Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
Inaugurating the People: Beyond the Politics of Personality
Today the United States will swear in a new President, as it has every four years since 1789. Tens of millions of Americans are excited, relieved, and looking forward to a better future. Tens of millions of Americans are angry, despondent, and scared by what tomorrow will bring.
A source of inspiration for much of the American system, the Bible warns against putting too much power and trust in the hands of one person. When it comes to kings, the tradition is ambivalent: on the one hand, without leadership, there is anarchy, with “everyone doing what seems right in their own eyes”, as the Book of Judges stresses. On the other hand, kings can be dangerous; the Torah imposes limits on their wealth and power, and the Prophet Samuel rallies against the people for demanding a ruler like everyone else. Monarchy had its golden ages, but at times it proved to be as divisive and chaotic as the anarchy that preceded it.
The Founding Fathers of the United States looked both at the monarchs and potentates of Europe and wanted to consider something different; giving power and sovereignty to the people. No kings, just elected officials working for the public good. However, they saw the same tension that the biblical tradition already knew well. Someone had to be in charge, “executive authority… vested in a single magistrate”, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper 69. Otherwise, it’s too easy for a division to creep in, and too easy for the leader to evade responsibility and blame others.
The Founders saw a president as necessary. Not necessarily ideal, but one part of a greater governmental whole.
In recent decades, though, a politics of personality has risen around the world, and America is no different. Instead of defining themselves by their beliefs about social and criminal justice, war and peace, equality and liberty, much of the political discourse has become whether you are for or against whoever happens to be the current President.
This is a corrosive form of discourse because it brooks no compromise. Two people with different political ideologies might argue about the best way to help those in need, but ultimately they can identify areas of agreement and others to compromise about. A supporter and an opponent of a President might even have the same ideas about what to do and yet still oppose one another.
This trend has accelerated for decades, with politics becoming more personal, more emotional, and more about the President.
The US Congress isn’t a person; it’s a big deliberative body, full of committees and procedures, deals, and compromises. And people hate it. Congress has only had a positive approval rating twice in the last 45 years. The fateful Capitol riot a mere two weeks ago was partly a physical expression of this tension.
Perhaps this inauguration, coming so soon after the Capitol riot, can be an opportunity to move away from the corrosive identity politics towards something greater. A chance to restore some collective humility and humanity to American, Western, and indeed global politics.
Millions of Americans have just lost someone to blame for their problems. Equally, millions will have found a new figure to accuse when things go wrong.
Hamilton was right; the buck has to stop somewhere. Leadership is about responsibility, and Presidents deserve the blame when they fail. But it is easier, neater, and more human to pour our hope or our hate onto just one person, leading to this destructive polarization. When we acknowledge the complexity and move beyond the politics of personality, we can begin to share more common ground, build and rebuild again.
Before he dies, Moses says in his parting blessing to the Israelites: “And there will be a king in Yeshurun when the heads of the nation are gathered, united with the tribes of Israel.” Maybe this vision can apply to America too: a leader, representatives, and the people, all working together for the common good.