Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Id, The Ego, and Israel's Democracy

At the Times of Israel, Haviv Rettig Gur has a fascinating if sprawling piece on the state of Israeli democracy and the Israeli left. One of his claims is that the weakness of the Israeli left stems from its failure to engage in the sort of solidaristic politics that has generally characterized Israeli political identity since its founding. To the extent that's true, it strikes me as plausible explanation. There are absolutely critiques to be had of solidarity politics, but I understand its genuine appeal (one that is hardly restricted to Israelis). Likewise, he argues that given the general impotence of the Israeli left, the reason why the Knesset has not in fact passed all of the horrible anti-democratic bills one periodically sees popping up on the nightly news is that the Israeli right is blocking them. The left likes to claim credit, but in a parliamentary democracy these laws live or die based on their support in the majority coalition. And that strikes me as correct as well too.

Underneath Rettig Gur's narrative, however, is a story about the Israeli right -- one that is implicit in his story but isn't explicitly told. It presents a right-wing that is, at some level, in contradiction with itself. In many ways, the stability of Israeli democracy, under the narrative he provides, depends on this contradiction -- on the right blocking anti-democratic proposals that emanate from the right. The question is whether this contradiction can stand.

One of my perennial observations about Israeli politics concerns the lifecycle of right-wing Likud lawmaker. They enter the Knesset for the first time as firebrands, promoting extreme resolutions and uncompromising conservative views. The more time they spend in parliament, the more they moderate -- presumably, something about governance makes them recognize that their simple activist slogans aren't actually realistic or operationalizable. Eventually, they either take on the role of elder statesmen in the Party or bud off to form the latest centrist flash-in-the-pan (Shinui, Kadima, Yesh Atid, Kulanu...). Then they're replaced by new hotheads, and the cycle continues.

Rettig Gur's narrative buttresses this supposition. Over and over, he goes back to the same narrative -- yes, conservative Israeli lawmakers propose extreme laws. But they don't really want them to be enacted. They symbolically have them pass a first read to rile up the left, then acquiesce to letting them be swapped out for more moderate versions. They deliver fiery speeches about staying true to principles, then quietly submit to the demands of coalition leaders. They rail against an anti-democratic supreme court but never actually interfere with its constitutional authority.  When one of their wild proposals does end up passing "by accident", it ends up embarrassing even the authors (who "seemed more horrified at its successful passage into law than at its swift cancellation.").

The image one gets from this is of an immature adolescent who loudly proclaims his rebellious intentions but secretly craves structure. For all the fulmination against the rules and the authorities and the parents who just don't get it, he's well aware that these elder institutions are the only things standing between himself and some truly dire consequences. It's like the guy who fronts for a fight by yelling at his bros "don't hold me back!" Everyone knows that the last thing he wants his for his mate to actually let him go.

There's a degree to which this is a comedic farce. Unfortunately, in America we're witnessing the end of the play, and it's no laughing matter. For years the Republican Party had exactly these dynamics: backbenchers could put forward all the outrageous bills they wanted, and after a few loud hearings they'd quietly die in committee. Tea partiers were allowed to run wild on the campaign trail -- but don't worry, the party will decide the nominee. Ever-more extreme positions were ginned up to rally the base and get headlines, but there was nothing really to worry about -- everyone knows it's just for attention.

Until it wasn't. Until the minders stopped being minded. Until the id finally did break loose. And then we got Donald Trump.

Our one saving grace is that this colossal cock-up is occurring in our minority party -- the one which has won a national plurality exactly once in the past 24 years. In Israel, it's happening on the majority side that has been dominant in Israeli politics for the last two decades, in a parliamentary democracy which lacks the levers we have for the minority to exercise restraint. Donald Trump may destroy his Party, but he's unlikely to destroy the country because he can't get elected. What happens if the extremist cauldron bubbling on the Israeli right flank finally does boil over and takes control of the majority coalition?

The dynamic Rettig Gur describes on the Israeli right isn't a sustainable one. Relying on the right-wing to indefinitely continue this dance -- riling up its hotheads and then counting on their elder statesmen to douse them off -- is a dangerous proposition. And Israel has far less room for error than America does.

No comments: