Reflections on Israeli Democracy - and Mushrooms

Is the feeling of powerlessness the inevitable accompaniment or price of democracy?

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

OpEds Paul Eidelberg
Paul Eidelberg

Some years ago an unusual study revealed that a feeling of powerlessness is quite prevalent among Israelis.  This struck some people as strange, since Israel has universal suffrage and periodic multiparty elections.

What seems to make the findings of that study more puzzling is that Israel has a parliamentary system based on Proportional Representation with a mere 2 percent electoral threshold—so that parties in Israel multiply like mushrooms. As many as thirty compete in a typical national election, and the voter turnout is usually a respectable 80 percent—at least 20 points higher than in the United States.

So what’s going on here?

The trouble is that the very multiplicity of parties in Israel makes all but the three or four government coalition parties powerless—and the same may be said of the fragmented opposition parties. In fact, no coalition government has eve rbeen toppled by a Knesset vote of no confidence, except in 1990 when the Labor party bribed Shas to desert its coalition with the Likud.

But even the parties of a coalition government leave their voters feeling rather powerless, since the hapless voters are compelled to vote for a fixed party list of candidates rather than a single individual candidate.  In other words, despite universal suffrage and periodic multiparty elections, Israel’s seemingly democratic parliamentary system enables Knesset Members and Cabinet Ministers to ignore public opinion with impunity.

Ah, but you have heard this story from me before, haven’t you? Ah, but did you know that the great multiplicity of parties in Israel yields a multiplicity of asexual ornon-productive political mushrooms, hence a more pervasive feeling of powerlessness?

This pervasive feeling of powerlessness in democratic Israel would not have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.  From his classic Democracy in America, we learn that the greater the degree of equality in a democracy,the greater the feeling of impotence among its citizens. 

In other words, democracy renders the individual more free and more equal but also more powerless.  That’s why the individual citizens of a democracy have to form groups to magnify their power and advance their interests.This is why we have so many  NGOs,non-governmental organizations or ”interest groups” in democracies.

Democracy renders the individual more free and more equal but also more powerless.
So the feeling of powerlessness is the inevitable accompaniment or price of democracy. And the better educated citizens are more apt to recognize and feel this powerlessness.This is what that previously mentioned study discovered, even though it made no reference to de Tocqueville.

It follows that the adage, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” may well apply to democracies, or to the expectations people have of democracy — and this, quite apart from the baneful effects of the media, mediocre educational institutions, and the corruption rampant in campaign or party financing.

Now for the punch line: Liberals think that the way to solve the problems of democracy is to make it more democratic! One way is to lower the electoral threshold. This will produce more political or tasteless mushrooms.