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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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Obama’s America needs some grounding

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Elections are fabulous launching pads, sending messages to the government and the people. In the long, arduous but illuminating American election campaign that just passed, we learned a lot about American Jewry, about the American people, and about the modern democratic process. All these are relevant lessons for Canadians.

Once again, we learned that American Jews are more pro-choice than pro-Israel, that they are more motivated by liberal ideology than Zionist ideology and more by domestic concerns than foreign policy issues, including Israel, at the ballot box. This phenomenon is a tribute to just how American, and at home, most American Jews feel. They enjoy the warm, historic welcome they have received from civil democratic societies such as the United States and Canada, and they respond by taking their civic duties very seriously.

We also learned that the American Jewish community is echoing the divided general community. Just as the American political world is being polarized, just as extreme language is polluting American political discourse, so, too, we are seeing more and more polarization, more and more demagoguery, in American Jewry – although in the general community we see more of a 50-50 split and among Jews we see a 70-30 split. “Red Jews” constitute about one-third of the American Jewish electorate and tend to be more conservative politically, more Orthodox religiously, with a sprinkling of less secular Russians and recent immigrants thrown in. “Blue Jews” are the majority, overwhelmingly cosmopolitan, liberal and increasingly secular. This split isn’t a geographic phenomenon, but an ideological, sociological and religious one.

It’s no secret that the American people are divided. This election was decided in 10 battleground states, and the small percentage difference in the popular vote spoke volumes. Moreover, the rhetoric was heated, the enmity great and the disappointment intense, because the Republicans came so close to winning. In fact, the conventional wisdom is correct. This was a year the Republicans should have won – and Mitt Romney and his loud, shrill, close-minded party lost the campaign more than President Barack Obama won it.

This election very much came down to identity politics. People on Election Day voted in groups, as women, as African-Americans, as Hispanics, as gays and lesbians, as young people, and as white men. And the white men lost. Barack Obama’s America – Obamerica – is a new America. Obamerica is multiracial, not just white. It has many religions and many secularists, not just Protestants. It has many different forms of living arrangements, not just mom and dad, 2.2 kids, the white picket fence and the suburban garage. It’s multicultural, multiethnic, less monolithic and more diverse sociologically, ideologically and politically.

Had Obama lost, his 2008 victory could have been dismissed as an Obamanomaly, a fluke – or, more accurately, a premature warning. But the new America that Obama represents and leads was best illustrated in the competing optics of the two political party conventions this summer. The Republican convention looked like a Midwestern church social – overwhelmingly white, square and traditional. The Democratic convention looked like an urban club scene – multiracial, hip and progressive.

The numbers on Election Day confirmed this. Obama’s army of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, young Americans, well-educated Americans, and women triumphed over Romney’s white-bread coalition of the well-bred – and their wannabes.

America is not just changing, Canada and the world are also changing. The United States is becoming more open, more tolerant – sociologist Alan Wolfe says the 11th commandment in modern society is “Thou shalt not judge thy neighbour.” But there’s a danger, as my mother taught, that if we are so open-minded, our brains will fall out.

I’m proud of the new openness, the new acceptance. But it comes with a new selfishness, a new disengagement from community, a new distance from defining values and core beliefs. I applaud Obamerica as a vital, dynamic, multiracial, multicultural dynamic. But as Americans, as Jews and as Canadians, we have to worry that it – and other western democracies – does not become a Republic of Nothing.

We need to jettison old prejudices, but not all of our old beliefs. Some traditions were bad, but others were anchoring, ennobling and inspiring. We can’t make history and tradition a set of handcuffs, stopping us from changing, growing and flourishing. But to stand, we need some gravity. We need some grounding.

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