What to Believe (Politically)?
I’m was in the midst of somewhat of a dilemma, and then I decided to do something about that.
A concrete set of political beliefs has beem elusive to me. There’s this notion—one I’ve come to repudiate lately—that if you more or less lean one way or another, you “might as well” just be a Democrat or a Republican.
I spent most of my adult life as a Democrat. I worked for Democratic campaigns, I ran for office myself. I convinced my wife to run for office. I liked the New Democrats’ emphasis on growth. Free trade. Deregulation of key markets. And it all made sense to me growing up. IBEW sponsored a little league team. The local AFL-CIO headquarters were right down the block. Workers had rights, and Democratic politicians fought for them. I wanted to be like Milton Shapp, Pennsylvania’s first Jewish governor.
Until they really didn’t anymore. What was eye-opening to me was as a candidate, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and a few other unions endorsed my candidacy merely on the merit that I was a Democrat. They didn’t talk to me and understand what my positions are. They didn’t know if I really would have been a boon to their cause or not. And I think the party has become something that Milton Shapp wouldn’t recognize.
My frustration was the assumption of the sale. Once in office, I would have been expected to caucus with and support these things, even if it wasn’t representative of my constituency.
The argument over the local endorsement process in 2016 posed a unique set of moral compromises for Democrats at the lowest level. On one hand, you had city Democrats, who are well represented by their officials, and on the other, you had the stalwart county Democrats who have carried water with little electoral success since the early 1990s. The sense to many of us was that the city Democrats and their opinions mattered more than ours. It’s very isolating, and the question is, what responsibility does a party have to not just its core constituency, but those it pays lip service to wanting to represent as well?
In two runs at state house, the second of which I aborted to move to Maine, I struggled with forming a message that was even relevant to suburban and rural constituents. Clearly it worked in 2014, as I was one of the few of our county Democratic state house candidates to win a single precinct. But I saw my race, even with such a disproportionate number of Republicans to Democrats, as emblematic of the challenges facing the Democrats in state government nationwide. They are competing for votes in places where the national party’s platform has little to offer. There is no longer a growth narrative within the national party, and the state parties suffer this leadership vacuum, and to my mind, are listless and drifting.
People often misunderstand this argument that the party lacks for causes. I disagree. They are fighting many pitched battles. But on substantive policy with meaningful resonance in the lives of rural voters, the Democratic spin on healthcare doesn’t do any more for them than the Republican. With voters paying upwards of $900 a month for what even the insurer calls out as a useless policy, and preexisting condition coverage not met with access to actual life-saving care, both sides wage a bloody war on the backs of their constituencies.
In the matter most important to me, the quasi-annointment of Clinton as candidate in 2016 was the proverbial straw. I disliked her long ago for the fiction she created about snipers on a trip to Bosnia. It was news to troops deployed there! Politicians lie. Water is wet. Nevertheless, as effective as I thought her husband’s administration to be, I saw his moral failure on Rwanda reflected in her moral failure on the vote to authorize Iraq. It was the singular reason I cast my vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, and it was the singular reason why I would not support her candidacy in 2016. Even though Trump has unfettered Saudi Arabia further in Yemen, with perhaps a human catastrophe larger than Syria, I’m certain Clinton would have done the same.
And that was accompanied by a number of other indignities. The word was that she was going to invest heavily in down-ticket races. But then Donald Trump entered the race, and I think the pervasive line of thinking was that “he’s too crass to win,” and the narrative became “I’m not Trump.” Even I believed the notion that Democrats like Katie McGinty would win handily because the voters would rise up and repudiate Trump. But that wasn’t enough. As I saw him campaign, I realized he was tying into the id of an electorate poorly represented by the Republicans, and I began to worry. As so many Democrats in major races started shifting towards running against Trump, they started omitting a message that would resonate with swing voters who weren’t necessarily against Trump.
Trump might be a catastrophe, but the Democrats weren’t earning anything.
When I was invited to work for Johnson/Weld as the director for Jewish outreach, I did so with but a few reservations. Gary and Bill were appealing to me for their centrism. Libertarianism is fascinating and not given the credit it deserves as an intellectual movement. Not for John Stossel and lower-case libertarians that are more likely to be weird, contrarian conservatives, but the arguments for immigration, for a choice economy, for personal liberty.
Making that decision easier were all the people who held contempt or condescension for those that supported a third party and not Clinton. Excuses were made for her foreign adventurism. In spite of how much this war of choice cost my friends, family, and myself personally, there was no acknowledgment of just how repugnant that made a vote for Clinton. Especially as Secretary of State, she left a trail of destruction in her wake, from Libya to Yemen. And criminal wrongdoing or not, the private server was an egregious and disastrous choice that has been idiotically defended by her staunch supporters.
We were to judge Trump for his words. We were not to judge Clinton for her deeds.
To put it bluntly, screw that.
I think I’ve found a home with Libertarianism and the party. It’s fascinating, in the same way that string theory is fascinating to me. I’m not an economist, so I don’t necessarily fully grasp James W. Buchanan (even if I grasp enough to know Nancy MacLean did him wrong in her new book), but I understand enough to think it’s solid. I’m not sure that I could ever be a purist that believes the government has no role beyond mitigating harm and fraud, as is the baseline libertarian belief, but they’re not asking for an oath of purity, either.
I was entertaining running for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District as their candidate for some time, but I faced some uncertainties. One, the accusations of being a carpetbagger would have some merit. We only moved here a year ago. At the same time, however, I’m precisely the upper middle class, high-skilled STEM labor that this state desperately needs to attract. I will eventually employ other Mainers, for that matter. And I’ve demonstrated my commitment to Maine by transferring to the Maine Army National Guard from Pennsylvania. I’m not tooting my own horn when I say it’s hard to find a stronger commitment to a state than serving in its military. And my wife and I have already enmeshed ourselves in Bangor’s Jewish community. This is our home, now and hopefully until the day we die.
The second uncertainty was running as a Libertarian. We had an epoch year with the Gary Johnson campaign, but it’s difficult to maintain the numbers in a Congressional mid-term. This means, to me, to be credible, we absolutely have to secure a ballot position via accurate petitions. This means we need the endorsement of the Party. A write-in effort looks hokey and unserious, with respect to those who have done them in this state. If you want to grow the party, you have to raise money, you have to build a network of volunteers, you need to be a team player as a candidate and not just keep an eye on trying to get yourself elected, but to see the long game of building a viable third or fourth way for future candidates and voters.
I envy the Democratic candidates’ certainty. I envy Poliquin’s commitment to being a Trump yes-man in his voting record. They seem to have a clarity of purpose that I just can’t obtain. It’s too easy, from the outside looking in, to offer critiques of the binary choices we’re so often presented. You have to have ideas.
I’ve got ideas. Universal basic income is one. I’ve got more than a few ideas about how to build a tech corridor from Portland to Bangor.
Leah has found her voice with Trump in office, and I’ve lost mine. I’ve gone from being outspoken on so many issues to being marinated in doubt.
When people posed their, “if you believe this, you simply have to vote this” equation to me in 2016, I often responded with “the only thing I have to do is stay Jewish and eventually die.”
So why not turn to Judaism for the answer to my uncertainty? If I claim to be a Jew that believes in holiness and G-d and tries to prioritize his life accordingly, I’ve tried to prioritize my politics this way before. I’ve always found answers in terms of this or that position, but never as an approach to politics.
From Pirkei Avot 1:10:
.אהוב את המלאכה, ושנא את הרבנות, ואל תתודע לרשות
Love work; despise public office; and do not be intimate with the ruling authorities.
Well, I love work. I love work too much, perhaps. Whether it’s crafting code for a client business system, convoying with the Maine Guard to Vermont for firing ranges and training, or just cutting firewood to season for two years from now, I like being purposefully busy.
But why despise public office? I did a quick Google search and could only find texts relating to “love work.” I’m going to postulate that our sages have always been suspicious of secular government, with historically valid reason. This is good, I can roll with that suspicion. After all, both the political left and the ideological right pose special challenges to Jews these days, between the alt-right and the anti-Semitic nonsense couched as anti-Zionism in academia and other things intersectionality related.
But not doing something isn’t exactly what I’m looking for. I’m looking for what to do, or what to believe!
The Piasetzno Rebbe (Kalonymus Kalman Shapira) perished in the Holocaust, but ran a secret synagogue within the Warsaw Ghetto until after the Uprising. Amazingly, after the war, they found and pieced together a couple of books from his manuscripts (along with a personal note). The two I’ve read are B’nei Machshava Tovah and Aish Kodesh. The latter are his teachings in the midst of the Warsaw Ghetto, and are amazing.
B’nei Machshava Tovah contains a line, “…in a place where holiness is revealed, there is no place for honors and titles.” I’ve run across this quote in Jewish anarchist circles, but I think the fuller context is better. From Yaacov David Shulman’s translation:
The purpose of our society is not to attain power and involve ourselves in political and communal matters, whether directly and with a particular agenda, or indirectly. Our goal is to ascend: to take a step that rises beyond the entire world, its commotion and its turmoil. Therefore, our group will not apportion honors to a president, vice president, and so forth, because the foundation of our group is humility and exaltation: the humility of the essence of body and lower spirit, and the exaltation of their holiness.
And in a place where holiness is revealed, there is no place for honors and titles.
Maybe it’s just not that important that I figure this out. Slow down, enjoy independence, decide my political feelings based on what facts I can get. Maybe that’s the natural state of affairs. You don’t often find such a clear argument for agorism in Jewish circles, and perhaps Richard Light, running for Maine’s governor as an agorist libertarian, might find this fascinating.
But then you talk to a friend who is paying three times their mortgage for a high deductible health insurance plan that does nothing for them but satisfy the mandate. The state of Maine is aging. Young people are not moving here. The intellectual capital we do generate in spite of a great education system moves elsewhere for opportunity. I think Governor LePage could do more than he does, and the only politicians that I believe really, really are trying are in our state legislature. Angus King and Susan Collins are fighting to prevent damage to Maine, which is admirable, but their effort is unmatched in the House by Bruce Poliquin.
And so I decided to just do it. After wrestling with it, I made my declaration to run as the Libertarian Party candidate. People alternately ridicule you or congratulate you for what will surely be a Quixotic effort, but you know, my expectations are framed around my experience working for and being a Democratic candidate. I know how to run a data-driven campaign, and I truly, truly believe that in the face of the hyper-partisan landscape, voters deserve more than the binary party system we have right now. I know I’m a centrist, but I also know that I have a different set of ideas that defy “left” or “right.” And that’s worth promoting. Richard Light and Chris Lyons are giving it a go as well, as well as state office candidates.
Rabbi Tarfon is abused by politicians, but the notion that we’re not obliged to finish the task, but neither can we desist. I’m going to put in the work to give voters an alternative to the same old, same old…to see that they can be empowered with a vote that is uniquely theirs. I’d like to build the Libertarian Party so it’s not continually on the outside looking in, too.