The Elephant in the Room

 In one of several versions of a famous parable, “three blind men encounter an elephant for the first time and try to describe it, each touching a different part. “An elephant is like a snake,” says one, grasping the trunk. “Nonsense; an elephant is a fan,” says another, who holds an ear. “A tree trunk,” insists a third, feeling his way around a leg.“

In New Jersey today, as in past periods, we and our politicians are deeply divided when confronting an elephant in our room. The split is not just between Republicans and Democrats but more profound. 

Even within each party there are differences. In the recent midterm election, Republican winners for congress included people like Tom MacArthur, Seth Grossman and John McCann who explicitly support Donald Trump as opposed to Leonard Lance  and Daryl Kipnis who do not. In the Democratic Party there are Jeff Van Drew, conservative on many issues, and Josh Gottheimer, a fiscal moderate but social progressive, as opposed to Bonnie Watson Coleman and Frank Pallone. Such divisions in a primary can be healthy, but how the winners act once elected can be problematic, as explained below.

New Jerseyans of both parties do share some common concerns. A May Monmouth University poll ranks property taxes at 45%, education/public schools at 16%, and jobs, economy/cost of living and transportation/infrastructure all at 14%.

Nonetheless, there is a split in our government. In the Supreme Court in recent years we have seen both liberal and conservative decisions. The Democratic governor and leaders of the Legislature are now in a dispute particularly over taxes which will significantly impact what will be funded or defunded in the budget. In the heavily Democratic legislature it is rare for a Republican bill to be introduced for voting. At a local level, as in Teaneck where the vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, there remain divisions not so much on social issues but rather on fiscal matters.

Steve Brill says in his new book Tailspin, “It isn’t Democrats versus Republicans; it’s ‘the protected versus the unprotected’, or the self-preservationist elite versus everyone else.” We see politicians sometimes more protective of their status and incumbency than what might be best for constituents. Throughout our stream of elected officials there are those in the Establishment and Anti-establishment camps which carries through into the general public.

Another form of disagreement has been over intersectionality, oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, classism and homophobia as well as disputes over gun legislation, voting rights and other matters. Some in the public and politicians are determined to erase such oppression while others less so. 

On the national front we see innumerable disputes amongst Republicans congresspeople which have led to dysfunction. Ideally we need more bipartisan consensus and compromise. The public so far includes a stubborn 40% or so who continue to support Trump while others vehemently rail against him. Ideally Trump supporters will awaken to the debacle their choice has produced, while others might be more amenable to the rare but occasional sensible approaches Trump takes or work toward a sensible compromise.

Divisions are to be expected, but what are we to do about the wide chasms which we see today? The quote above on how to describe the elephant comes from a book review of a work by Brazil’s Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), “who is always writing about liberation which to him begins with the freedom – the obligation – to think. With an overwhelming array of social media where too often people remain stuck in their own boxes and reinforce each others positions, we must stop, listen to different points of view, then think and make our own decisions.

Yet another writer, the French millennial Édouard Louis, speaks about “intersectionality” bemoaning, “we are not what we do, but to the contrary, we are what we have not done, because the world, or society, has prevented us . . . verdicts fell on us – gay, trans, women, black, poor – and they rendered certain lives, experiences and dreams inaccessible.” Such speaks to the need not only for Republicans but for Democrats as well to broaden their vision and listen more and embrace solutions which collectively benefit society. 

The importance of today’s NJ resistance activists is essential in generating better representation. However, regarding officials in office when policies are debated, both politicians and the public should heed what President Obama said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.” Achieving that goal is what must motivate us. 

Source for Midterm congressional candidate winners are here. 

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