I recently participated in a session of “Cocktail Judaism”—an activity sponsored by Indianapolis congregation Beth El Zedeck for members interested in exploring current issues in the context of Jewish values. The environment is informal; congregants meet at a local restaurant on a weekday evening, and various “experts” are invited to lead the discussion.
On this particular evening, I shared the microphone with my more knowledgeable cousin, Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communication. We were asked to facilitate a discussion revolving around a question posed by Rabbi Dennis Sasso: What does it mean to be an American, and how will the answer to that question matter to the 2020 election?
I argued that–at the very least—being American requires understanding, supporting and protecting two essential elements of our country’s version of liberal democracy–majority rule and its libertarian brake, aka the Bill of Rights.
In order to protect the legitimacy of U.S. government, we need to address the escalating assaults on majority rule: Gerrymandering (the practice whereby legislators choose their voters, rather than the other way around); the growth of vote suppression tactics (everything from voter ID laws to the spread of disinformation); the disproportionate influence of rural voters thanks to the operation of the Electoral College; the current (mis)use of the filibuster, which now requires a Senate supermajority to pass anything; and the enormous influence of money in politics, especially in the wake of Citizens United.
In order to protect individual liberty– i.e., the constraints on majority rule required by the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment–we need to reinvigorate and protect the libertarian principle that animated the nation’s Founders: the right of all people to live as they see fit, so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of others, and so long as they are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. That “live and let live” principle doesn’t just require us to limit government over-reach; it requires that we combat racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia…all of the “isms” that deprive some citizens of equal civic status and that deny them the full expression of their individual liberties.
Understanding and protecting both majority rule and individual rights requires an informed citizenry–and an all-out assault on civic ignorance and apathy.
In response to a question from Jeff, participants indicated their concerns about a wide range of issues: gun control, the environment, health care, reproductive rights, the Supreme Court…an important litany with which we’re all familiar. These are all, admittedly, absolutely critical issues.
That said, I’ve become increasingly convinced that 2020 is about America’s structural and systemic distortions—that our first order of business must be to confront the misuses of power that make fair and productive political debate about substantive issues impossible. These failures of American governance need to be addressed before any of the policymakers we elect will be able to discuss, let alone pass, rational, evidence-based policies.
You can’t drive a car if it’s lost its wheels, and you can’t govern if your institutions have lost their legitimacy.
Unless the systems are fair, no minority of any sort–political, religious, racial, economic–is safe.
America’s Constitution was all about checks and balances and the rule of law. Until we eliminate systemic corruption and return our government to those foundational operating principles, we aren’t Americans—we’re just an assortment of contending constituencies who happen to occupy the same nation-state.