How can we explain the political surprises of the last two months in America and Israel? Pollsters gave Biden a ten percent lead nationally over Trump before Election Day. In the end only 80,000 votes, (.16%) out of 145 million votes gave Biden the presidency, a far cry from the predicted difference of fourteen and a half million votes. And even that is being contested.
Trump, who began the campaign with lowest approval rating of any sitting president, probably would be president today if Pfizer had announced the success of its vaccine before Election Day. Prior to the election, most Democrats felt that they had a better than fifty-fifty chance of taking both houses of Congress before Election Day. In the end they lost seats in the House, and most likely Republicans will continue to control the Senate.
Most Democrats, particularly the progressive wing, had an inner certainty that a Blue Tide was imminent; one that would make the current Republican Party a vestige of America’s political past. In the end the Republicans did well nationally remaining in control in all traditional Red states. Despite all the bashing of Trump's unpolished personage, the Republican Party turned out to be ‘alive and well’, a force with which to be reckoned. And the election results also did not show that the American electorate irrevocably rejected the major policies of Trumpism, a rejection that had been the election night dream of the Democratic party for four years.
Finally, and probably most significantly, the electorate showed no signs of ideologically adopting the more ‘progressive’ elements of the agenda of the Democrats progressive wing. This is most clearly proven by the fact that California, a state that voted more than 60% for Biden, also rejected three referendums that would have significantly advanced major parts of the progressive’s political vision. The California electorate rejected reinstating affirmative action in hiring and school admission, rejected removing a regressive real estate tax on commercial property that would have then provided revenues for progressive social programs, and rejected efforts to make unionizing part time workers in the service industries more feasible.
And ‘back home in Israel’ we see from Naftali Bennet’s meteoric rise in the polls , that Israelis who are looking for an alternative to Bibi are not looking for a candidate from the center-Left of the political map. Rather the ‘anyone but Bibi ‘crowd are turning to a political party and personage who until recently was considered the most right wing politician in Israel.
So what is the message of the surprising political developments of the last month? What explains how political conservatism did surprisingly well, (despite having a leader with an abrasive personality,) in the midst of a pandemic crisis?
A tentative explanation: In a time of social crisis and trauma people want to strengthen their sense of security and certainty, attributes that are usually associated with the conservatism of the Right
The analysis to follow is a tentative one. I do not all argue it is ‘objectively proven’, or that it explains most of the political surprises listed above. I just hope that we can all learn something from considering my argument’s basic insights.
The politicians and media did talk greatly about the pandemic of covid. Most of the discussion was anger coming from the Democrats about Trump’s alleged mismanaging of the covid crisis, his alleged anti-science and anti mask wearing positions, and they even accused him of killing tens of thousands of Americans. Biden concentrated on these topics in his campaign.
But very few of the day dreaming Democratic strategists or media asked a more fundamental, ‘elephant in the living room’ question, “What will be the psychological affects on the voter’s mentality of the simple fact that this election is taking place in a time of covid induced social turmoil, social disruption, and social distress; a social trauma that is the result of an seemingly unstoppable toll of deaths, and the draconian, unprecedented limits on personal freedom and privacy seemingly necessary for combating the virus?”
The election took place in a unique historical situation, one for which none of us, including the government, were prepared. Our social, family and work lives were/are completely disrupted. We lived/live in constant fear of becoming infected. And after eight months of combating the virus nothing seems to be really working, other than the prospect of a vaccine. Too much closure destroys the ecomomy and negatively impacts on our emotional stability and health. Too little closure permits the virus to again spread like wildfire. There was, and is, an atmosphere of great uncertainty, fear, futility,and instability.
I believe this is a fairly realistic description of the social reality and context in which voters found themselves when they entered the voting booth this November. I think there is a connection between this specific, covid generated, social reality and the fact that the voters showed little interest in creating a Blue Tide of progressivism. The electorate voted for a change of management ‘at the top’, but very much wanted to vote for a greater sense of certainty and security ‘at the bottom’. And the values of ‘security, stability and certainty’ are historically associated with the conservatism/traditionalism of the Right (whether historically justified or not).
The outpour of anger over the killing of unarmed black men this summer was real. But the average voter, in the midst of his own, personal covid crisis, showed little interest in translating this anger into social change. The voter rather longed for a restored sense of security and certainty, (and maybe even for a strong leader). Cries for ‘defunding the police’, firebombing store windows, and radically restructuring American society” acted to increase, and not lessen, his sense of insecurity and uncertainty. At a time of covid induced social trauma, the average American did not have the emotional patience to positively respond to calls for radical social change. Thus the conservatives/Republicans did a good job of ‘holding their own’.
Biden ran on a platform of ‘returning to normalcy’ and thus won. Progressive Democrats looked out of the window and with utopian glasses saw the social reality that their political narrative taught them to see. It just was not the covid based social reality that most voters were experiencing when they walked into the voting booth.
Israel and America’s contrasting social/political realities
Clarification 1: I am not arguing that the politics of America are moving in a conservative direction. After a period of restored economic stability and affluence, America may very well be interested in an agenda of serious social change. There are demographic changes in America that may encourage America in the future to give serious consideration to significant social change . I am simply pointing out the obvious. In November 2020 , in the midst of the deep, widespread social trauma of covid, America was not emotionally available to consider serious social change, and thus leaned slightly to the Right.
Clarification 2; In contrast to America, the demographic changes and social reality of Israel are probably permanently pushing Israel to the Right. And this explains why when the covid crisis brings them to search for an alternative to Netanyahu, they are looking to Bennett on the Right, and not Lapid on the Left.
Dr. Chaim C. Cohen has a PhD. from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.