Israel's political crisis and the challenge of populism

Actual policy making in a liberal democracy is based on sophisticated nuances.

Yair Lapid: If we lose, Israeli democracy is over. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yair Lapid: If we lose, Israeli democracy is over.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In recent years, much has been said and written about the age of populism, its impact on public attitudes, policy making, and democratic institutions. The term ‘populism’ has been used by some intellectuals – among other things – to identify a preference by certain politicians (on both the political right and left) for policies and positions that appeal to the masses, by virtue of the simple and short-term solutions they offer to complex societal problems, and regardless of the long-term consequences of the proposed fixes. Such populist proposals tend to rely more on wide-spread public sentiment and group identity, and less on expertise and hard evidence or a robust cost-benefit analysis.
Actual policy making in a liberal democracy is based, however, on sophisticated nuances: on political compromises among different political parties, agendas and viewpoints; a process involving interaction between elected politicians and independent experts, along with institutions that impose legal limits on preferences of the majority, to protect the interests of the minority. In other words, there is considerable tension between traditional politics based on a combination of down to earth pragmatism and lofty ideals about the greater good which incorporate the interests of others, and new populist-driven politics that prioritize absolutist positions, which resonate loud and clear with relevant constituency groups.
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Israel’s inability to form a government, after two consecutive elections, appears to be related to this paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift manifests itself not only in a more than usual aggressive rhetoric against political adversaries, but also in political parties’ adoption of  radical positions before the elections vis-à-vis both issues and other politicians, which made post-election deal-making extremely difficult. In this category, one may find Yisrael Beitenu’s pledge to overhaul existing laws on religion and state, and not to sit in the same coalition with the Ultra-Orthodox and the extreme right; the Ultra-Orthodox parties’ rejection of any coalition with Yair Lapid; Blue and White’s pledge to form a ‘secular’ unity government without Netanyahu; and Likud’s attacks on the Blue and White generals as ‘a diluted left’. While these positions can be regarded as ordinary empty and meaningless election posturing, in an age of populism, they assume greater plausibility in the eyes of the public. This is because they fit right in to a discourse which expects clear-cut solutions to messy problems of policy making and government formation, pursues a “winner takes all” philosophy to politics, and frowns upon political compromises that take into consideration the viewpoints of others, who are often presented as not reflecting the views of “the people”.

The outcome of such an approach to politics appears to be increased political polarization, and deeply entrenched positions, making traditional compromise-based politics harder to attain. Renouncing pre-election positions, not only requires parties to break a specific election promise they made,  it also implies their shift back from ‘new politics’, which are based on mirroring the strong preferences of ‘The people’ or the constituency, to engaging in the incremental, nuanced and pragmatic discourse of an old and discredited political elite. For a large enough number of Israeli politicians this is too high a price to pay. Hence, we find ourselves once again without a political deal built on compromises and respect for the interests of diverse groups in society, heading towards the ballot box.

Prof. Yuval Shany is Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute and member of the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University