Some thoughts on elections

Aaron's wife with their children vote in Israeli elections

I am writing this on Sunday morning a couple of days before Israelis go to the polls and also a few days before mid-term elections in the US and a presidential election in Brazil. There have also been other elections recently in a few other countries around the world and it looks increasingly likely that there will have to be new elections in the UK in the not-so-distant future as well.

All this voting is, of course, better than what happens in some countries like China, North Korea, and for that matter the Palestinian Authority, where there are people who are old enough to vote legally, but there hasn’t been an election since before they were born and there doesn’t look likely to be another one any time soon.

All of that having been said, the elections here in Israel on Tuesday (our fifth round of voting in 4 years) and the political turmoil in the UK and elsewhere remind us of the phrase “too much of a good thing”. There are even some serious voices beginning to wonder aloud if democracy, as we’ve known it for the past 200 years or so, is even still possible in the age of smartphones and social media. Social cohesion in many Western countries seems to be at an all-time low due to the atomizing effect these technologies can have, making polarization (in many different directions) the order of the day and leading to chaotic conditions that make governing all but impossible.

Additionally, the social contract in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the government (until recently) ensured economic prosperity and societal/cultural stability in return for the people having little say in the way the government ran the country is starting to become somewhat appealing to many in Western countries who have watched their standard of living plummet in recent years as their democratically elected governments haplessly flail about trying to “do something about it” but largely failing.

All of this makes me very sad, but also hopeful.

Let me explain.

I participated in my first election at the age of six, handing out flyers at the county fair encouraging people to vote for a guy named Ronald Reagan to be re-elected for a second term as US President. I needn’t have bothered, as Reagan won my home state (and 48 other US States) by a wide margin, defeating Walter “Fritz” Mondale in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in US history. 

But that really put the hook in me and for many more years after that, I continued to participate in elections for candidates at the local, state, and federal levels. I joined clubs and attended boring yet vitally important meetings as well as more exciting and fun rallies and debates (which often included barbecued food, which made it even better.) I also handed out more flyers at various events and put in hundreds of volunteer hours working booths at fairs, trade shows, etc. I rarely bought a T-shirt growing up because I got so many for free, emblazoned with the names of political candidates whose campaigns I volunteered for.

Speaking of swag, I also helped put up signs and banners for candidates and manned phone banks to call people in the days before elections to encourage them to vote. In the process, I ate lots more barbecued chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad than could possibly have been good for me (but I have no regrets about that part), and last but not least, I voted in EVERY single election I was eligible to vote in, starting with the one which occurred just a few months after I turned 18.

My arrival in Israel occurred shortly before a Knesset election here and also in the middle of what has become known to history as the Second Intifada. I was not eligible to vote in that first election but that was okay because as a newcomer, I didn’t have any idea who I would have voted for. But I strolled around the streets of Tel Aviv that day to see what an Israeli election looked like.

It wasn’t the festive, cheerful, semi-carnival atmosphere that I had been accustomed to back in the US. One of my most distinct memories from that day was seeing the streets guarded by large numbers of soldiers in full combat gear, with their M-16 rifles loaded and possibly even charged and their eyes warily scanning everyone passing by (including little old me) for signs of trouble. This added to the already grim feeling on the streets of Israeli cities at the time when suicide bombers were blowing up buses, restaurants, and everyone’s sense of personal safety and security.

In the years since then, there have been many more elections here in Israel (I’m happy to report that the atmosphere at these events has considerably lightened) as well as back in the US, but my level of participation in both has dropped almost down to nothing. I never sent an absentee ballot back to the US in any of the elections that happened there since I left because I don’t believe it would be right for me to try to influence the makeup of the government in a country where I might be technically a citizen of but where I don’t live, have no intention of ever returning to and have less and less attachment to as the years go by.

But I also didn’t vote here for many years because I was completely baffled by the Israeli political system, which is very different from the US system, so I wasn’t sure who to vote for. When I finally did start voting, I never really got very enthusiastic about it because, candidly, none of the dozens of political parties in this country are worth getting enthusiastic about.

The election campaigns here aren’t as toxic as they have become in the US, but they’re pretty negative affairs. Most of the main factions are little more than tribal identification societies whose main purpose is to rally members of this or that religious community to give political power to their leadership so they can get their “piece of the pie” from the government’s budget. The main talking point that most of them have is fear and most election slogans are some variation of the phrase “vote for us because if you don’t, the other people will get into power and they’ll ruin everything.”

The campaigns for the multiple elections Israel has had over the past few years were nasty and divisive at first, but this latest one hasn’t been like that. We’ve gone to the other end of the extreme and now, even though we’ll be going to the polls in a couple of days, I could probably count the number of campaign signs or banners I’ve seen in the past four months on the fingers of one hand. No one seems to have much energy for all this “democracy” stuff anymore. No one seems to think it’s worth getting really excited about an election, probably because most people figure there’ll be another one in a few more months.

As for the election campaign back in the US, which is impossible to ignore even here in Israel, I’m watching and wondering if anyone even bothers to barbecue chicken or make potato salad anymore. All the fun, civic pride, hopeful visions for the future, and grudging respect for the system (if not one’s opponents) seem to have gone out of election campaigns in the old country. Everyone’s just running life-or-death scorched earth campaigns designed not to convince anyone to vote for candidates who have this or that vision for the future, but rather just to motivate (again, mostly through appealing to fear and/or loathing of the other side) those who are already part of this or that political, cultural or economic “base” to turn out to vote on election day.

As I said, it all makes me very sad.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for when I tell you why it also makes me optimistic.

I’m optimistic because democracy has become an idol for many people in Western countries and what we’re seeing now is simply the process of God casting down that idol, just as He struck down all the false gods in Egypt just before Moses led the Children of Israel out of that country as recorded in the Book of Exodus.

For far too many Jews and Christians, the ideals of democracy have become a substitute for the form of government and the way of life that God ordained in the Bible for His creation. As a character in one of my favorite movies, “Chariots of Fire” said “the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy. God never seeks re-election.”

In a blog I wrote a few years ago I compared the US to John the Baptist and I reminded my readers that just as John told his disciples that “I must decrease so that He (Jesus) may increase, the USA (and the Western, democratic world it is the central pillar of) needs to decrease so that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ may increase.

I find myself unable to improve on that idea and I can only repeat myself, with more urgency today than I did back in 2017 when I first wrote that blog, as we are now much closer to the end.

“Therefore Brothers and Sisters, do not despair and do not lose heart. We’re losing something which was fantastic while it lasted, but a new world is coming and this pain we’re going through now is necessary for us to get there. Be in prayer and communion with God and be in fellowship with each other, for our Redemption is very near.”