The house still stands, the center still holds

The house still stands, the center still holds

Global election results are in, and they’re a decidedly mixed bag

The feeling of anticipation began building several months ago. And naturally my emotions responded as each new piece of disturbing or positive news troweled itself atop the previous layer. Although my main focus never wavered from the big picture — the outcome of U.S. midterms — the other election dramas, individually, collectively, and playing out all over the globe, kept riveting my attention.  Several produced distress, a few proved surprising, and the biggest one of all, ours, resulted in a most unexpected and heartening result.

My first jolt of unease came from, of all places, Sweden. Yes, that Sweden, the historically neutral country (until it recently joined NATO in lockstep with Finland) that probably boasts one of the heathiest, best educated, most multilingual and democratically ruled populations in Europe. But in the runup to parliamentary elections in early September, leftist Social Democrats and Greens, long the dominant coalition, lost considerable ground to far-right Sweden Democrats, after trying to discredit the upstart party by citing its fascist connections and referring to followers as browns, a not-so-subtle reference to Nazi brownshirts. (Sweden, though officially neutral during World War II, served as an entrepot for the Reich in banking and spy craft.)

Formed just 12 years ago, Sweden Democrats now represent the country’s second largest political entity and will play a pivotal role in politics going forward. Its strident anti-immigrant pronouncements apparently resonated with enough of the nation as part of the growing nativist and xenophobic trend sweeping Europe. The days of Prime Minister Olaf Palme lecturing the United States on disentangling itself from Vietnam appear both distant and quaint in comparison with current vitriolic exchanges consuming a population generally known for its cool and collaborative behavior.

Just weeks after Sweden lost its political composure, Italy also took a decidedly darker turn with the snap election of Georgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, a party that traces its beginnings to Mussolini’s black-shirted fascists. In 2018, Brothers won just 4.4% of the vote; this time, its tally soared to 26% of the balloting. Mrs. Meloni, who sets off her long blonde hair with dark Armani power suits, became the country’s first woman prime minister by striking immediate deals with other authoritarian partners.

“It’s a victory I want to dedicate to everyone who is no longer with us and wanted this night,” she proclaimed on the morning after. “Starting tomorrow, we have to show our true value … Italians chose us, and we will not betray it, as we never have.” Ms. Meloni is a mother who opposes LGBT rights, abortion, and same-sex unions. Her backers are Euroskeptics and anti-immigrant. And now, she has only to gaze northward to take heart from her increasingly influential soulmate in France, Marine Le Pen.

In Britain, recent tumultuous events certainly justify its inclusion in this overview. Although a national election wasn’t held (but jolly well should have been), the nation managed to segue from the grandeur and pomp of its revered queen’s funeral to the unchecked incompetence of a new prime minister chosen in Conservative Party secrecy. Liz Truss, who embraced discredited Reagan-era policies, managed to bring the world’s sixth-largest economy to its knees in just 44 days through unilateral decisions based on trickle-down twaddle that created greater tax breaks for the rich while saddling the middle class with added fuel and food burdens. Under her shamonomics, the poor would continue to eat cake and muddle through as best they could. (Yes, I know that’s mixing national metaphors, but it gets to the point.)

Of course, Britons mostly have themselves to blame for the downward spiral, which they set in motion in 2016 by choosing to decouple from the European Union in a closely contested national referendum. This petulant display of provincialism occurred four prime ministers ago, with each succeeding leader serving in increasingly chaotic circumstances. The pound sterling, once the world’s premier reserve, is now a compromised currency. The staid Bank of England, a symbol of empire, is exhausted after doling out billions in recent months to prop the economy. Experts estimate it may take years to right the wrongs created in only a few weeks.

And across two ponds in China, the world’s largest authoritarian state just became more so. Xi Jinping received the communist party’s blessing for a third term in an elaborate rubber-stamp exercise and reacted by promptly purging those who had dared dissent against his perceived wisdom. Zero tolerance for any policy deviating from the new great leader (Mao must be turning over) has been met with immediate pushback, whether it concerns covid lockdowns, persecution of religious minorities, Taiwan and Hong Kong hegemony, economic and technological goals, or expansionism in the Pacific basin and outer space.

China seems prepared to enter an era of sullen, drawn-out competition with the rest of the world, particularly the United States, fueled by an illusory vision of its proper historical and cultural place and an outsized sense of grievance. The Biden administration acknowledged as much recently in an updated Pentagon and national security assessment that designated Beijing, rather than Russia and despite the Ukraine war, as our most dangerous adversary in a new confrontational era. (This piece will not be dealing with events in Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Moscow. Regimes of this sort deserve a rogue’s gallery of their own.)

Closer to home, and a reassuring surprise so far, is Brazil’s recent free and fair election, where voters tossed out the ruthless right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, and returned Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to office. Da Silva’s backstory leaps off the page.  A child of the slums, he twice won election as president, serving from 2003 to 2010. Known as the Latin Leftist, da Silva positioned himself as a bulwark against the previous 20-year reign by a military junta. In 2018, he was imprisoned on corruption charges but was released the following year after Brazil’s top court annulled his conviction.

Brazilians know they are navigating unchartered territory, wondering if Bolsonaro would accept the verdict. Demonstrations by his militant supporters immediately erupted across the country, then rapidly fizzled. The outcome has held up, at least to this point, because Brazil took proactive measures to quickly confirm the result.

Unlike the U.S. with its patchwork of state regulations, the country uses one set of national election rules. Top officials and justices, even a key Bolsonaro ally, according to New York Times dispatches, appeared on a national telecast to validate the numbers. The loser has kept silent despite being urged to concede by advisers. As of this writing, plans are moving ahead for the transition of power in a fragile, charged atmosphere.

Also falling into the category of stunning second (or third) acts, Israel voters permitted Benjamin Netanyahu to reinvent himself yet again.  Mr. Netanyahu maneuvered his way back to center stage (was he really ever off it?) by striking perhaps the most compromising bargain of his forever political career — an alliance with two of the furthest-right religious and nationalist parties. In the process, he also may have bought himself breathing room or immunity against corruption charges that have dogged him and his wife for years. Some of his Knesset partners plan to sponsor legislation that would target the judicial system and eliminate or dilute the allegations against him.

But at what price? Mr. Netanyahu is beholden for his latest accession to prime minister — coming after Israel’s fourth election in five years — to Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist party. To critics, this may seem like he’s invited the Crips and the Bloods into the tent, or to give it a more Israeli twist, permitted the ideological heirs of Meir Kahane to be elevated to the mainstream.

One outcome is evident: This isn’t your father’s Israel, or even your big brother’s. The next government will be the most conservative and hard right in the country’s history, while left-of-center parties descend further into irrelevance. The country’s pioneering, us-against-the-world mant

ras recede further into the background as a new generation of Israelis vote to place primacy over the Palestinians ahead of negotiations, and to narrow the definitions of who is a fully-fledged citizen. Netanyahu blandly assured an American CNN audience post-election that nothing of substance would change. Yet the gap and distrust between Jewish Americans and their Israeli brethren has never been wider.

Under a Netanyahu coalition, what will be the fate of the Abraham Accords? How good, bad, or indifferent will relations with Arab Israelis play out? Will settlements resume in the West Bank? Would Netanyahu, inveterate campaigner that he is, try to meddle again in presidential elections? (Trump is definitely his guy.) Can the absorption of huge number of Ukrainian and Russian Jews continue? Is a Palestinian state even up for discussion?  Will the Orthodox rabbinate tighten its vise-like grip on the daily life of the average (if there is one) Israeli?  (Fully half the population identifies as secular.)

Probably several of the above.

Here in the United States, the midterms upended expectations across a 50-state, severely gerrymandered landscape. Dire warnings of a red wave of MAGA-maniac election deniers never materialized.

In fact, no candidate of this mold won a bid for strategic a secretary-of-state office in a competitive race. The shellacking Democrats were supposed to absorb felt more like a an off-year, norm-defying gloss finish in their favor. Issues of democracy and abortion rights proved just as potent, if not more so, than the economy, inflation, and crime.

The nuts and bolts of the system, with the exception of a few machines here and some scanners there, functioned smoothly. Election workers appeared dedicated and dispassionate during TV interviews, especially in habitually late Nevada and Arizona, where hand tallying still counts. Incidents of intimidation at polling sites were practically nonexistent.

Democrats retained control of the Senate while Republicans regained the House, though not nearly by the numbers that had set them salivating. Only Georgia, with a mandated runoff, remained an outlier and will vote again in a few weeks to determine its senator, but with some of the high drama removed. By keeping a seat in Nevada, Democrats assured themselves of at least a 50-50 split in the upper chamber. Factor in the vice president’s tie-breaking power, and they carry the day.

The Georgia outcome is still important, however, since an additional victory would give the party control over committee assignments instead of a shared arrangement.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Looking ahead, fully expect outrageous bluster and outlandish posturing in the House, with possible investigations into hyperpartisan targets (think Hunter Biden). There also may be threats of a debt-payment default; curtailments to Social Security, Medicare, and Amtrak, and a trimming of aid to Ukraine. These efforts won’t gain traction because of a guaranteed presidential veto and Democratic guardrails in the Senate. Areas of possible bipartisanship include immigration, same-sex marriage, gun control, and safeguarding the integrity of the electoral vote count.  As per the new reality, the Supreme Court looms as a conservative wild card in practically every issue.

Notice there’s been no mention until this penultimate paragraph of the (GOP) elephant in the room. Donald Trump endorsed losing, lackluster candidates in the midterms and then officially declared for another presidential run in a rambling, truth-defying, self-indulgent screed.  Although criticism of his leadership remains mostly muted, the volume has started to pick up as he has now led his party through three consecutive losing election cycles. Are his days as chief puppeteer numbered? The next few months will be critical in revealing the contours of party enthusiasm and support for his candidacy.

Despite all this, if we apply the template of American elections to each of the countries previously mentioned, the United States still comes off looking like a durable and going concern, though not without blemishes. (Too much money, too many commercials, too few debates, too little substance.) As Churchill famously said: Democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others. And as Lincoln famously warned:  A house divided against itself cannot stand. The midterms showed the house still standing and the center holding.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former news editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor at the Jewish Standard/NJJN. He managed to vote for the winner of the mayoral election in his hometown of West Orange. 

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