of social anxiety is difficult to combat. It assumes a zero-sum game where if one group is succeeding, another by definition must be losing.

It can’t be that the progressive communities answer this social anxiety by giving up on hard-fought wins for marginalized communities. If coming together and listening to each other is just a form of surrender of one community to the other, then the zero-sum game continues and the societal divisions are exacerbated.

Rather than just attempting purposeless dialogue, we need to seek out shared projects where each community has a stake in the success of the outcome. If our communities are hopelessly divided, we need to find the activities that can bond them and help deal with the fear of the other that is fueling so much of the anxiety that hit a boiling point in this past election in America.

The former UK chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has written about a “home we build together” – the joint work of different groups in building shared institutions that form the backbone of a cohesive society.

In both America and in Israel, building inclusive projects, ones that have stakeholders from across the diverse communities that make up each society, are the foundation to realizing the equality that is promised in both Israel and America’s founding statements.

As the Left in both countries tries to examine their path forward, issues rather than demographics should be the rallying cry. Defending hard-won principles while finding common cause across people of different identity is the challenging but true path back to leadership.
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