Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Cultural Cognition of Pro-Israel: Public Reactions

I want to thank the Tablet editors for hosting my posts on the threat partisanization poses to the pro-Israel consensus and what can be done to combat it. The reactions to the piece have been both gratifying and illuminating. Clearly, my diagnosis seems to have struck a chord with liberal Zionists in the Democratic Party -- unsurprising, since I count myself among their number. Equally interesting was the responses coming from the further reaches of the left and right -- both of whom celebrated the polarization trend because both were supremely confident that they'd win the resulting throwdown in a rout. 

Left-wing respondents were sure that polarizing the American community on Israel was a surefire way to break the back of the occupation once and for all. Their right-wing fellows were equally convinced that the trend would lead to a permanent conservative ascendency and rock-solid protection for Israel no matter how the winds of foreign policy blew. The highlight, then, was the person on twitter who said he supported polarization because it would finally lead to the "end of weapons shipments". I had to ask -- did he mean shipments of weapons from the US to Israel (that is, a total left-wing victory) or the shipment of weapons from Iran to Hamas (a sweeping conservative triumph)? Either one would have been perfectly compatible with the overall thrust of reactions. The real-time convergence of left and right-wing worldviews was fascinating to behold.

My prediction, though, is that neither of these outcomes are likely. Polarization instead is most likely to lead to stasis, instability, and poor decision-making as Israel policy becomes just another partisan squabble. And this is something that should concern conservatives and liberals alike who care about Israel and want matters of Israeli policy to be considered carefully and deliberately. As Kevin Drum observes, the wages of this strategy can be seen in the Iran Deal opposition, which he argues was doomed from the  start because of its partisan character:

Ever since 2009, [Republican] political strategy has been relentless and one-dimensional: oppose everything President Obama supports, instantly and unanimously. They certainly followed this playbook on Iran. Republicans were slamming the deal before the text was even released, and virtually none of them even pretended to be interested in the merits of the final agreement. Instead, they formed a united, knee-jerk front against the deal practically before the ink was dry.
[B]y forming so quickly, the Republican wall of opposition turned the Iran agreement into an obviously partisan matter. Once they did that, they made it much harder for Democrats to oppose a president of their own party. A more deliberate approach almost certainly would have helped them pick up more Democratic votes.

I noticed this as well -- I had to struggle against my first-blush reaction to the Iran Deal opposition, which was to simply slot it in as yet another Republican temper tantrum that characterized their entire political strategy since Obama was elected. Each move which elevated the partisan salience of the debate -- from the ill-fated invitation for Bibi to address Congress to the histrionic allegations of Obama as a deliberate appeaser of terrorism -- made it less likely that liberals would view conservative objections as anything other than cynical attempts to rev up the base. And even for persons who were trying to listen neutrally and dispassionately in order to appraise the merits of the deal, it was hard to find the seeds of valid criticisms amidst the overwhelming din of partisan hyperbole which quickly overtook the conversation.

The deal -- and matters of Israel policy generally -- deserves better deliberation than that. But partisanization prevents that from happening; the cultural formation of beliefs guarantees that once an issue is seen in primarily partisan terms, that character will dictate most of the resulting positions. The full-court political press against the deal made it so that nearly everyone's decision -- for or against -- became a function of political identity rather than independent judgment. And that's a cost to Israel no matter what one's views are on the merits of the deal.

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