Through the looking glass: An Israeli perspective on American politics

“It’s probably the most interesting presidential election I’ve seen in my lifetime,” I said to an American friend the moment I arrived to Washington. My friend was upset. “For you it’s interesting,” he said. “For us it’s painful.”

“What you’ve just said rings a bell,” I said. “This is exactly, word for word, what I keep saying to foreign journalists who come to Israel to write a story.” Covering politics in Israel is like covering a professional wrestling fight: the rivals exchange numerous hits, shout at each other, humiliate each other, disregard every rule, but in most cases the outcome is known in advance.

Covering politics in Israel is like covering a professional wrestling fight…in most cases the outcome is known in advance.

Americans are supposed to play their political game in a cooler way. At least, this is the impression a foreign correspondent get when he lands here, directly from the boiling quarrels of the Middle East. 

I had the opportunity to cover almost all the U.S. presidential campaigns since Jimmy Carter’s victory over Gerald Ford in 1974. I loved it—I loved the town halls and the rallies in remote places, where people are kind and willing to answer every clueless question from a foreign reporter; I loved the access to the candidates, weeks and months before the secret service builds a wall between them and real life; I loved the hectic atmosphere, described so well in the “Making of the President” books by Theodore H. White; I loved to see how little-known candidates like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama evolve, grow, and flourish; and I enjoyed every chapter: the spins, the buzz, the role played by big money.

The election campaign seems to be different this time: It looks different; it sounds different. The key word is anger—anger dominated the selection process in both parties. Angry voters elected angry candidates. If a candidate was not angry enough—e. g. Jeb Bush—the voters judged him unfit for the job.

The election campaign seems to be different this time: It looks different; it sounds different. The key word is anger.

An accidental tourist like me pauses here for a long list of questions: how do we quantify anger? Is it limited to the ballots or can it evaporate at some point and turn into violent acts, as Donald Trump has insinuated time and again? Is it a reflection of the bitterness of specific, limited constituencies or is it something much more widespread, an outrage of a generation or a class of Americans who feel that they were betrayed by the political and business elite, by the establishment? How to explain the Trump phenomenon, the Sanders phenomenon? 

The obvious answer is the economic collapse of 2008: the people who fell victim to the 2008 crisis, who lost a home or a job or had to give up college for their children are now in revolt. Why now and not earlier? Because four years ago they were struggling to survive; they were busy. Politicizing emotions is a long process; sometimes it takes years.

Tip O’Neill, speaker of the house in the second half of the previous century, taught us that all politics is local. There is a lot of truth in it even today, but is it the whole truth? In the flat world of 2016, local politics are executed in a global way. All politics are local and global at the same time. Political actions spread from country to country like the Zika virus, using social media as carriers.

The young Sanders supporters I met in Brooklyn, during the last Democratic debate, were not much different from the young Israelis I met in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets. Those Israelis complained about similar things: high prices, loss of employment security, difficulty getting a decent job, and the ever-growing gap between expectations and reality. They were promised to live in the land of opportunity; the opportunity was not there—not for them.

Politicizing emotions is a long process; sometimes it takes years.

They complained bitterly about the banks and the major corporations. They became so big that the government has no choice but to subsidize them when they lose money. And the people who run them get huge salaries and bonuses on the expense of the shareholders and the general public. Israel used to be a social democratic society, with a strong middle class and a relatively narrow gap between rich and poor. Now the rich are very rich and get richer, and the less fortunate are left behind.

The protest was fueled by social media: another similarity between Tel Aviv and the young voters in Brooklyn and elsewhere. The brazenness, the bluntness, the rudeness of the social media culture affected the political discourse. It became less cordial and more personal. 

Israelis were not alone. The Arab Spring predated the Israeli Summer. Greece and Spain followed. Occupy Wall Street, a smaller, more radical protest movement, appeared on the streets of major American cities in the fall of 2011. It was inspired by the protests in the Arab countries and in Spain. The demonstrators faded away after a while, but they left their mark: political agendas have changed dramatically, governments fell, conventions were shuttered. It remains to be seen if and how they will contribute to social justice and equality.

In Israel, the demand for social justice captured a prominent place on the national agenda; several activists in the protest movement were elected to the Knesset; the rhetoric has changed, priorities didn’t. Not really. Most Israelis were not prepared for a revolution, not even a moderate revolution, Bernie Sanders-style. 

I have no way to know what lies ahead for the American society. What I can see so far is a unique electoral season, characterized by unusual, almost bizarre candidates, their qualification for the job questionable, and a long, destructive battle over votes. For many Americans it is painful. People in other countries can only wonder: is it the best America is able to produce?