Public opinion facing democratic despotism

Does public opinion influence Israel's decisions? Shouldn't it make a difference in a democracy"

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

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A waggish commentator defined public opinion polls as foolish persons asking stupid questions of ignorant people.  Nevertheless, it’s commonly believed that public opinion should influence the laws and policies of any democratic government. 

Leaving our waggish commentator aside, what is “public opinion” and how is it manifested?


There are four distinct types of public opinion, which I will relate to Israel, a country where the vast majority of citizens believe in democracy and where the elites, especially the courts, hobble that democracy.

1. The first and most familiar type of public opinion is what I call “media-generated” or “statistical” public opinion. This type of public opinion is known by the one-word responses a sample of the population gives to questions asked by pollsters.


Media-generated public opinion is, therefore, superficial and transient. Such opinions do not require much thought or inquiry, when Joe or Jane is asked the mindless question,”Do you believe Prime Minister so-and-so is doing a good job?”   What can a “yes” or “no” reveal about the competence of that prime minister or about the respondent’s understanding of the vast array of problems confronting a prime minister?  And how easy it is to confuse or manipulate public opinion. 

Delving into Israel's history, a classic example is a Dahaf poll conducted on August 9, 2002, which asked various questions about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government: 

First question: “Is Ariel Sharon a reliable prime minister?”

63% of Israelis said Yes.   

Second question: “Do you count on Sharon to successfully lead the nation?”

57% said Yes. 

Third question: “What grade do you give to the performance of Sharon as prime minister?”

63% said “Good.” 


Fourth question: “Does Sharon have a diplomatic program?”

Only 36% said Yes, while 55% said No!   This unfavorable response places in question the favorable responses to the first three questions.

Fifth question: “Does the Sharon Government know how to wipe out terrorism?” Only 36% said Yes, while 60% said No! 

Sixth question: “Since the establishment of the Sharon Government, who has been winning the struggle?”

30% said “Israel”; 33% said the “Palestinians,” while 33% said “Neither!”

From these responses one may conclude (a) Sharon was NOT a reliable prime minister; (b) he could not be counted upon to successfully lead the nation; and (c) his performance as prime minister was BAD!

To clinch the point, when asked, “Will the frequency of terror attacks change in the near future?”  67% said it will Increase!

And when asked, “Do you fear being hurt in a terror attack?”

77% said Yes!  

So much for what I have termed “media-generated” or “statistical” public opinion, which is clearly indicative of the public’s confused state of mind, but a confusion for which one might blame the Government.  

2. A second type of public opinion is “electoral” and “party-generated.” This type of public opinion is manifested during election campaigns, when diverse political parties discuss various public issues and offer the public alternative party programs. Although such debates and programs are usually stated in general terms, still, the program of the winning party can be said to approximate public opinion.   

To illustrate our problem’ let’s go back to the 2003 election.  The paramount issue in that election was Labor’s policy of unilateral disengagement from Gaza.  The Likud and six other parties campaigned against that policy and won 84 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset.  Even though a vast majority of the electorate rejected Labor’s policy, it was subsequently adopted by Prime Minister Sharon in December 2003.  What is more, the following year, the Knesset enacted that policy into law by a vote of 67 to 45!   Clearly, the Knesset made a mockery of public opinion!  


3. A third type of public opinion is “deliberative” and “institution-generated.” It emerges from the kind of public inquiry and discussion occurring in legislative committees and executive agencies. This type of public opinion is embodied in public law and may be said to reflect the “deliberate sense of the community.” It is subject to change, but not as rapidly or as readily as those mentioned previously. But here again Israel, despite its democratic reputation, is an exception.

First, since members of the Knesset are not individually accountable to the voters in constituency elections, they can ignore the voters with impunity, as most MKs did when they voted for disengagement.  Second, they voted for disengagement contrary to testimony of Israel’s highest military and intelligence officials before the Knesset Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs.  And so, what I have termed “deliberative” public opinion hardly functions in Israel, at least in the domain of defense and foreign affairs.  

For example, Menachem Begin never imagined he would cede all of Sinai and "establish" a Palestinian homeland; Yitzhak Rabin never imagined he would effectively create an Arab terrorist Arafat state; Ariel Sharon never imagined unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would lead to the Second Lebanon War. One reason for this abysmal record is the government’s and the Knesset’s indifference to public opinion between elections.

4.A fourth type of public opinion is “immemorial” or “constitution-generated.” It consists of a nation’s fundamental moral convictions and political principles. These may be regarded as most resistant to change. For example, prohibitions against murder and robbery are not subject, in any direct way, to opinion polls and public debate, neither are such values as due process of law and political freedom. But once again Israel is an exception since its Supreme Court often ignores the heritage of the Jewish people.  Here are a few examples: 

●The Court has sanctified homosexuality and same sex marriages.

● The Court nullified a ban on pornographic movies by ruling that nothing can actually be declared por­nog­raphy, as one man’s pornography is another man’s art. (Never mind a Leonardo or a Botticelli!)

● The Court also ruled that land purchased by the Jewish National Fund for the purpose of Jewish settlement must be sold to Arabs on an equal footing.

● The Court quashed indictments against Arabs and Arab parties that incite violence against Jews or negate the Jewish character of the State.

● The Court ruled that Judea, Samaria and Gaza are “belligerent occupied territory.”

Since a large majority of Israel’s Jewish population identifies with the Jewish heritage – 25% are Orthodox, while 50% are traditional – a candid observer would accuse Israel’s Supreme Court of judicial despotism.  Far from upholding the rule of law, the Court has imposed on Israel the rule of the judge.   

I conclude with Alexis de Tocqueville’s view of democratic despotism, which he attributed to the socialists of the 18th century just before the French Revolution.  These socialists, he said, were for abolishing all hierarchies, all class distinctions, all differences of ranks, and the nation was to be composed of individuals unconditionally equal. Moreover:

In this amorphous mass [of individuals] was to reside, theoretically, the sovereign power [the people]; yet [the people] was carefully deprived of any means of controlling or even supervising the activities of its own government. For above the people was a single authority which was entitled to do anything and everything without consulting [the people]. This authority [the State] could not be controlled by public opinion since public opinion had no means of making itself heard; the State was a law unto itself and nothing short of revolution could break its tyranny.

Is there any party or political commentator in Israel that is willing to fight ti change the undemocratic aspects of the only democracy in the Middle East?