Last month, for a few brief moments, the American political commentariat was engaged in debate and discussion around the comments made by freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. In response to a tweet by The Intercept reporter Glenn Greenwald, Omar had suggested that American politicians supported Israel because they were being paid to toe that line — it’s “all about the Benjamins,” she wrote. Omar later apologized for this remark.
The discussion and debate that followed the congresswoman’s remarks were mostly about anti-Semitism — did Omar engage in anti-Semitic tropes? Was she aware of these stereotypes? And among her supporters, the inevitable refrain rang out — well, we should be able to talk about money’s insidious influence on our politics, shouldn’t we? And aren’t accusations of anti-Semitism by a Republican party dealing with its own internal race-related scandals laughably hypocritical?
These questions have been dealt with elsewhere, and I won’t deal with them here. Rather, I would like to place Omar’s comments in the larger context of U.S. politics — a political system that has become consumed by accusations of conspiracy, by suspicion and cynicism.
When it comes to our important political and cultural debates, Americans have become used to thinking of the opposition as in thrall to some insidious force that is pulling the strings. If only these forces were neutralized, we would win our political victories, they think. They are confident that their views are generally supported by “real” Americans, and that it is only through manipulation from outside the democratic process that they taste defeat. Why can’t we come to a compromise on guns? That’s easy — it’s the NRA’s money. Who would ever protest the president? They’re probably paid off by George Soros. And Israel? Well, you know the drill.
But these appeals are the refuge of the rhetorically weak. The fact is this: Israel has historically enjoyed the support of the United States because Americans hold favorable views of Israel. Their representatives reflect this. This isn’t sinister; this is democracy. Welcome to it.
And while Omar contends that she loses these battles because the opposition can’t quite refuse a check, the reality is that as Israeli and American politics have changed, and as the geopolitical context in the Middle East has changed, we’ve seen the relationship with Israel come under scrutiny and criticism, and this has been welcomed by Israel’s detractors. So what gives? Did the financiers drop the ball? Did someone forget to cut a check? On the contrary — the shift is due to changing political contexts. Israel is no longer a fledgling nation threatened on all sides by despots, but a regional power; Israel’s internal politics have shifted rightward or, at the very least, have become defined by complacency and status quo bias. Americans have responded to these changes by altering their views. In other words, our politicians have responded to a change in attitudes among their constituents, and those constituents have elected people like Omar.
These appeals to conspiracy are not just mistaken, they’re bad politics. Of course money has a corrosive effect on our politics, and, of course, wealth has always been a tool to exert influence, but in our current political climate, voters’ attitudes and organization exert much more power than these arguments would suggest. If you miss this fundamental fact, then you will be ineffective as a political force and unable to do anything substantive about the issues you care about.
Everyone’s entitled to their misreading of the political realities. As I’ve shown, Omar is hardly the first politician to accuse the opposition of being beholden to monied interests, and she certainly won’t be the last. But is it too much to ask in our caustic political environment — filled with entrepreneurs of division and inflamed, dangerous passions — that our representatives choose their words more carefully, or approach their conclusions with humility, caution and skepticism?
I hope that it isn’t, and that these types of arguments will soon fade from the discourse. I do understand, however, the impulse to appeal to conspiracy to explain our defeats. It’s a comforting thought because the reality is much more frightening — that to win in America, you’ll have to do some convincing.
Aaron Bondar is a senior double-majoring in political science and economics.