To be or not to be (a democracy)

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers via Unsplash

The human experience whips up passionate opinions on so many issues that it can be frustrating to face a binary choice, as democracies often do. But binary does not have to mean ossified. The complexity can spark shifts as once-secondary issues gain importance, yielding new choices, usually also binary. We face a big one these days.

Follow the news and you’ll see major shifts that seem specific to certain countries, but they are not. They all come from same question humanity is asking itself.

In the United States, longtime blue-collar Democratic voters switched to the Republicans in their populist reincarnation. In the UK, Labour voters shifted to Brexit and then simply the Tories. We just saw another version of it in France, where the traditional left (the Socialists) and the traditional right (the Gaullist Republicans), weakening for some time, were totally wiped out in the April 10th first round of the presidential election.

And there is a fascinating version of it in Israel, where the long-entrenched — divide between the right-religious bloc and the left-Arab bloc is unraveling. Israel’s case is instructive because it offers (as Israel often does) a universal microcosm of the sublime and ridiculous.

The core of the Israeli divide goes back to pre-state times, when petty rivalries and fashionable quibbles over socialism whipped up quite a toxic brew. But it soon came down instead to the question of whether to divide the land or not. Israel gets much credit for accepting the 1947 UN partition plan, which the Arabs rejected. But the plan was also rejected by the Revisionist right, which was more hawkish, even then.

This became clear after 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt, securing control over the rest of the land that would have gone to a Palestine state: the right wanted to keep the territories and settle them with Jews, and the opposing bloc hated the idea. But three shifts have taken place.

  • The status quo on religion is becoming untenable because of the Haredi birthrate — eight children per family on average — and the requirement that the Israeli taxpayer fork over child allowances (that just barely sustain terrible poverty), support schools that don’t teach English, science or math, and pay adult men a lifelong salary for studying scripture. With the Haredim accounting for a sixth of the Jews and growing fast, this clearly cannot last. Hawks on the Arabs began to abandon the right over this,
  • While the right fashions itself as nationalist, there is a counterintuitive contradiction between nationalism and the West Bank occupation. A realistic nationalist, upon realizing the Holy Land has as many Arabs as Jews, might find more in common with doves seeking partition than right-wingers who cannot count. Even some religious people are abandoning the right over this.
  • The scandals of Benjamin Netanyahu: After drawing three 2019 indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, another might have demurely stepped aside. But Netanyahu clung ferociously to his seat, launched an assault on the press, police and legal system so vicious that officials required security details, and machinated tirelessly for immunity and other escapes. Right-wingers who cannot stomach such behavior also abandoned the right over this.

Together, the three shifts finally brought Netanyahu down in the 2021 election, yielding a coalition that that is very diverse on all the issues that are specific to Israel, but fairly united on the main one that sits right at the heart of the the great ideological struggle of the 21st century.

There are many factors at play, and no simple formula catches everything. But at its essence this new divide, accelerated by the digital age, pits supporters of liberal democracy against those who might believe in elections but not in equality, human rights, rule of law and freedom — not really.

The liberal world order established in the wake of World War II (and the concurrent decolonization) encompassed both the classic Left and the classic Right. Almost all of the leaders of the West, including the rightists, agreed with its liberal democratic principles embodied in the United Nations and its institutions, European Union, World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the like. Ronald Reagan did. Jacques Chirac did. Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher did.

So watch very carefully what happens in France. Some argue President Emanuel Macron stands for nothing but the smoothly unbridled lust for power; but while he is indeed slippery, he is a centrist who stands for the liberal world order. If nationalist Marine Le Pen should defeat him in the April 24 runoff, it will be a monumental boost for the enemies of the liberal world order.

These enemies are at present personified mainly by three global figures: Vladimir Putin, who has turned Russia into a dystopian dictatorship in which people snitch on each other for opposing his vicious and self-defeating war against Ukraine (punishable now with 15 years in jail); Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who makes the grade by virtue of having just won reelection, badly subverting the European project and becoming a muse to American authoritarians; and Donald Trump, of course.

The United States, which Trump exposed as a shockingly dysfunctional democracy, offers the starkest case of another fascinating shift: the center finds itself estranged from both the authoritarian right (which now dominates the Republican Party that will re-nominate Trump in 2024) and a rabidly progressive left which is similarly illiberal. I have argued that a new American center should emerge as a result.

Such angst and instability are understandable, in a way: technology and globalization have so benefited the educated, mobile and connected that we are living in one of the least economically egalitarian eras in history. It has become so awful that a turning point may be at hand. And if many people want to burn down the house, it is because their room is a mess; if they fall prey to conspiracy theories and allow their inner demons to draw them to populists and racists, it is human nature in a way.

Human nature must not be ignored, but it can constitute a form of bondage. In this holiday season of 2022, let us instead contemplate freedom, in the promised land.

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Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.

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Dan Perry

Dan Perry

Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.

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