U.S., France, Israel: How Three Model Democracies Are Coming Unglued
France, Israel, United States: these three democracies all face their own distinct problems. But these problems are revealing disturbing cracks in society that pose a real danger to hard-earned progress that won't be easily regained.
"I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat," reads the t-shirt of a Republican Party supporter in the U.S.
"We need to bring the French economy to its knees," announces the leader of the French union Confédération Générale du Travail.
"Let's end the power of the Supreme Court filled with leftist and pro-Palestinian Ashkenazis," say Israeli government cabinet ministers pushing extreme judicial reforms
The United States, France, Israel: three countries, three continents, three situations that have nothing to do with each other. But each country appears to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown of what seemed like solid democracies.
How can we explain these political excesses, irrational proclamations, even suicidal tendencies?
The answer seems simple: in the United States, in France, in Israel — far from an exhaustive list — democracy is facing the challenge of society's ever-greater polarization. We can manage the competition of ideas and opposing interests. But how to respond to rage, even hatred, borne of a sense of injustice and humiliation?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Emmanuel Macron have nothing in common except, perhaps, the fact that they are both political risk takers. But in their desire to change the status quo — institutional in Israel, social in France — both have isolated themselves from the majority of their fellow citizens.
The last bastion of democracy
What is at stake in Israel is simply existential: the survival of the country as a democratic state which respects the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The country's traditional elites — whatever their political orientations — have largely risen up to demonstrate their indignation at this attack on the power of judges, which they see as the last bastion of a democratic country with no constitution.
Late Monday, Netanyahu appeared to back down — at least for the moment — putting the reforms on hold after the refusal of some Israel army reservists to train in protest at the government plans.""Out of the responsibility to the nation, I decided to delay ... the vote, in order to give time for discussion," he said.
Israel is still a small state in a hostile region, and needs allies.
Israeli president Isaac Herzog had warned his fellow citizens of what he sees as the very real risk of a civil war. It is interesting to note that supporters of the "judicial revolution" — those who rely on the notion of defending a Jewish state against the "Western drift" of Israel — never refer to the catastrophic consequences, reported in the Bible, of the divisions that occurred within the kingdom of Israel, which ultimately led to its disappearance.
Despite its military, economic and technological power, Israel is still a small state with fewer than 10 million inhabitants. To survive in the long term, in a largely hostile region, the nation needs allies and support. It cannot afford to alienate both Washington and the American Jewish community at the same time. China is not going to come and save the Israelis from themselves as a last resort. Unlike the West, China has no sense of guilt towards the Jewish world.
The debate in France is not of an existential nature. Compared to Israel, the stakes of the current crisis may seem almost laughable. But it would be a mistake to consider that this is nothing more than a quarrel over retirement age. The question asked is not existential, but that's how a significant portion of society sees it. To many, it's a question that sets work in opposition to life: balancing the budget and the weight of debt on one hand, and on the other, enjoying apple pie with grandchildren on a weekday.
In the conservative Financial Times, columnist Simon Kuper recently wondered whether French people are right to prioritize life over work. By not integrating the emotional dimension of the debate, and by alienating, through its lack of real consultation with them, the support of traditionally moderate forces (both union and political), Macron finds himself alone and weakened, after his Pyrrhic victory in the National Assembly.
What is at stake in France is not ultimately the survival of the state, as in Israel, but rather the future of the democratic project in the face of the rise of populism. That is not nothing.
Thousands of people protesting in Paris after a vote of no confidence was rejected by a meagre 9 votes, the vote of no-confidence would have annulled French President Macron's pension reform law and toppled his government.
A "remake" of Jan. 6?
On the other side of the Atlantic, one can legitimately wonder if America is not approaching a do-over of the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol, as Donald Trump calls for his supporters to mobilize. Trump claims he may soon be arrested and charged with having paid hush money to a former mistress before the 2016 election. This is, ironically, the least of his sins, compared to his systemic attacks on American democracy.
Can peaceful dialogue between those in power and the rest of society resume, in one form or another?
As debate becomes more radicalized and shaped by increasingly uncontained rage, how can democracies bring back conditions that allow, if not for consensus — which is impossible — then at least dialogue? With a good dose of optimism, one could hope that fatigue, if not an instinct for survival, will eventually prevail over rage. After all, representative democracy is doing better than just defending itself, as we have seen recently in the Czech Republic and Georgia. And in the age of Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and climate change, democracies should have other priorities than self-destruction.
In Israel, if Netanyahu prioritizes the future of his country over his own, he must back down. The power of judges is paramount. In France, the rage will not stop on its own — beyond the question of retirement, can peaceful dialogue between those in power and the rest of society resume, in one form or another? In the U.S., the polarization of society is too deep to be only transitory.
In democracy, trust is lost quickly — and can take a long time to win back.
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