Who Needs Democracy Anyway?

We must establish institutions, Kant said, that will remain good even when the people governing are bad.

Everyone is up in arms. Some shout "Democracy! Democracy!" while others cry out "Shabbes! Shabbes!" But, really, why should we worry if the status of Israel's Arab citizens is lower than it already was, if the Palestinians in the territories are more afraid than ever of Israel's military power, if the Supreme Court follows the dictates of political interests, if left-wing organizations are delegitimized, and if newspapers are muzzled? Why all the fuss? Less democracy will be better for the Jews, for the army, for the settlers - for the nation as a whole. Hasn't the time come to give ourselves a more muscular regime and to admit that even if democracy suits the cozy and spoiled nations of Western Europe, it does not fit the harsh realities of the Middle East?

But, seriously, we must face a simple fact: If throughout its violent history Israel has been able to muster the (sometimes uncanny ) support of the United States and Europe, it was for one main reason: It was "the only democracy in the Middle East." Its democracy was Israel's shield from what could (and should ) have been a much larger, systematic and universal condemnation of its irresponsible policy in the territories.

Democracy is not for softies only, after all, because it yields real power, inside and outside its own borders. But what is the nature of this power? Political scientists and sociologists summarize it in one word: "legitimacy." Anyone who knows even a bit of political history and philosophy knows that legitimacy is the most coveted resource of rulership and that throughout history, democracy has been the most legitimate of all forms of government.

But why is this the case, you may ask again. In his 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," Immanuel Kant wrote: "The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent."

The state Kant wanted to build would have to resolve three problems: 1 ) A nation is made up of diverse people who hold conflicting values, opinions and interests; such plurality of interests is a human condition that can never be overcome; 2 ) The people who govern can sometimes turn out to be very bad, immoral and incompetent. Thus, Kant said, we must establish institutions that will remain good even when the people governing are bad. With the right institutions, even "a nation of devils" would end up conforming to basic laws of ethics; 3 ) Because individuals and countries have a natural inclination to mistrust each other and to engage in wars, a good regime must somehow foster trust and social peace.

After many centuries of political thought in Europe, democracy was found to be the only regime able to guarantee that different points of view be fairly represented, that good institutions would not depend on the morality or immorality of the people running them, and that the state would have relations of trust with its citizens, thereby ensuring their cooperativeness. If democracy is the political regime that has mustered the greatest level of legitimacy, it's because empirically it was found to be the only one able to generate trust and civil peace among diverse social groups. This is also the reason why secularism is always the preferred cultural option of democracies: Secularity is a neutral framework; religion, on the other hand, is thick with specific symbols and meanings. Because it is bound to a specific group, it naturally excludes other groups; secularity, on the other hand, is neutral, it lets all groups project their own identity on its empty screen.

But there is more. The Yale legal scholar Amy Chua has argued that the great empires like Persia, Rome, Tang China, the Netherlands, Britain and now the United States were all able to rise to world dominance because each was, by the standards of its own time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant. The condition of pluralism gives great political strength. Chua further claims that the empires that collapsed were those whose diversity ultimately triggered conflict, hatred and violence. That is, regimes whose diversity could not be organized and contained within a political framework of legitimate rule turned out to be the weakest. Democracy is the most powerful political framework because it is the only framework in which injustices, discrimination and violence are peacefully contested and negotiated through the rule of law and through the public sphere. Change that framework - as the extreme right, with the help of the right, has been doing in Israel - and it is the very basis of social peace that is undermined.

But let us not be fooled: The strength of the extreme right is the strength of hormonally induced and beefed-up muscles: These muscles look scary, but they hide the weakness and hollowness of these extremists' approach to politics, and their feeble understanding of the complex art of governing. For no one can govern for very long without legitimacy.

Prof. Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality at the university.