Rabbi Jordan Bendatt-Appell was recently captured in a you-know-as-soon-as-you-see-it-it's-absolutely-iconic photograph protesting on behalf of immigrants and refugees, son on his shoulders, alongside a Muslim father-son duo engaged in the same. As it turns out, they went on to engage in conversation, leading to a Sabbath meal together. Enough said.
As it so happens, I've had the privilege to learn and study with this sweet, insightful Rabbi as a member of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Clergy Cohort. On retreat, he offer valuable guidance for meditation practice, dispensing piercingly deep teachings with a light touch. I offer two of them as an introduction to this piece:
1) He introduced us to a Zen practice. On the in-breath, one asks the question, "What is this?"; on the out-breath, "I don't know." Designed to foster a lived awareness of habitualized narrative, it helps to reinforce the newness of each situation, freeing the practitioner to release habit and narrative-attachment, allowing for a greater freedom of response (my interpretation). Given that, it was all the more stark and profound to see him holding a placard that read, "[w]e've seen this before. Never again." We, of all people, know in our gut what it means to not be accepted as refugees due to suspicion; we, as spiritual practictioners, can make choices to look at each moment anew, but not naively. There's a reason we're so deeply impacted by historic trauma and so aware of similar modern manifestation.
2) Bilaam. He famously praises the Israelite encampment, "How goodly are your tents, O jacob, your dwellings, O Israel," in a poetic flourish now recited by Jews everywhere as they enter the Synagogue. Rabbi Bendatt-Apell noted, though, that if Bilaam were walking in the camp, he might have had a different view. What would he have heard? No doubt, a fair amount of argument, bickering, in other words, daily life. What would he have seen? Perhaps it wouldn't have been pure poetic goodness. But from his perspective, perched on a mountain, unknown to the Israelites, at a physical and even narrative distance, he has a truly perspicacious view. This is the teaching I've been sitting with recently, and the consciousness that informs this essay.
Look. For the last number of years, I've thought of myself as an idiosyncratic conservative voter, supported mainly Republican candidates, and have a fairly fierce libertarian tendency, for whatever that's worth. I was a political science major at Upenn, with a concentration in U.S. politics, and wrote an honors thesis on the decline in civic engagement . . . I was upset by the federal overreach and creep of the last administration (in my opinion), and am absolutely alarmed and horrified by the incompetence, lack of knowledge, disrespect for norms of governance, government by fear, and trampling of civil rights (basically everything save the Supreme Court pick) about the current one. I've watched citizens of many political persuasion engage in historic and inspiring protest, a large-scale re-engagement in democratic process, and have joined in said protests on several occasions. Still, I'm haunted by the fact that I don't feel as though I'm doing enough, and more haunted by the fact that I think we're all collectively playing the short-game. Someone's got to think about now, make sure our government remains a representative democracy, protect civil liberties (I joined the ACLU). But someone's go to think about the systemic problems that got us here in the first place. In a certain sense, we're only addressing the immediate problems. I'm going to try and play my best Bilaam (something I never thought I'd say!) and take a big step back.
Q: Why did we get here? How did we get here? What caused this?
A: First and foremost, because Donald Trump won the Republican primary.
Everyone's focusing on how Trump beat Clinton (FBI, forgotten midwestern factory workers, Hilbilly Elegy, she's a woman, scandal-ridden, toxic, E-mails, pay for play, the kitchen sink), but that's absolutely the wrong issue to focus on; if Trump doesn't win the primary, he doesn't go on to beat Clinton. And Trump didn't win over anywhere near the majority of individual Republican voters, just a plurality.
Q: How did Trump win the primary without support from a majority of voters?
A: A mix of surprising support, a divided field, and playing the media for fools.
Let's look at two of the reasons that Trump won the primary, the media and the large, divided field of candidates. The media kept covering trump because it was good for ratings and profit-margins. He, using the any news is good news theory, said outrageous things about candidates and their families, and entire groups of people (women, Muslims, Mexicans, Jews (by innuendo), etc.), gaining more coverage and a bad-ass reputation that played well for him. So many criticized the media and their role in this fiasco. And some of them even apologized for an outrage that led to backlash that led to this. Oy! Look, the media is driven by ratings and profits, so encouraging them to be more altruistic than that is doomed to fail (or at least unlikely to succeed). Despite their collective confession and introspection, they will continue to "sin" so long as the system is still driven by ratings and profit.
There was a desperate end of the game pull the goalie, half-court press, hail mary, pinch-hit the injured slugger attempt at encouraging Republicans to drop out, consolidate, play Risk and formal funky alliances. Ted Cruz and John Kasich met to consider what silly strategy might land them the top play on Sportscenter in the morning. But encouraging Politicians not to be interested in their own election and to be more altruistic than that is doomed to fail (or at least unlikely to succeed). As the famed Douglas Arnold noted, politicians behave based on their prospects for election; that's how the system works.
We're going to keep going down this rabbit-hole until we come up with a long-term fix at the primary level. Americans of both parties are patriotic and fundamentally good people. We deserve a system that produces candidates (from any party) that represent the quality of the character of the people. And there's an easy answer (hat tip to Bennett Bergman, a local attorney, for advocating for it for years).
In 1871, William Robert Wares, an architect, trained in looking at fundamental underlying structure, suggested a system of voting when there are more than two candidates known as Instant Runoff Voting (hereinafter "IRV"). I've included flow-charts above for ease of understanding, but the idea is simple. You rank your candidate preferences, in order (mandatory in some versions, optional in others). For a Republican Example, Marco Rubio-1, John Kasich-2, Jed Bush-3. If any single candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, great. They're the winner, just as in our current system. But if not, as happened in most Republican states, you eliminate the last candidate, and credit their second place votes to the appropriate candidate. You keep eliminating and crediting votes until someone has more than 50%.
This system has several advantages to the current one (the main negative being its perceived complexity in a Twitter world, but hey, our elections are already convoluted, just in ways we're accustomed to accepting). First and foremost, the candidate who wins is someone who's broadly appealing (at least as a top choice) to the majority, rather than winning a slight plurality (with the potential strong objection of the majority). In that sense, it better represents the will of the people. The will of the people is just understood to be more nuanced. Second, it better reflects reality. Most people don't have just one preference in a crowded field, but in fact, they have a list of ordered preferences. Third, it changes the entire incentive system. In a crowded field, a candidate will need the second and potentially third place votes of other candidates to win. So there's no incentive to trash talk, campaign negatively, etc. For example, Donald Trump would have been less likely to insult Ted Cruz's wife and win in such a system, because he would've needed the second place votes of Cruz voters. Etc.
At its best, it would change the tenor of the whole debate, refocusing politics on issues rather than ad hominem attacks. At the very least, it gets around our current systemic problems.
The Media - Donald Trump would have had a big disincentive to attack, and if we know anything about trump, it's that relying on his own sense of self-regulation is about the dumbest idea anyone could ever possibly propose. Further, if a candidate did proceed to engage in wild activities that garnered media attention, it would be polarizing. Some, no doubt, would love it, just like they love the WWE (fodder for a future post). Nastiness, rudeness, and boarishness are horrifying to many and appealing to many. But the coverage would gain as many enemies as supporters, and enemies matter in an IRV world. Importantly, this solution does not rely on the media's altruism to ignore their own ratings. It assumes it, actually.
The Large Divided Field - This solution doesn't rely on a variety of similar candidates to drop out or act against their own self-interest. Rather, it assumes that many candidates will run, out of self-interest, and devises a system that balances that all out to insure a strong minority candidate hated by many others can't surprisingly come out of a crowded field.
In a world where social media has dropped the floor in terms of what it takes (asset-wise) to run a campaign, primaries will grow to see a wider variety of candidates and larger fields. We're just seeing the beginning of this trend. Moreover, alternative media outlets will continue to pinch traditional media in the pocket, making ratings and profit ever more important (consciously or not) for self-preservation. In other words, this wasn't a one-time thing. I also like to think it's what the founders might have devised. Like the regulation of faction through government diversification. The separation of powers. This is a modern American argument that hearkens to our finest wisdom; don't rely on humans to be angels. Devise systems that regulate behavior assuming they're not, and that's actually how you realistically create heaven on Earth. It's going to get worse, trust me. I'm writing now, with as much passion and candor as I can, as a patriotic act. And I'm not going to stop.
My goals are twofold:
1) Convince local politicians and activists to institute this at the local level. Little Rhody, let's lead the way, not just short-term, but long term, in fixing the system.
2) Start a robust national movement. Now's the time.
As per Naomi Baine's suggestion, we're going to have a Run for Runoff Voting, and engage in a patriotic campaign to fix the system. We're better than this. We deserve better leaders. This is an important part of the solution. God bless America, please.