Deliver us from our electoral mess

If democracy is truly about noise, then the Jewish state has been nothing short of cacophonous of late and for all the wrong reasons.

 WHAT COMES next? Yair Lapid votes in March 2021. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
WHAT COMES next? Yair Lapid votes in March 2021.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

“I like the noise of democracy,” James Buchanan, America’s 15th president, is said to have remarked over 150 years ago in a moment of contemplation. 

Of course, Buchanan lived in the 19th century, when there were no Internet trolls, YouTube influencers or manipulative hi-tech algorithms with which the electorate had to contend.

Nor was the populace of his day bombarded endlessly by puerile punditry served up by talking heads on television with a patently partisan agenda.

There is, however, an element of compelling truth to be found at the heart of Buchanan’s observation, which is that democratic government, unlike authoritarian rule, allows for a symphony of different voices and views to be heard.

And while at times this can be infuriating, given the propensity of some politicians to say inane or even offensive things, we should never forget just how blessed we are to live in a society where freedom of speech is the norm rather than the exception.

 Vote counting at the Knesset on November 3, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Vote counting at the Knesset on November 3, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Nonetheless, with all due respect to America’s late commander in chief, Buchanan clearly never had to live through five rounds of national elections in less than four years as Israel’s citizens have lately been forced to endure.

Indeed, if democracy is truly about noise, then the Jewish state has been nothing short of cacophonous of late and for all the wrong reasons.

Democracy is about noise, but Israel has been loud for all the wrong reasons

After all, election campaigns are ideally supposed to center on ideas and the people propounding them. They are an opportunity for society to debate and discuss, to clarify and clash over policy and principles.

What better laboratory can there be for new proposals and creative initiatives when the attention of the public is riveted and people’s attention is focused on how to improve the country in which we live?

But anyone looking back over the moribund campaign of the past few months would find it difficult to identify or highlight a compelling intellectual thread.

Whatever civil discourse we had was far from civil and often didn’t rise to the level of discourse. 

The name-calling and finger-pointing which many politicians resorted to would be enough to make even the most foul-mouthed teenager blush.

Perhaps I missed the memo, but I don’t recall anyone offering a comprehensive and thoughtful plan to address many of society’s ills, from the overwhelmed healthcare system to the confiscatory tax regime to the Iranian nuclear threat.

This is not a failure of democracy. It is a failure of imagination and a failure of leadership.

To be honest, each of us bears at least some responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. At the end of the day, politicians cater to the public. If we do not expect or demand a higher standard from them, they are unlikely to go out of their way to offer one.

FURTHERMORE, FOR far too long we have tolerated a distinct lack of electoral reform, which is so desperately needed. Regardless of whether this week’s voting results in a governing coalition, our electoral system is simply a chaotic shambles.

The outgoing government consisted of no less than eight parties, and it was one of the shortest-lived administrations since the founding of the state.

As Prof. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute noted in an article in June, on average between 1996 and 2022 the Jewish state held elections every 2.4 years. This, he said, “places Israel first in the world in terms of frequencies of elections since 1996.”

Needless to say, the repeated rounds of balloting are disruptive to any chance of good governance, while the lack of political stability inevitably casts a shadow over economic planning and growth.

The sense that we are stuck, that Israel is mired in political infighting and divided along partisan lines, is both dangerous and destructive.

The way out is obvious to us all: We urgently need to change how we choose our political leaders.

But equally obvious are the obstacles to doing so, and they are numerous. The same Knesset members with the power to change the electoral system have every reason not to do so. And the stranglehold that small parties have over who will rule virtually eliminates any possibility of true structural reform.

Consequently, discussing electoral reform would seem to be as effective as complaining about the weather.

And yet, we cannot and must not shy away from tackling this crucial issue, for our system of government is in a prolonged state of crisis, one that cries out for acute change.

Right or left, we the people must raise our voices and demand it in no uncertain terms. Without such reform, Israel’s political system, as well as its society, will only continue to grow more polarized, thereby perpetuating the problem.

“Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could do only a little.” So goes a wonderful quote on the Internet that is misattributed to the great Irish-British statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke.

But whatever the source, the point is no less true: It is time for us all to stop making the great mistake of doing nothing to deliver our society from its electoral mess. 

The writer served as deputy communications director under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office.