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  • Writer's picturestephen schecter

Democracy and what it is not

In sociology, as in other sciences, there was a school of thought called functionalism. As with medicine, this signalled a step forward. Society had different parts as the body had different organs, and it was thought more useful to understand what function the different parts had to keep the society intact, just as it was thought more useful to understand what function different organs had to keep the body going. After all, unless one studied society simply to overthrow it, this made some sense. But sociologists for some strange reason have not embraced this school with enthusiasm, thinking that true science in the study of sociology could not be divorced from a moral project of improving it. Functionalism, they argued, diverted attention from the way society made things bad, and thereby legitimized the status quo. This argument was not quite fair, since those who embraced functionalism did pose the question: how does society hold together? And they even went on to explore, for any given society, the tensions that risked tearing it apart. But they did not pretend to argue that they knew what the end purpose of society or history was, any more than doctors knew what the purpose of the human body was. It was enough for them to know how to keep a body alive. What the patient did with that knowledge was beyond their purview. Too bad sociologists did not adopt a similar posture when investigating society.

Some, however, did. Talcott Parsons was one of them. In his analysis, the political system has the function of making collectively binding decisions for society. This was so as much for kinship societies as it was for monarchies and modern democracies, but in the latter case carrying out this function was fraught with even greater difficulties than it was in the case of royalty. A king or emperor, in the last resort, could count on a combination of force and popular allegiance to ensure that his decisions were respected. In this he was aided by an aristocracy and a clergy who were, in many respects, connected to him through lineage and who carried out many of the other functions necessary to keep society going. This arrangement no longer held once modern society got going. Kings were beheaded in civil wars or revolutions. The bourgeoisie emerged as an independent social and political force. A market economy grew up. Modern science freed itself from clerical tutelage and the arts soon followed. The divine right of kings lost its force, the aristocracy lost its privileges, and parliamentary government asserted its power. Democracy now became the form in which the political system carried out its function.

But democracy has been often misunderstood. As Parsons’ most brilliant student, Niklas Luhmann, explained, democracy’s most salient characteristic is the bifurcation of power at the top. Which reinforces Canetti’s prescient remark in Crowds and Power that His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is one of the most significant historical innovations in human society. Most people think democracy is a prescription for utopia of one kind or another, but that is simply dustbin fallout from the French Revolution and Marx’s scribblings on that event. The historical failure of every attempt to overhaul society to achieve true democracy, by which is meant true and total equality in every sphere of social life, has only produced disaster. Etymologically speaking, it leads to totalitarianism, whether it calls itself fascist, communist, or woke. That in fact is what it has produced historically and threatens to do so for our times.

Why is the bifurcation of power at the top so important to democracy? Because everything that is constitutive of liberty flows from that. Once parties compete for power, even if the franchise is initially restricted to men of property, electoral reform becomes inevitable. The franchise is widened to include everybody, often at the initiative of conservative parties. The people are involved in the political process as parties compete for their favor to win office. Interest groups proliferate and lobby the government even in between elections. Money is always helpful to advance interests, but even impoverished groups develop creative ways to achieve their aims, as the history of hitherto marginalized groups in democratic society can attest. Political elites, as Luhmann pointed out, are forced to make decisions on matters about which they would prefer to remain silent, if only because the few resources at the disposal of governments to ensure compliance with collectively binding decisions are limited in nature, namely law and money. Freedom for many people is thereby enhanced, but freedom does not come without its price.

Electoral contests become more partisan and constant. The electoral cycle seems to be permanent rather than a four- or five-year occurrence as stipulated by law. At times it is seen as a sheer miracle that anything gets done. Political office is held in disrepute. One wonders how any government can command respect from its citizens, making obeisance to collectively binding decisions somewhat precarious, a potential feature of democracy de Tocqueville noted when discussing the likely difficulty democracies would face in the conduct of foreign policy. Governments start to weaponize law enforcement against its own citizens. Censorship of dissent rears its ugly head. The danger exists that democracies will dig their own graves before their enemies do them in. The current situation across the western world certainly reflects much of that tension. Paradoxically, those who study how democracies function are the first to contribute to this development, clamoring falsely that democracy is in danger because people of whom they disapprove win office. Two notable cases illustrate this trend: the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States and the repeated election of Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership of Israel. They bear a little examination.


First, America and Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the presidency of the United States in 2016 was unanticipated even by him. That it happened despite his abrasive personality, his bullying, his vulgarity, and his narcissism, would indicate that he tapped into something terribly wrong with the American political system and the drift of the country for decades. As Mr. Trump himself said, he came to drain the Washington swamp, a task for which he was eminently qualified because he himself had known it from the inside for decades, both as a Democrat and a Republican. Plus he had money of his own, which made him independent of lobbyists of whom he disapproved. His sense of what was wrong with the country was instinctive and the slogans he advanced as policies reflected that, all summed up in his pledge to make America great again. That the American electorate overlooked all his personal faults to vote him into the Presidency indicated his gut instinct was not wrong. To put it in a nutshell, middle majority America, the one that worked hard to build up the country for succeeding generations, did not relish having been lectured for decades about how deplorable they were. Nor did they think that racism was the inspiration for the American Republic, any more than they thought white supremacy was the principal threat to American civility in 2016. But the political class that extended far beyond the Beltway, deep into the Federal bureaucracy and out into its intellectual support system – the media, the entertainment industry, the think tanks on policy foreign and domestic, not to mention the human rights crowd – did. From the outset they targeted Mr. Trump as the equivalent of an American Hitler, a man on horseback, a fascist, and plotted against him to imprint on him the label of a threat to democracy.

The charge was as ridiculous as their misreading of American society, which has continued unabated under his successor. President Trump’s personality did him no favors. His political outlook seemed to have been modeled on what he knew from the New York real estate market: project strength, take no prisoners, muddy the waters and over claim everything. His first foray in political grandstanding as President was to claim for his inaugural the greatest crowd attendance in history. From there he went on to his first round of senior appointments, whose qualifications for office seemed chiefly to be that they projected strength. He soon found that generals and corporate executives did not necessarily smart advisors make. It took time for Mr. Trump to assemble a team that managed to turn his instincts into policies that worked, but amazingly it happened. Until Covid came along, the economy was booming as never before, America had achieved energy independence, bad actors on the international scene had been kept at bay. North Korea quieted down. Putin did not invade Ukraine after having sliced off Crimea under President Obama. China had been put on notice for unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft. Nonetheless, the President’s critics scoffed when he did not dress down Putin in public and European allies laughed, though they are not laughing now, when he told them to increase defense expenditures. Then Covid hit, and all of Mr. Trump’s character foibles came to hurt him as he proved incapable of stewarding the response to the pandemic, even as he succeeded in speeding up the vaccine process while rightly denouncing China for sending it our way. The problem, as usual, was not his achievements, but his failure to articulate the issues in a way that brought the American public along with him, and with that public the democracies of the world.

Mr. Trump’s political opponents piled on him mercilessly from the get-go, first with the Russia collusion hoax and then with the impeachment charge over a telephone call to the Ukrainian president. The final act of political theater came with the uproarious charge of insurrection over the 2020 election, which surely must have had Lenin and Trotsky, if not Hitler and Goebbels, roaring in their graves. But the political clergy in America that considers itself the rightful guardian of democratic virtue could not stomach the affront to their sense of propriety which Donald Trump’s incumbency of the White House represented. He had a way of laying bare the lies that underlay all their endeavours simply by his unadorned speech about what was going on, however clumsy and self-serving his utterances. It was as if Mr. Trump was a Hamlet in reverse: decisive in action, but inarticulate in delivering his lines and explaining his policies. If his enemies had got democracy all wrong, he himself could not get beyond himself to explain what was right about it: a political system which includes so much difference that its own penchant for inclusiveness threatens its very functioning.

The fallout continued with the 2022 mid-term elections. Someone no less than the President of the United States falsely claimed that democracy was on the ballot because the spectre of fascism Mr. Biden and his party had conjured up around Mr. Trump was now extended to the Supreme Court. Abortion, it was falsely asserted, was in danger. So was gay marriage. White supremacy continued to be cited as the greatest domestic terrorism threat while critical race theory was being pushed into schools. Since the elections the Democratic-controlled Senate has voted to protect gay and inter-racial marriage, neither of which are under threat. That the term inter-racial marriage has even worked itself into a bill in the first half of the twenty-first century is a linguistic and scientific disgrace, testimony to the plight of democracy itself to which its progressive misreading has led.

If hyperbole is Mr. Trump’s trademark, what are we to say of the speech that comes out of the academy and has now entered political discourse? Those who lament the ability to carry on a political conversation in today’s democracy should bear Luhmann’s warning in mind when he wrote, decades ago, that the tendency to turn one’s opponent into the devil would make democracies dysfunctional. This tendency is rooted in the mistaken notion, child of the 18th century, that democracy is to be judged and justified by how equal it makes us all. The idea is as ludicrous as it is unattainable, has nothing to do with how democracy works, drapes a moral imperative in a political cloak that leads straight to democracy’s collapse. Already the Biden Administration has weaponized both the FBI and the Justice Department to pursue people it deems its political enemies, from the former President to school parents across the country. As people lose faith in institutions like the FBI, all the prime-time television programs labeled with that acronym will not suffice to restore its integrity. Unable to acknowledge even the positive achievements of his predecessor, President Biden has attacked dissidents to his agenda as enemies of democracy itself. The upshot, contrary to his pre-electoral promise of healing the nation’s divisions, is less rather than more unity. Sociologically speaking, that translates into greater difficulty in making collectively binding decisions.

Every age has its issues and lucky is the age that can figure out which ones are real and capable of being resolved by human endeavour. Those that require political decision-making have only a few options at their disposal. In today’s world the options seem to be dictatorship or democracy. The latter is squalid and nasty, but far better than the alternative. Those who would preserve it would do well to know how it works and then be more intelligent when it comes to identifying the issues its office holders should be addressing. The task requires adequate observation that seems in short supply.

And so we come to Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu. Unlike America, Israel is not a continent in width, nor is it at peace with its neighbors. To the north, east and south it has enemies who would be only too happy to see it disappear. Farther afield within missile range is Iran, a country that has declared its intent to annihilate the Jewish state. The wider Muslim world, Arab and non-Arab, is not exactly friendly. So unity is not simply a political nicety for electioneering purposes, but an existential necessity when it comes to a daily question of life and death. A stable functioning polity, respect for and trust in collectively binding decisions, is a must. And since Israel is also a democracy, where power is bifurcated at the top and government and opposition jockey for power on a regular basis, the exercise of power occurs under constraints similar to those that exist in America. There is, however, one notable difference: Israel’s electoral system is governed by proportional representation, the most extreme system of proportional representation of any democracy. Which makes cobbling a government together always a delicate matter.

From 2009 to 2021 Benjamin Netanyahu held the position of Israeli Prime Minister. During that period the Obama Administration proved inimical to Israel, cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Iranian mullahs while undermining Israel at the UN. Mr. Netanyahu steered a steady course, all the while presiding over the liberalization of the Israeli economy, which saw the country undergo considerable financial growth. During the years of the Trump Administration, he managed to conclude the Abraham Accords with Gulf Arab states, breaking the Arab Muslim boycott of Israel. At home, however, he went through several coalition partners, alienating many of them who claimed he had broken promises made, including members of his own Likud Party. When the 2021 election results came in, many of these former coalition partners joined forces with other opposition parties and one Arab party to form a new if fragile government. It lasted for a year. With new elections called for November 2022, Netanyahu went about encouraging his potential coalition partners to join forces to maximize the translation of their votes into Knesset seats, given the rules governing the distribution of seats under Israel’s system of proportional representation.

Although the question of what to do about the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza always hovers over the Israeli political scene and seems to be the main dividing line between the nationalist camp Netanyahu sought to forge and lead and the one opposing him, more eclectic and conciliatory, the question did not seem to erupt into clear alternatives during the election. Indeed, the main issue seemed to focus on Netanyahu himself, casting the outcome as a fight between right and left, the dark forces of reaction threatening democracy and the good fight for a liberal society, protecting the rights of gays, women, Arabs and secular Israelis. This polarization became heightened over the personality of Netanyahu himself, whom his political opponents castigated as the embodiment of corruption and betrayal, an opportunist who would do anything to ensure his own political survival. As with Trump in America, Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents declared him a threat to democracy itself and promised his victory would give carte blanche to the forces of reaction and racism.

In the end, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party received 32 seats. Shas and United Torah Judaism, the parties representing the stricter orthodox segments of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi religious communities won 18 seats between them, while the coalition of Religious Zionist parties whose religious concerns more dovetailed with a muscled Zionism that sought to assert Israel’s historic rights and security concerns vis-à-vis the Palestinians won 14 seats. After the elections, these three blocs started negotiating the terms of the coalition agreement that would enable them to form a government. The terms not only defined the broad areas of agreement on policy, especially on the national issue in its diverse manifestations – what to do about settlements, how to respond to terror threats, Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, the status of Judea and Samaria, and so on; agreement on these issues would have to be reinforced by the distribution of ministerial portfolios and responsibilities. Hence the ongoing negotiations even after the elections, despite the mutual understandings beforehand.

That no agreement has yet been reached has not stopped the parties consigned to the opposition benches to reassert their claims that the incoming Netanyahu-led government will inaugurate a walking back of human rights, tolerance, and pluralism. All of this is nothing but hyperbole, just as it is in America, with the progressive cultural elites who see themselves as guardians of Israel’s democratic soul leading the attack. Unfortunately, they too do not understand the difference between the defining features of a democracy and the electoral rules under which it operates. Nor do they get that democracy is not a prescription for progress on certain issues, but a system of governance where power is bifurcated at the top. Israel’s electoral system of proportional representation ensures that power is even more fragmented, accountability more difficult to enforce, and governance itself more hazardous, dependent on shenanigans that are always embarrassing. After all, the Lapid-Bennett government that previously ran the country included a self-described conservative Arab party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and negotiated a maritime agreement with Lebanon dubious at best, given Hizbollah’s control over that country. If we go back to the Oslo Accords, signed by the late Prime Minister Rabin, they would never have passed the Knesset without the vote of a defector from a nationalist party bribed with a cabinet post. Nor would they have passed without the abstention of Shas at the time, bought it is said with a promise to postpone the trial of its leader on bribery charges. Indeed, the latter, having negotiated a plea bargain, is now slated, decades later, to become a minister again, with Israeli democracy still standing.

No surprise there, however frustrating it must be for anyone who would hope that an election would provide some indication of the direction in which the citizens would like to see the country go. My own reading would be to conclude that most of Israel’s citizens do not believe in the feasibility of the two-state solution, a nice Palestinian democracy living side by side with the Jewish one. But like most denizens of a modern democracy, they are more interested in getting on with what life has to offer than in chasing rainbows with no pot of gold at the end. They will leave that to the chattering classes who like to browbeat them with morality tales. On the other hand, unless stark choices are presented to them that offer some realistic prospect of putting an end to the intolerable situation they have come to learn to endure, they will simply continue to muddle through or, as one perspicacious observer of the situation recently remarked, to mow the grass from time to time, by which he meant repeated severe military blows to keep the Palestinian gangsters in check. Given Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system, no such forceful debate is likely to occur. The different political parties formed from historical Zionism and hardened into interest-laden constituencies will continue to mouth platitudes about nationalism and compromise, vigilance and retaliation. Incidents will escalate into questions of right and left, defense and sabotage of democracy, with little attention paid to the actual parameters involved in the options under discussion. That will be left to the closed-door meetings that go on after the dust has settled on the horse-trading required to bring a government into being. Decisions will be taken, collectively binding decisions, whose consequences will be seen in the days to come, as happened with the fateful Oslo Accords. Those consequences may turn out to be disastrous, certainly for those killed or maimed by Muslim terrorist attacks, possibly for the entire country if management by the intelligence and military elites proves faulty. But Israeli democracy itself will not be to blame; only the ineptitude of its electoral system and the concomitant features which render its functioning more problematic than it needs to be.

A first past the post system with geographical constituencies would be a much better one than the current situation, which reinforces the power of party bosses, fans the excesses of personalized leadership, and shields everyone responsible for collectively binding decisions from political accountability. Had I only had a stable majority, one can hear each Prime Minister lament in the privacy of his living room, had I only not had to concede this or that to my coalition partners as the price for the smallest reform, I would have been able to do what I would have wanted to do to protect the nation. Instead, I had to work with what I had and endure calumny for my efforts. What else does a statesmen do? Moses had to deal with much the same constraints and did. How could I do less? Netanyahu has not commented on that in the little he has leaked of his memoirs, but I would assume such calculus was never far from his mind. He had his priorities - Iran, keeping the country safe, growing its economy – and to achieve that he would do what had to be done. The grumbling would always go on, just as the mutinies against Moses’ leadership never ceased. In Mr. Netanyahu’s case, however, there is no Bible to record it; only the braying of ideologues, rabbinical and secular, screaming democracy is in danger and a few nutbars who think theocracy might work better. As for the Palestinian issue, I have my own thoughts on that matter and have expressed them elsewhere, but do not expect those views to gain a hearing and open discussion in the Jewish commonwealth. Things it seems are still not bad enough.

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