I recently ordered a book with the title American Gridlock – The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization, which contains 30 scholarly chapters representing various academic and ideological perspectives on the phenomenon of political polarization in the United States.
My interest in this book resulted from my impression that a growing number of Republican congressmen (though certainly not all) are no longer committed to the spirit of the American system of government as it has evolved over the years, and are thus unable to play the role of system legitimizers, which is believed by many scholars to be one of the basic roles of legislators in a democracy. On the contrary, they seem to be doing everything possible to undermine the workings of the system, in the name of values that might have roots in American history but are considered by many to be reactionary or anarchistic.
The basic facts, relating to Congress, regarding what is going on in the US today, as they emerge from the book, are as follows: • The American society and the American parties are more polarized today than ever before since pre-Civil War days (i.e. the 1860s). The political center – made up primarily of moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats – is diminishing, while the majority are becoming more radical, though this phenomenon is much more apparent among Republicans than among Democrats, with a growing numbers of conservative Republicans and “Tea Party” supporters.
• Bipartisan cooperation, which was at its peak from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, is at an ebb, and as a result much congressional work is simply stuck, or progressing painfully slowly. Inter alia this has meant that the past two presidents – George Bush and Barack Obama – have had growing difficulties getting through legislation that they support (in the case of both presidents the rates have been as low as 15 percent at times), and approval of their nominations.
• Authentic ideological conflicts, over such issues as government spending, budgetary deficits, immigration, possession of firearms, healthcare and the failing education system have turned into outright partisan warfare, characterized by growing incivility and breaches of decorum.
One scholar described this in the following words: “The partisan warfare dimension taps into strategies that go beyond defeating your opponents into humiliating them, go beyond questioning your opponents’ judgment into questioning their motives, and to beyond fighting the good legislative fight to destroying the institutions and the legislative process in order to serve not only your ideological goals, but also your electoral goals.”
All this more or less confirms my own feelings about what is happening politically in the US. However, I was also struck by the fact that much of what the book describes applies to Israel just as easily as it does to the US, despite the differences in the government system, the historical and political circumstances and the issues on the agenda.
Nevertheless, the conclusions are not necessarily the same.
As is the case in the US, so in Israel society and the political parties are polarized. However, Israel differs from the US in many respects, which blunt the effects of this polarization.
First of all, since Israel has a parliamentary system, a government falls when it loses support of the majority in the Knesset, and a situation where it must continue to be content with a contrarian legislature simply does not exist.
In addition, in the absence of a two-party system, and with the existence of sectorial parties that could cooperate with either side of the political divide, even if they have in-built preferences, at least in theory there is much greater flexibility regarding options.
Secondly, even though Israel’s system is no longer as consensual as it used to be, one still finds quite a bit of legislative cooperation between members of the coalition and the opposition in the passing of some substantial private members’ bills, and in the case of government or private bills that the government is intent on enacting, there is always the tool of coalition discipline, which is admittedly hair-splitting when the coalition majority is as slim as the current one is (61 MKs in the coalition versus 59 in the opposition), which ensures that the government’s rate of success in passing its legislation is way above the American low of 15 percent.
What is worrying, however, is that both in the plenum and in committees one frequently gets the impression that, as is happening in the US Congress, there is a war being waged in which each side seeks total victory, and the humiliation of “the enemy,” rather than civilized debate in which each side presents its positions, with the goal of trying to reach compromises and solutions that are acceptable to all – or at least most – sides.
As for certain political actors appearing to actively seek to destroy at least parts of the status quo, this phenomenon certainly exists in Israel today, though what it is that they seek to destroy, and what they want to replace it with, is of course totally different than in the US.
In the US today it is the part of the radical Right that seems intent on destroying the Washington “establishment” as it operates today, and on “reducing government” and the government’s efforts to intervene in the personal choices of citizens, as in the attempt to limit firearm acquisition, or to introduce national health insurance.
In Israel the story is totally different. In Israel today there are several forces at work that are trying to topple old conventions and practices.
There are forces trying to weaken the predominantly Ashkenazi elites of yesteryear, who are allegedly still predominant in academia, the judiciary, culture and the arts, and their liberal-secular dispositions, as manifested in the “State of Tel Aviv.”
Others are intent on imposing their interpretation of “the Jewish state,” namely defined in strict Orthodox religious terms, which reject pluralism and the freedom of the individual to chose in what way, if at all, he wishes to manifest his Jewishness (if he is a Jew).
Israel’s Arab citizens are currently not active in the sphere of knocking down some of the old premises, but before long they too will be there, whether or not the government executes its recent promise to pour billions into the neglected Arab sector.
At least one ought to be thankful that no one in Israel opposes national health insurance; no one is demanding unconditional freedom to bear arms (on the contrary, there are calls for the police doing something about the anarchy in this field in the Arab sector); and even though our government favors the privatization of almost everything that moves (or doesn’t move), in American terms this is considered moderate Republicanism.
On the whole I am certainly not one of those dreaming of the introduction of the American presidential system into Israel. On most counts I prefer the problems and dysfunctions of our own system to those of the US’s Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the American system that I would be happy if we adopted: a term limit for the head of the government. In the US a president cannot serve for more than eight years, no matter how competent he is. In Israel a prime minister can continue to serve as long as he is physically able and an election- time magician, no matter how incompetent he is.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.