Liberal democracy is not that popular
Democracies are proud of equality under the law, which distinguishes them from autocratic regimes where rulers reign supreme. The United States’ legal apparatus seems to be moving towards prosecuting Donald Trump, which many would welcome as a needed reaffirmation of this basic value. But prosecuting populists can backfire and expose how weak the support for liberal democracy really is.
Americans wrestling with whether to throw the book at Trump need look no further than the sneak preview now available in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Thanks for reading Ask Questions Later! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
There, as in the United States, the attorney general was forced to weigh equality under the law versus the practical consequences of prosecuting a populist eager to agitate against the system. Should Netanyahu be returned to office after the planned election in November, it is clear that he will pull Israel toward the authoritarian democracy on display in Turkey and Hungary, which is also what the Republicans seem to yearn for in the United States.
Despite their different circumstances and scale, the United States and Israel share many characteristics.
For starters, both have legal systems that do not explicitly prohibit criminal defendants from running for the highest office. And both share a toxic political atmosphere in which evenly divided pieces of the electorate increasingly loathe each other and racial issues add poison to the discourse.
In Israel as in America, the more educated classes are disproportionately behind what was once the “left” but can now be described more accurately as conservative forces struggling to preserve the post-war order. These are the “elites” and their unelected “deep state.”
In both, as in democracies the world over, there is rage that has coalesced on the right: anger at progressive overreach, frustration with immigration and racial diversity, fear of terrorism, jobs moving to cheaper countries or eliminated by technology, income disparities, a feeling that religion is disrespected by overeducated snobs.
Disruptive leaders like Trump and Netanyahu can harness such bitterness to build personality cults based on hatred of the educated “elites.” Both have taken cynical spin to such a level that it challenges the very idea that truth matters.
In both countries, plenty of normally calm people not given to exaggeration fret that a return of either former leader would amount to the death of democracy.
Of course, everyone claims to be fighting for democracy. But the democracy that the opponents of Trump and Netanyahu fear for is liberal democracy, which checks the powers of the majority, guarantees principles like freedom of speech, and protects the minority (and minority groups). In liberal democracy, the majority is subservient to liberal principles enshrined in ways that were not necessarily democratic — often via “constitutions” devised by the educated elites (“framers”) who believed they knew better than the masses.
The democracy of the populist right these days — of Trump and Netanyahu — has little patience for constraints on whoever wins elections. That’s why they’re all about winning elections by any means (and tricks) conceivable.
And one reason why the populist right is so strong is that liberal democracy does not actually have much support among the masses it aims to constrain. Ask people anywhere what democracy means and you’ll mostly hear “majority rule” and “free elections” — not lofty principles.
This is why both Trump and Netanyahu care so little for “norms” (imposed by the elites) and agitate against “unelected bureaucrats” (appointed to constrain them by the elites). That includes the legal systems that have placed the former Israeli leader on trial and is currently investigating the ex-president.
Netanyahu’s on trial on counts ranging from allegedly trading regulatory favors for positive coverage to receiving (and allegedly demanding) jewelry, clothing, champagne and cigars from favor-seeking billionaires — charges that followed years of other scandals.
When the charges were announced in 2019, many thought that despite a loophole allowing him to soldier on as PM, Netanhau would lose support and go out with a whimper. They did not take into account the weakness of support for liberal democracy.
Netanyahu responded with a furious campaign charging that the system hates the right wing. He ran in a series of five inconclusive elections, which Israel’s electoral system essentially enables. The fourth finally dislodged him a year ago, and how he’s running again as head of the opposition.
Netanyahu’s shenanigans have hurt the right overall by causing the departure of Israel’s version of Never Trumpers — right-wing politicians who cannot stomach the corruption. These “Never Netanyahus” managed to move a few percentage points of the electorate with them, but not much more. Within the right Netanyahu remains in command: His Likud enables his fact-challenged narrative of grievance because, as with Trump in America, the right-wing electorate wants it so.
Should Netanyahu return to power, there is every indication that he will defang the legal system with legislation enabling the Parliament to easily override the Supreme Court, limits on the powers of the prosecution, politicized appointments of judges and key functionaries, immunity for the prime minister, measures to muzzle the media and more. Netanyahu’s supporters would rejoice, because they do not care about the principles of liberal democracy.
And so it is in the United States, where Trump’s outrages — including the deadly Capitol invasion of Jan. 6 — have not diminished his support among Republican voters. The recent FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago seems, if anything, to have achieved the opposite; the onetime party of law and order is now at war with the FBI.
Should Trump return to power, he would be more constrained than Netanyahu by America’s Constitution. But with a judiciary as politicized as America’s is already, he is likely to also ratchet up autocracy, and the damage could be considerable. As in Israel, his supporters would rejoice at the weakening of liberal democracy.
What about the other side? Mostly they’re complacent. They’re in favor of liberal democracy, yes, but they won’t bother to take the danger seriously until the place is up in flames. Right now it’s more urgent for them to keep making money, or worry about gender, or be offended by Boomers and their odd concept of humor.
It’s not clear what can be done. Maybe, for the likes of Trump and Netanyahu, a plea bargain or a pardon in exchange for retirement is the best way. Perhaps the anger on the right will start to slowly dissipate.
But for the moment, we are in the grip of an inconvenient truth: Real democracy — liberal democracy — is just not terribly popular. Dealing with this is job one, the day after Netanyahu and Trump.
(This article appeared originally in the New York Daily News)