August 19, 2019

Politics versus humanity

It’s hard to root for an attitude. It’s a lot easier to root for an ideology or a team.

More and more, politics has become a “rooting for my team” phenomenon. No matter what happens in the world — even the shooting of U.S. lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans will try to turn it to their advantage. “Partisan animus is at an all-time high,” said Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist, to the New York Times this week.

Politics seems to have taken over our lives. It colors how we judge people, how we choose friendships, how we experience culture, how we judge ourselves.

How did politics become so all-consuming?

If you ask me, I think it starts at the top. Our last three presidents, from Bush to Obama to Trump, all wanted to play God. Regardless of their differing ideologies, they thought they could transform the world in their image. Instead of making politics more humble, they made it more arrogant, as if politics and policy could solve everything.

No modern president has ever had the guts to tell the American people this simple truth:

“My fellow Americans: The pursuit of your happiness and personal fulfillment is not determined by whether you vote Democrat or Republican. Your vote does make a difference, but so does your character and your willingness to improve the little world around you. In fact, the success of this country is very much dependent on how you act within your families and communities.

“By all means choose your parties, pick your causes and cast your votes. But don’t let those votes define you or how you view our country. America is bigger than that, and so are you. Our government depends on you as much as you depend on us. Regardless of how you vote, will you embrace our liberty with a sense of responsibility? Will you see the humanity in those with whom you disagree? Will you honor your obligations as much as you fight for your rights? These questions are as crucial to our future as our debates about policy.”

Which politician could ever get away with such humility and honesty? Politics is the very opposite of humility. To win our votes, politicians must promise the moon and play to our weakness– to our secret desire to have others take care of our problems. They puff themselves up while diminishing their opponents. And the more they fight, the more entertaining the spectacle becomes, the more the media laps it up.

This dramatic brew of overpromise, hero worship and fierce combat, combined with the social media revolution, has conspired to make politics the pervasive cultural force it has become. Is it any wonder that friendships and families can break up over politics? We’re hypnotized by the team we’re rooting for. When our team is losing, we can easily succumb to anger and even rage. Some of us can lose our minds.

This is not to downplay the importance of policy. For people in dire need of help, and for many others, policy can mean life or death. But when we allow policy and politics to define us to the point that we can’t see the humanity or validity in any “other side,” we undermine the value of both politics and policy. It becomes more about power and winning. Go Lakers.

I’m hardly immune from such bouts of partisanship. I also have a tendency to root for “my team.” At the same time, I’ve noticed that some of my deepest friendships are with those on the opposite side of my political views. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because our political differences just accentuate the strength of our human connection.

As much as I love to follow the political scene, the question I try to ask myself is: What will make my life better and more meaningful? Is it to root for my team at the expense of everything else? Is it to block myself off from alternative or inconvenient views? Is it to expect from politics what it can never give me?

While I have my political preferences and I enjoy fighting for my views, I also know that politics has its limits. Politicians can promise me the world, and some of them can even do great things, but I know they’ll never come to my house to set up my Shabbat table or help me raise my kids or play some great music. Not even God can do that.

That’s the attitude I root for.