Our era of democracies damaging themselves
The US, UK and Israel show how voters can shoot themselves in the foot; is the world just getting too complicated or what?
We are taught to believe that democracy is more than just the least-bad system, a default we turn to because despotisms are awful. Human beings naturally seek positivity in their lives, and so we accept the supposed wisdom of the crowd: the public knows what’s best.
But reality is straining that idea to the breaking point.
Fake democracies all over the world use digital trickery, intimidation of watchdogs and opponents, and twisted procedures to build dictatorships of a manipulated majority. That’s how it is in places like Russia, Poland and Hungary, and the racket seems resilient.
Moreover, genuine democracies are producing electoral outcomes that are self-destructive at an alarming pace. Democracy is not much good if destroys its host. Three countries stand out as causing themselves such extensive damage that national suicide is a fair way to describe it.
Israel is one, self-destructing as it is in two distinct, impressive ways.
The first is through the settlement of the West Bank, which will make the military occupation of the area irreversible. With over a half million Jewish settlers in place, many deep inside, even some peaceniks think a pullout already impossible. It looks like Israel will eventually be forced by outside pressure to annex the entire area and grant millions of Palestinians the vote. With the West Bank Israel would be only 60% Jewish; with Gaza it’s majority-Arab. That nationalists are causing this tells you something about the strategic intelligence of nationalists.
The second way is through its coddling of the Haredi minority. Haredi men receive a state salary for lifelong religious study, and so half of them do just that. The rest are barely employable since the state continues to fund schools that won’t teach math, science and English. Israel also pays child subsidies that help prop up Haredi family sizes approaching 10; and so the sector, now numbering about a million, is enroute to being a majority within a few generations. Its constantly growing share of the vote gives the right – of which Haredim are at this point an inseparable part – a growing majority that reinforces the first suicide path.
Israel has, incredibly, about as many tech unicorns as Europe, and its per capita GDP is higher than that of France. But its voting patterns probably make all this temporary: Goodbye, Start-Up Nation; goodbye, Jewish state.
Next up, the green and pleasant land where I lived for almost seven years, as AP’s Europe-Africa Editor. Britain has lately insisted on calling itself the “United Kingdom” but its decision to leave the European Union may soon render that language obsolete.
It will have to either jettison Northern Ireland or erect a customs border – either on the Irish island itself, which is unacceptable, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which is … unacceptable.
Looking to the north, Brexit has so upset the Scots that Scottish independence is now far more likely than before. Where Braveheart failed, doth Boris Johnson blunder.
The post-Brexit UK is experiencing shortages of everything from medical equipment to chemicals to foodstuffs, which it excuses to its people as part of a global “supply chain problem.” It is actually happening because the EU was the UK’s major trading partner, and trade and transport are now too difficult and expensive.
That type of self-delusion follows naturally from a Leave campaign whose transparent lies compelled a move that is predictably spreading misery – a disaster wrought by reckless politicians, indifferent youth and a collective childish fit.
Finally, we have no less than the United States of America, the place where I grew up. By the time I left, in my 20s enroute to being a foreign correspondent, I considered the place to be a model for the world. This tells you something about young foreign correspondents.
Not only does the US (absurdly) elect sheriffs and judges, but it cannot get rid of the death penalty, can’t decide on providing a minimum of healthcare for all, and can’t figure out that leading the developed world in gun ownership is connected to leading it in homicides and massacres.
There is a rot at the heart of America: the racket whereby every state regardless of size has two members in the all-powerful Senate. The Senate confirms Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officers, has sole power to remove the president and must pass all important legislation. A certain distortion caused by the population disparities has been widely accepted, to grease the wheels of federalism; but the extent of the distortion has become a disaster.
Because of the way the US population is now dispersed, a bunch of small states, rural and conservative, hold the rest of America hostage. As a case in point, a Senate vote in tiny Wyoming is worth 70 in California (by relative size of population). When electing presidents, in the less distorted but still-outrageous Electoral College, the multiple is four.
This stacks the system in favor of the Republicans, who have won a majority of presidential votes nationally just once since 1988 – yet held the White House half that time. Predictably, this party is now heavily invested in the dark arts of vote suppressing, district gerrymandering and lost-elections overturning. The setup just screams out for change, but there are too many small Republican states that benefit from it for constitutional amendments to stand a chance under the US system.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are aligned with majority opinion on key issues ranging from abortion (don’t ban it) and taxes (more on the rich) to healthcare (make it universal), gun control (increase it) and climate (stop denying). But they’re squandering any advantage this might offer by being joined to the hip to a small-but-powerful progressive movement that’s so annoying to others as to drive many to the right.
That’s because most Americans cannot abide the progressive (or “woke”) position on equality of outcome (as opposed to opportunity), viewing people (especially men) as guilty if accused, assigning speaking rights by group identity, rendering campuses as “safe spaces” instead of places for debate, and viewing traditional notions of meritocracy as racism (not to mention notions of “defunding the police”).
If Donald Trump is returned to office in 2024, which could happen due to the system, don’t be surprised if the Democratic states which power most of the economy look for ways to leave the Union. It would be ugly, and could become violent.
This triple national suicide is a warning to people in all democracies.
Almost everywhere we see masses of voters at odds with the educated classes and the societal elites. Huge majorities among the “experts” – in areas where fact-based expertise is relevant – disdain election outcomes.
Cynics might see this as a case of educated, wealthy minorities clinging to privilege. And certainly, some of the voters causing mayhem are rebelling against the elite projects of migration (jobs taken by newcomers), globalization (jobs moving to cheaper climes) and tech disruption (jobs moving to a parallel universe).
But beyond that, we may be living in an era when the issues are too complex for many people’s ability to keep up. That is fertile ground for emotional appeals, simplistic arguments, and knee-jerk decisions.
To have any hope, democratic countries must invest in education and infuse young people with love for their democratic rights. When we vote, our hand should tremble. Our spirit should soar with appreciation of a privilege to be earned each time anew, with respect for the facts, respect for each other and respect for ourselves.
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(A version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post)