The Disappearing Middle Ground in US Politics

— by Bryan Schwartzman

A rare, borderline miraculous thing happened inside Congregation Rodeph Shalom: a Republican and a Democrat not only jointly identified a political problem, but also agreed upon a set of solutions. Perhaps the true miracle would be if any of their ideas are ever adopted by Congress.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) and Martin Frost (D-Texas) — former political adversaries — are co-authors of the recently released work The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. The two former pols addressed an audience of roughly 50 people at the synagogue in a November 8 program sponsored by JSPAN. (A number of organizations and synagogues served as community partners in promoting the event.)

They presented a compelling case that the two parties are being driven further and further apart. Today’s high levels of partisanship, they argued, make it exceedingly difficult for Congress to complete its routine work — such as raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget — let alone reach meaningful compromise on pressing issues such as immigration reform. Hinted at, but never stated outright, was the fear that — if left unchecked — partisanship might threaten to tear the fabric of constitutional democracy.

In his introduction of the speaker, author and historian Dwight David Eisenhower II – grandson of President Eisenhower and son-in-law of President Nixon – called it “the number one constitutional and political issue facing our country today. Call it political dysfunction, call it hyperpartisianship, call it the breakdown of Congress.”

middle_ground_imageThe program was the first part of a two part series called “American Democracy Challenged.” On November 22, JSPAN is hosting another program at Rodeph Shalom focusing on gerrymandering. Speakers will include State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Upper Merion). The Philadelphia event came a week into the Speakership of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who is attempting to bring order to an unruly Republican caucus, and in the midst of an unruly presidential campaign that is defying expectations.

In his presentation, Davis attributed polarization and gridlock to three factors that have largely emerged over the past two decades: unfair redistricting, polarized media and out-of-control political financing.

“Although we have many philosophical differences, in terms of analyzing what went wrong, we share many of the same observations,” said Davis, referring to himself and Frost. “Basically, the middle has gone away.”

Davis, who served in Congress from 1994 to 2008, noted that in most congressional districts, “basically the only election that counts is the primary. The primary is what the members orient their time, rhetoric and voting records to. Primary voters represent an overly narrow slice of the electoral pie. They don’t reward compromise. They tend to punish it.”

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district.

Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee between 1998 and 2002, argued that increasingly sophisticated data analytics have allowed state legislatures to make districts safer and less competitive than ever before. He cited Pennsylvania’s meandering 7th congressional district — held by Republican Pat Meehan — as an egregious example of a gerrymandered district. Davis also took aim at a popular target, partisan broadcast media and websites, claiming they proliferate a culture in which talking to the opposition is virtually unheard of. Then there is the series of events, from the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill in 2002 to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, that has allowed wealthy individuals, unions and privately held corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to fund outside groups unconnected to candidates or political parties.

“The point in all this is that voters behave as if it were a parliamentary system, which it is not,” Davis said. “Instead of being the minority party, you are now the opposition party.”

Frost – only the second Jewish congressman in the history of the Lone Star State — presented a series of recommendations that the two have put forth in their book. Chief among them is the idea that Congress might mandate that non-partisan commissions, rather than state legislatures, control the congressional redistricting process. The goal would be to increase the number of competitive races and force candidates to pay attention to centrist voters who value pragmatism and compromise.

“We have a system now, where 80 percent of congressional districts are safe districts,” Frost said.

He also suggested several changes to current campaign finance laws that would require all groups that are spending money on elections to report that spending to the Federal Election Commission. He also suggested that all congressional primaries nationwide be held on the same date, to increase interest in House races and voter turnout. A higher turnout, Frost argued, would curb the influence of fringe groups.

heaven_sakeFollowing the formal presentation, the two former congressmen took a series of pointed questions from the audience. This reporter pointed out that, in the years following World War II, the parties were not necessarily aligned on ideological grounds and it was in fact a bipartisan alliance that for years blocked any advancement on the civil rights agenda. Is it such a bad thing for voters to know what parties stand for and base their vote upon it?

“There is nothing wrong with good, solid parties,” responded Davis:

The real problem today is that the fastest growing group of any electorate is independents. In some states, they are prohibited from participating in primaries, which is the only election that counts. The reality is, you have a system where independent voters are excluded from the process. It de-centers American politics.

In his response, Frost cited Master Of The Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro’s series about Lyndon Johnson. The book describes in great detail how LBJ, as Senate majority leader, wheeled and dealt with members of both parties to pass the first Federal Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. In the end, he managed to garner more Republican votes than Democratic votes.

“If Lyndon Johnson were in power today, could he do that?” said Frost. “Even as capable as he was, the answer is probably no, because the parties would not cooperate — even on something as important as civil rights.”

New JSPAN Pres. Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom Fights For Fairer Society

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) has elected Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom — one of the region’s most respected religious leaders, and someone who rarely shies away from speaking his mind — as its new president.

“I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity,” Rosenbloom said, “to have an impact on causes that I believe in.”

Founded in 2003, JSPAN strives to advance progressive social policies on the critical issues of our time. JSPAN focuses on a range of domestic policy issues such as: church/state separation, gun violence, reproductive rights, public education and race relations.

Rosenbloom is the Distinguished Service Rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park. He retired from the pulpit in June 2014 after leading the congregation for 36 years. During that time, he served as a leader in the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, as well as the Conservative Movement nationally. He developed a reputation for voicing his opinion on difficult political and social issues and grounding his outlook in Jewish sources.

“The Torah and the Talmud are very clear about human equality,” said Rosenbloom, who officially became JAPAN’s president on May 1. “We are all equal. If we are equal, then everybody has to have equal opportunity. Everybody has to be treated with equal dignity and respect.”

Rosenbloom has a long history of leadership, both inside and outside the Jewish community. He is one of the founders of the Old York Road Community Organization, a unique group of the seven synagogues in the Old York Road Corridor, dedicated to improving the quality of life in this major center of Jewish life in the region. In 2011, he was honored by the Cheltenham NAACP.He currently is a member of the Human Relations Commission of Cheltenham Township.

Deborah Weinstein, JAPAN’s immediate past-president, said that “Rabbi Rosenbloom enjoys enormous stature within the Jewish community. As an organization, we are thrilled to have him working with us and leading us as we pursue critical agendas.”

Rabbi Rosenbloom sat down with JSPAN Board Member Bryan Schwartzman for a wide-ranging discussion about the organization and the issues on its agenda. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

You spent your whole career as a congregational rabbi. Why, in your retirement, have you decided to take on this leadership role with JSPAN?

I have been familiar with JSPAN almost from its inception. Some of my congregants (Ken and Sue Myers) were involved in its founding and they have talked to me about JSPAN through the years. In fact, I was on a JSPAN panel about the Iraq War in 2009. I have always respected it as an advocate of social policy from a liberal standpoint that emerges out of Jewish teaching. I decided that I would be able to make an impact on causes that I believe in. I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity.

Is it easier to be an advocate on social justice issues now that you are retired from the rabbinate?

Well, I have more time. When I was a congregational rabbi, being the rabbi of a large congregation is really limiting on your time.But I was never reticent in expressing my political or social ideas, values, or opinions. I never felt that I had to hold back on what I believed in because I was the rabbi of a congregation. Everybody knew where I stood. In fact I was invited to participate in the JSPAN program on the Iraq War because of a very controversial High Holiday sermon I gave opposing the war.

What issues are highest on your agenda?

JSPAN has a huge portfolio. Right now, the turbulence in Baltimore highlights the issue of police interaction with the community. This is an indicator of the way in which many in the African
American community feel they do not have the full respect of the larger American society and do not have the same opportunities that many of us take for granted. It is unbelievable and unfortunate that in 2015, there are citizens who feel substantively unequal, with little hope of getting out of the situation that they are in. That has to do with racial prejudice, lack of quality education, violence, and income inequality. We are living in a time in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And there are those who want to cut back on the safety net for the lowest earning members of society even further. Gun control is an issue I am immensely concerned about, as well as the quality of education.The fact that we have these problems in 21st century America, the richest country in the world and, arguably, the most advanced country in the world, should be a source of shame and embarrassment.

Much of the organized Jewish community has been primarily focused on confronting internal challenges. Should the community be more focused on issues impacting all of American society? Is there a balance that can be struck?

You can’t have a Jewish community that has become so insular that all we do is care about ourselves, issues that directly affect Jews and Israel. The Bible says, you know what it is like to be an outsider, you know the soul of an outsider, you know what it is like to be reviled and oppressed and enslaved. We can’t just hunker down and say, we are Jews and we only care about Jewish things. There was a late nineteenth, early twentieth century French journalist, Edmond Fleg, who was an assimilated Jew who rediscovered his Jewish roots. He wrote:

I am a Jew because Israel places humanity above nations and above Israel itself. I am a Jew because in every place where there are tears and suffering, the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed, we must complete it.

To me, that is my credo. It is not to say that we don’t have to deal with the issues that affect us as Jews, but we can’t deal only with those issues and be true to who we are.

Does Judaism prescribe a liberal political philosophy? Should JAPAN’s approach be grounded in Jewish sources?

I don’t think you can always say that “the Jewish position is x,” and that leads to a specific JSPAN position. That is sort of like the strict constructionism of some of the conservatives on the Supreme Court. There are principles that Judaism teaches,and certain contemporary policies are either consistent with the tradition or inconsistent with the tradition. For instance, the Torah and the Talmud are very clear about human equality. The Talmud says that, whoever saves one person saves a whole world and whoever destroys one person destroys a whole world. We are all equal. If we are equal, then everybody has to have equal opportunity. Everybody has to be treated with equal dignity and respect.

In many ways, from the state of public education in Philadelphia to race relations, it seems like a bleak time in public life. How can activists and concerned citizens avoid giving in to despair or apathy?

Fleg, whom I mentioned earlier, says that “I am a Jew because, every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.” As long as people are willing to fight for a vision of society that is fairer for everyone, then there is no reason to despair. If people stop fighting for justice and equality, then there is every reason to despair.

Is it too early to ask what your goals are for JSPAN?

I am just learning the ins-and-outs of the organization. I think there is a sense that the organization is at a crossroads and needs to determine what it will be in the future. Up until now, JSPAN largely has focused on dealing with the issues of concern by trying to impact the courts and legislatures in judicious ways. We have not been mobilizing advocacy efforts on the part of men and women beyond the core group of the organization. There is now a significant group on the board that believes we must move beyond what we have done and create a greater advocacy presence within the community. We want to mobilize a larger number of people to work on behalf of our issues.

We want to generate community interest and passion around social justice issues — including economic inequality, education, election reform, gender equality, health care, immigration reform, mass incarceration, racism, separation of religion and state, and more—and to expand our advocacy role. We hope to create a broader constituency of the general Jewish population who feel that they can play a part in advancing social justice causes. Of course, we also want to continue what we have been doing well.For instance, we have filed many amicus briefs that have been cited because of their quality by judges who are hearing the cases. That needs to continue, as do testifying before legislative bodies, contacting legislators directly, and communicating through the media. But now we also want to develop more of a mass approach and find ways of getting more people involved.

All credit goes to JAPAN’s immediate past president, Deborah Weinstein and executive director, Rabbi George Stern, for steering the organization in this new direction.

What have you been up to since officially retiring last year?

My wife asks me the same question! What did you do today? I don’t know, I tell her, but I do know I was busy all day! I continue to be called on for life cycle events, funerals, weddings, baby namings. We have been doing more traveling. We just came back from a two-week trip to South Africa. My son got married in February. Between us, Cindy and I have five children. In the last year-and-a-half, we had three weddings! I cook a little bit. I finally learned to bake challah. And I do a lot of support work in the house, shall we say. I have more time. I see friends for breakfast and see friends for lunch. It is mostly unstructured. Now that I have become involved in JSPAN, I spend a lot of time answering emails and attending meetings! I don’t know when I had time to work.