Every four or eight years, the United States has the opportunity for a political reset. This resetting is one of the truly exceptional things about American democracy. We often take it for granted, but the chance to bring in a different set of leaders is by no means inconsequential. Sometimes, as in the last few presidential transitions, the reset is dramatic. Other times it is more subtle, simply a reconfiguration of familiar power players. Meaningful change is never guaranteed. Yet this beat at the heart of American democracy makes change possible, and for that we must be grateful.
As we begin anew, however, I’m deeply concerned that many Americans, including American Jews, have fallen into the habit of conflating allegiance to political parties with allegiance to the country. This is dangerous. American political parties are amorphous entities, constellations of conflicting views on issues and policies, that exist to win elections, not to govern. The Founding Fathers did not envision factions, but they appeared almost immediately, leading George Washington to warn against parties’ “baneful effects” in his 1796 farewell address.
It makes me cringe to see smart liberals squeeze all of their hope into one party, and smart conservatives into the other. It leads to so much oversimplification. We have to live with two dueling political parties, but we do not have to be defined by them—even as we lean one way or another. Ideological purity does not lead to good government.
How do we navigate the chasms between and within today’s parties, between regions, between people? One of the most effective ways is to build trust, a commodity in short supply. (According to the May 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, only about half of Americans trust government and institutions, and these are, reflecting worldwide patterns, the wealthier, the more educated and frequent consumers of news.) In December, on his 100th birthday, George Shultz, a high-ranking cabinet member for three Republican presidents, wrote an essay in which he recalled advice he received from a seasoned Washington hand when he first joined the Nixon administration.“Trust is the coin of the realm,” he was told. In reflecting on his lifetime of experiences, Shultz says: “When trust was in the room, whatever room that was—the family room, the school room, the coach’s room, the office room, the government room, or the military room—good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”
To bring our nation together, we must weave trust one person at a time.
There’s but one way to build trust, and that is to hold meaningful conversations that delve into nuance, identify the threads where people can agree and weave those threads together. I’ve been thinking a lot about weavers recently. Not weavers of textiles, but weavers of ideas and people, the weavers of democracy who create community. I strive to be one of them. They are teachers, who know how bridges to new thinking form, and nurturers, who grasp how understanding grows. Neighborhood leaders, not necessarily the elected ones, who know what the needs on the street are, and natural networkers, who have an inkling of which person is right for which job. Doers, who forge connections with or without formal organizations; dreamers, who envision ways to come together; artists and musicians (with or without instruments), who lead us forward. Clergy who create community beyond their own congregations, and healers who remind us that within us lie new dimensions to be discovered at any age. Scientists, engineers and inventors who create tools that, if used wisely, draw people together, and mathematicians who know that in real life, zero-sum victories are not the answer. Not to mention the dinner party throwers of pre-COVID times who intuitively sense which people to seat together and why. I could go on.
To bring our nation together, we must weave trust one person at a time. There has never been one loom or one room, one stage of life or one gender for weaving. We can design new frames or repurpose old ones, but however we do it, effective weaving precludes meanness, the brand of lashon hara that we engage in on social media, and the certainty that we are always right.
For a long time, Moment has been weaving people and ideas together to create a community of trust. We ask big questions and seek a range of responses from which to draw wisdom. (Sounds easy, but it’s not.) We maintain a civil and respectful tone, eschewing snark, and we establish and run meaningful projects that promote trust. One of these is Moment’s Jewish Political Voices Project. In anticipation of the 2020 presidential campaign, we began following 30 engaged Jewish voters in ten battleground states in 2019, asking them questions and listening to their answers in an attempt to understand divisions within the Jewish community. In this issue, we check in with some of those voters to see what they are thinking as our nation resets. As they ponder the issues before the country—and the state of the Republican and Democratic parties—there is plenty of disagreement, but there is also hope.
Along with a trove of art, literature and cultural offerings, this issue also sheds light on one of the major foreign policy challenges facing the new administration: Iran. This sadly has become a highly partisan issue, with Jews perhaps split more than others. As we stepped beyond partisanship to learn from different points of view, we discovered that there is more of a consensus about the extraordinarily difficult next steps than we are often led to believe. Elsewhere, we explore a Jewish concept that is at the heart of heated discussions about mask wearing, social distancing, worshiping at home and vaccinations: pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule. In “The Failure of Impartiality,” Robert Siegel reviews Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, in which the former president reflects back on the first years of his presidency.
As we reset, we also share lessons for the future from some of the award recipients we celebrated at Moment’s 45th anniversary gala: two diplomats, two journalists and a zombie expert. It was a truly meaningful virtual evening, and even my dad, nearing 100, tuned in. To be honest, I didn’t expect him to get much out of it.
Infections and COVID-19 isolation have taken their toll, and he is no longer the sharp-eyed scientist and observer he once was. Some days he is vague and unsure of which of his children he is talking to; on others he is silent and makes no eye contact. That’s how he was in the days before the gala. So when I FaceTimed with him afterward, I was stunned when he looked directly at me and said, “People who have different points of view need to talk to each other, Nadine.This growing inability to talk is dangerous.” The remarks made at Moment’s gala had woken him up and he had taken away one of the most important messages of the night—and of our time.
Stay well and safe throughout these trying and perilous times!