In case you haven’t noticed the proliferation of political advertisements during Thursday Night Football — or in the middle of the morning and evening news, your favorite sitcom and in the midst of browsing online — we’re in the home stretch of the 2018 midterm elections.
With Election Day, Nov. 6 just two-and-a-half weeks from now, that means that we have just more than half a month to endure a seemingly endless stream of mudslinging in one of the nation’s most expensive media markets.
To hardly anyone’s surprise, leading the pack in the fight for voters’ attention and the fastest plunge to the rhetorical bottom is the contest in the redrawn 1st Congressional District over in Bucks County.
In a quickly tightening match — one poll over the weekend had the candidates practically neck and neck — freshman incumbent Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is vigorously trying to beat back a challenge from Democratic businessman Scott Wallace.
At their first debate Oct. 14 at Shir Ami in Newtown, they almost seemed to be at each other’s throats, with Fitzpatrick — a widely regarded moderate who won the seat after his brother, former Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, decided to retire from Congress — more or less calling Wallace a liar over his claiming to have received the endorsement of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Wallace charging the former FBI agent of being a “carpetbagger.”
You read that right.
Standing alongside both men as the moderator that evening, I might have thought that political discourse had reached a new low, but we live in a state where the Republican gubernatorial nominee, former state Sen. Scott Wagner, had just days before warned incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to wear a catcher’s mask because he was going to “stomp all over” his face with “golf spikes.”
I also had the audience there to remind me how heated things have become since a certain presidential candidate took to inspiring rallies with cries of “lock her up!” More than once, certain supporters of each candidate stood up to yell epithets or argue.
(Not to do a disservice to either attendees or their most gracious of hosts, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Shir Ami Rabbi Charles Briskin, most of those who came to the debate were respectful and seemed to genuinely care about what each candidate had to say about such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. foreign policy, barriers to trade, gun control and women’s reproductive rights. But the handful who chose to break the rules were as emblematic of the state of politics today as the two candidates who glared at each other for the better part of 90 minutes.)
In his remarks before the debate began, Briskin reminded everyone of the great debates recorded in the Talmud, such as the halachic disagreements between the sages Hillel and Shammai. He pointed out that in Judaism, machloket in and of itself is not bad, provided that it’s all done “for the sake of Heaven.”
I have no doubt that each and every person in that room, from the candidates on down, is deeply committed to her country and only wants what is best for his family and fellow citizens. The problem, as I see it, is that too many people today are not willing to truly grant that same belief to those with whom they disagree. That was evident on Oct. 14, and it’s getting increasingly visible on the streets outside.
One of the best things about this country is how the system that governs us has a built-in capacity to contain a multitude of viewpoints and philosophies, with a seemingly endless series of points at which citizens can make themselves heard. But our society depends on our ability to disagree without getting angry, to view those in opposition as equally invested in our nation’s success.
When we start viewing our fellow neighbors as enemies, it’ll take a lot more than an election to get us back to America’s greatness.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]jewishexponent.com.