This has been the most unusual election that I can ever remember in my lifetime. Now that the results are in, half of America is elated and euphoric. And, the other half is devastated and in a state of shock.
I count myself among the disappointed. I’m disappointed that America elected a person who made fun of the handicapped, who bragged about assaulting women, and whose tweets could have been lifted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I think that America made the wrong call. But, America has the right to make the wrong call. That’s the way our democracy works. I was glad to see the president elect Trump was gracious in victory. And, I was equally glad to see that Hillary Clinton was gracious in defeat.
Politics is not for the faint hearted. People of each side say nasty things about each other. And, it is tempting to say that this is just the way the game is played. I am reminded of football games that are played with tremendous intensity. And, then when game is over, you see the players from both sides chatting amiably, patting each other on the shoulder, as if ten seconds ago they weren’t mortal enemies.
But, I don’t think this is an exact analogy. We are much slower to heal from verbal attacks than physical attacks. Verbal attacks are much more personal. And, this has been an especially contentious campaign. The verbal combat was so intense that in one of the debates, the moderator actually asked each candidate to say something nice about the other one. When they did, it was a moment of huge relief.
I’ve never seen that happen before. And, I think the reason it happened is that in this campaign more than any other, the way we speak to each other when we disagree, the way we see each other was an issue in and of itself.
This did not begin with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The decline in civil discourse in America has been building for years. I know people whom I love and respect who are convinced that President Obama is an evil man and that he hates the American people and that he hates Jews. And, I know equally nice people who see no difference between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. Those attitudes are a problem for American democracy. Because it is only a short jump from seeing a leader as evil and seeing the people who support that leader as evil. Is this really how we want to run our country?
Marriage counselors like John Gottman tell us that couples who stay together learned to disagree without contempt for each other. That’s just as true for a nation that stays together. And, we’re having a hard time doing that right now. Somehow, we have to find a way to move beyond mutual contempt.
I want to go back to a moment shortly before the election. When it looked to Donald Trump that he might lose, he began to tell his supporters that the election was rigged. And, in response, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who supported Hillary, wrote an article called “How to Rig an Election.” And, in his article, Krugman says the election was rigged by partisan media like Fox News which trumpeted falsehoods, and then retracted them so quietly that almost nobody heard.
Both Krugman and Trump were wrong. They were using the word ‘rigged’ in a very loose way to mean ‘unfair’ or ‘biased’. So, no, this election was not rigged, not in the usual way we use this word. But, I’d like to unpack for a moment the anxiety that’s underneath this word, because I think it holds the key to our moving forward as a nation.
When you say something is rigged, you mean that the outcome is pre-determined. And, in this election, at one time or the other, you could feel the frustration of both sides—a feeling of helplessness— a feeling that things were set in stone—and an anxiety that we couldn’t do anything about it.
A few weeks ago, Krista Tippet responded to an email inquiry about the election. Krista Tippet is a journalist who interviews people on her podcast “On Being.” She has conversations with all kinds of people—architects, astronomers, musicians, Buddhist monks. And, the common denominator for these interviews is the spiritual side of the work these people do.
Recently, Tippet received the following inquiry: “In light of this year’s election, do you still believe in the power of conversation to open people’s minds? I try to include in my social circle people who are different from me politically. I don’t want an echo chamber. But, when I was asked recently to defend Hillary to a Trump supporter, I wondered ‘what is the point?’
Krista Tippet decided to respond to this letter in a 7 minute video to the public. And, she said that we often make the mistake of thinking we have failed if we don’t convince the person we’re talking to. But, the purpose of conversation is to establish a connection with the other person, not to implant in them our ideas. Another way of saying this is that, too often, our conversations are rigged. We are not entering them with an open mind.
And, an alternative to that communication style is suggested by today’s parasha. God says to Abraham, ‘lech lecha mei’artzecha’. Literally this means ‘leave your land.” Land is something that is fixed. It doesn’t move or change. So, what God is really saying to Abraham is ‘leave your certainties. Have the courage to let go of a pre-determined assumptions. And, go to ‘a land I will show you.’ Be brave enough to enter unknown territory.
The midrash compares Abraham to a bottle of perfume that is opened and is moved around the room. In this way, Abraham began to travel and teach and have an impact. But, Aviva Zornberg points out that perfume is a stimulant for romance. It’s not the love itself.
So, the genius of Abraham was not that he implanted his ideas into the minds of his listeners. It’s that he got people excited about learning. And, the same can be said of God’s teaching. The Torah compares God’s relationship with us to an eagle that stirs up the nest, beating its wings against the nest so that the little ones get all agitated and start to lift off on their own.
When God approaches Abraham with the news that God is about to destroy the wicked Sodom, God is stirring the nest. God is provoking Abraham, agitating him to think, to challenge, to wrestle with moral decisions on his own.
Zornberg says the purpose of God’s addressing Abraham is not to impart a fixed content. It’s to awaken an inner vitality. And, Abraham rises to the occasion.
This is a great model for democratic discourse. The purpose of an election campaign is not for us to implant our fixed ideas into the minds of the other side. That’s not a conversation. That’s rigged. That’s two sides encountering each other with a pre-determined outcome in mind.
Our problem is that both sides, Democrats and Republicans, look at each other as caricatures. We don’t see each other as real people. Democrats need to learn that it’s not reasonable to dismiss half the country as yahoos and rednecks. We cannot claim to be tolerant and exclude white working class people, or people who go to church every week. We cannot claim to be inclusive if we see black poor as ‘cool’ and white poor as ‘trash’.
Republicans have to stop dismissing half the country as being an elite, as if anyone with a college education is a snob whose greatest pleasure in life is to make life miserable for people who do the real work of this country with their hands. That is a ridiculous stereotype. And, it’s a ridiculous stereotype and a dangerous one to categorize every immigrant or illegal alien as a criminal or a freeloader.
We don’t know each other. We each live in our own bubble. And, if we are going to heal as a nation, we have to change that. We have to change the way we speak to each other. We have to change the way we see each other. And, to do that, we have to re-imagine the purpose of our political conversations. The purpose of our conversation is not for us to implant our ideas into our robotic opponents who don’t understand what we do.
That’s not democracy. Democracy is a conversation that awakens the inner vitality of the American people. It stimulates thought. It generates nuanced debate. It opens us to each other. It changes us, all of us, as we learn from each other. It brings out a potential for us that otherwise would remain asleep.
It’s not too late for us and our new president elect to learn this lesson. It’s not too late for us to learn to see those who see the world differently than we do, not as our enemies, but as our greatest allies.