Turning Back the Tide

To tackle the crisis of democracy we must restore the public's faith in its governing institutions

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Western liberal democracy is in crisis. From America to France, Hungary to the United Kingdom, the past year has seen the growing power of right-wing, populist, often illiberal movements in many Western states. It is no longer an isolated incident – one local election here, one national referendum there
– but rather a worldwide pattern.

Even Israel is not immune. To begin putting forward solutions and turning back the tide, both at home and abroad, we first have to understand what happened.

We live in an age of rapid and disruptive technological, social, economic and ideological change. Technology has been a blessing, but it has also increased the burden on our old patterns of communication, institutions, and politics.

Social media, to take one key example, has had a giant impact on subverting the traditional mediating organs of our representative government – parliament, political parties, and legacy media. This has enabled senior officials (and those who want to be senior officials) to communicate directly and personally with the public, thereby circumventing political parties.

But at the same time, absent these mediating organs, social media also leads to the creation of echo chambers, compartmentalized “safe spaces” where objectivity biases and tribalism rule supreme. Citizens increasingly only hear what they want to hear; politics has become personalized, angry, and often
populist. There is no longer an objective reality. This gives rise to terms such as “posttruth” world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

While post-modern relativism isn’t new, what is new is the speed and reach of the phenomenon. Social media is the accelerator for an ideological revolution that Israeli political theorist Prof. Yaron Ezrahi recently compared to the Renaissance. If back then, science sidelined religion as civilization’s anchor, then it now seems that science is itself being marginalized. The only question is – by what? Especially in uncertain times, where no fact can be trusted, people seek stability. Authoritarian and fundamentalist tendencies are increasingly viewed as attractive options.

To be sure, social media isn’t the only technological disruptor responsible for our current moment of crisis. In recent decades, globalization has led to widespread economic dislocation for what was previously viewed as the bedrock of Western liberal democracy: the middle class. Whole industries have been downsized or eliminated; jobs have gone to developing economies; wages have stagnated. All the while, those with the appropriate training and education seem to benefit from the thrust of globalization.

As they have in the past, economic convulsions and large income disparities lead, almost inevitably, to the rise of populist sentiments and strongman leaders offering quick – and simplistic – fixes.

In the face of such changes, our traditional democratic institutions appear helpless. Anti-establishment attitudes and plummeting trust in both politics and politicians have been fed by government underperformance.

The plunging levels of trust are fed by justified concerns. Special interest groups have tremendous and disproportionate impact on politicians and on national-level decision-making. The public sentiment that the democratic system is not well-geared to serve the greater public has much to rely on.

As a unique member of the family of Western democracies, Israel hasn’t been spared. The structural economic reforms ushered in since the mid-1980s have led to major growth and a strong connection to the globalized economy, but also to a level of income inequality not previously known in Israel’s socialist past. The cost of living is one of the highest in OECD countries and many Israelis, especially young couples, can no longer afford to buy their own home. The gap between the modern Israeli geographic “center” and the stagnating “periphery” has widened.

Thanks to the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual polling work, we can actually quantify the eroding public trust in Israel’s governing institutions. According to our most recent Israeli Democracy Index from December 2016, only 26.5% of the public actually trust the Knesset (down from 35% the year before) and 27% trust the government (down from 36%). Political parties fared even worse, with only 14% of the public expressing trust in them (down from 19%). Almost as alarming, trust in the media dropped significantly, with only 24% of the public – down from 35.5% the year before – responding in the affirmative.

The last year has witnessed an escalation in hostilities between the media and the government. Israeli politicians, like their counterparts around the world, take to social media to speak directly to the public – and to blast the media. The media, for its part, is seen as biased and subjective. Both sides lose in the process.

Israel’s public space, contentious in the best of times, has become overtly hostile to competing ideas and perspectives. A rational and unifying national conversation about the truly important issues has been taken hostage by Facebook. This is the manifestation of a crisis in our own political system, and in our own democratic institutions.

So, what needs to be done? Like in the rest of the world, we cannot turn the clock back on technological progress. But in all the spheres mentioned above, more has to be done to soften the negative consequences of the rapid changes we are witnessing.

Anti-establishment sentiment and plummeting trust in democratic institutions can be remedied by more effective, responsive and transparent governance (and, indeed, governing systems). The economic disparities brought about by globalization have to be ameliorated by a real emphasis on root causes and a structural economic reform agenda that promotes a revitalized social fabric. Both the political class and the media have to exhibit greater responsibility, emphasizing fact and reason over polemics and vitriol. Above all, the institutions of public life have to return to a unifying Zionist discourse based on the liberal and democratic values upon which Israel was so successfully founded.

The good news is that the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) was founded with this exact mission in mind: to bolster through independent research and action the institutions and values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

In the economic sphere, we are working to put forward crucial reforms regarding the labor market that will hopefully (re)instill some faith among those who have been left behind, ensuring their future in a dynamic and flexible knowledge economy.

Similarly, in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab-Israeli sectors, we are devising plans for greater integration – economic, social, normative and political – to increase overall national cohesion. With regard to the ultra-Orthodox, this means standing up for our constitutional values without giving up on the fastest growing segment of the Israeli population.

With regard to Arab-Israelis, 20% of the country, it is imperative that they feel fully integrated in the national fabric, helping to undermine both the appeal of extremism (on their end) and populism/nativism (among segments of the Jewish-Israeli population).

National security, too, is a major focus of IDI’s work – as it is increasingly in many other Western states. We are working toward recommendations on how to win the global struggles against terror while, at the same time, upholding our democratic and liberal values. Security versus democracy is a question Israel has long experience with; it is a balancing act. It is our strongly held belief, however, that one need not, and must not, come at the expense of the other.

All of these efforts, in truth, depend to a large extent on the quality of our political system. Here, too, we are doubling down on our efforts to improve the quality of the civil service, reduce unnecessary governmental regulations, and combat the scourge of public corruption – all with the goal of boosting public trust in government. We are also pursuing our longstanding plans for political reform – in the electoral system, political parties, and Knesset – in order to boost the stability, performance and quality of government.

All of these will, we believe, counteract the growing personalization of politics and the decline in substantive policy debates.

Ultimately, the best antidote to the virus of anti-establishment sentiment is to improve the public’s faith in the system, values, and ideas that govern their lives. More work undoubtedly needs to be done. But it is only through such efforts that the crisis in Western liberal democracy currently unfolding across the globe can be stopped and, in time, reversed.

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