Opinion |

Outrage Alone Doesn’t Win Elections: Crucial Lessons From the American Left for Israel

The Democrats learned that fiery battle cries and ideological purism wouldn’t turn the tables on the GOP and Trump. What they did is a roadmap for Israel’s battered opposition, too, as Netanyahu returns and the far right rises

Eitan Nechin
Eitan Nechin
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Anti-Trump protesters march from the Washington Monument to Inner Harbor in Maryland after his election
Anti-Trump protesters march from the Washington Monument to Inner Harbor in Maryland after his electionCredit: LLoyd Fox /AP
Eitan Nechin
Eitan Nechin

In December 2020, I went to Georgia to cover the special Senate runoff elections for Haaretz. Joe Biden won the presidency, the House of Representatives passed to the Democrats but the Senate was still hanging in the balance.

Jon Ossoff, a Jewish Democratic candidate, ran alongside black preacher Raphael Warnock against two pro-Trump Republican candidates. Many did not give them a chance. But when I interviewed Ossoff, he said he was optimistic because he was seeing an unprecedented “renaissance of civic engagement.” Ossoff and Warnock won, and the Democratic gained control in all houses.

And this month, after pundits predicted a crushing defeat for the Democrats in the midterm elections, the Democrats not only did not experience a “BLOODBATH!!!,” as Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, but they kept the Senate, gained two governors, and the House of Representatives even remained in play until the last minute. Voters also rejected election-denying governors and state representatives.

Has America suddenly become leftist? No. They won because they learned from their failures. And this should be the roadmap for the Israeli left, which is now mourning its recent election fiasco, Netanyahu’s return and the rise to power of the far right.

After Barack Obama was elected, many in the Democratic camp became complacent. The reasoning was that after nearly a decade of George W. Bush and wars, sanity returned in the form of a charismatic Black leader who spoke of shared ideals and avoiding legislation on hot-button topics like abortions. As he said 100 days into his presidency, “I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on.” There was no point in disturbing the comfort zone of the Democratic, even bipartisan, consensus.

Meanwhile, the Republicans performed an autopsy to understand why they lost. They began to focus on local elections and blocking any Obama initiative. They won the midterm elections and governors, redrew maps and prevented judicial appointments. In that sense, the real trauma was not Hilary Clinton’s loss, but that after the sudden passing of Antonin Scalia, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee didn’t even get a Senate hearing.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally in support of U.S. Senator Marco Rubioahead of the midterm elections in Miami, Florida, in November.Credit: Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP

Trump’s election was the slap in the face that woke up even the last of the reformed Democrats. The leadership realized that talking about ideological superiority was not enough. Electing a Black man or progressive woman wasn’t enough. To win, you need to mobilize people, and a lot of them.

What they did is not only get people out to vote, but reeducated them on the tenets of democracy.

In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams built a formidable voting registration. In 2020, walking around Atlanta and rural Georgia, I saw people at street corners slipping flyers, neighborhood vote parties. From the Black working-class neighborhoods to the established neighborhoods, everyone was engaged. In New York, my neighbor, a woman with a mortgage and two children, took a week off work to go to Maine to register voters.

What was most unique was the re-education of the Democratic electorate: Activists delivered civics lessons on the importance of voting, how local politics work, how to change public opinion – even if that public opinion is your Republican uncle. The American public, who so abhorred talking politics around the table, realized that just walking around in a “pussy hat” and not buying Ivanka Trump’s products would not repeal anti-abortion laws. Politics – not just partisan chatter – was discussed around tables from Michigan to Arizona.

The recent midterm elections showed just how well this worked; even conservatives who chose Republican candidates voted against representatives who denied the 2020 election results. This nuanced political thinking is the result of a long and arduous process spurred by a tangible threat to individuals, as in the case of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Democrats took advantage of the immediate repulsion by women and independent voters to make a point not only about women’s rights, but about democracy and the freedoms it provides. Even voters in Kansas, a Christian conservative stronghold, rejected the abortion ban.

The post-Trump Democrats realized what the Republicans had known for decades: talking about ideology is not enough. You need to expand the base and influence of local politics.

Demonstrators from both sides of the abortion issue stand outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas, in October.Credit: Charlie Riedel /AP

Of course, Israel is not the U.S. The system is not the same, and the American voter turnout for general elections – which in good years scrapes at 50 percent – does not come close to the 74 percent in Israel’s last election. The fact that there are only two parties in the United States makes the work a bit more straightforward: It’s about us or them, not ideological nuances between Labor and Meretz Of blessed memory. Given that Israel’s last four elections were basically a choice between the binary “Bibi” and “anti-Bibi” camps, they may have been the most American-style ones in recent history.

But six years of intense effort means the Democrats still offer Israel’s opposition a blueprint of civic engagement. Politicians and local leaders should encourage citizens to participate in initiatives in which they have autonomy. Getting people to the polls is just one aspect of expanding the political base – organizing a community meeting with a legislative expert, taking part in local councils and labor committees and parent groups in schools emboldens people who weren’t politically active to get out and come up with their own initiatives.

These solutions cut to the heart of the problem in Israel, where political discourse is seemingly everywhere: everyone has a party, everyone is an expert in their own right about law, security and health. But all the chatter, the coffee shop “parliament” covers up the fact there is no nuanced conversation about the importance of politics and democracy.

Democracy, despite the jubilation of the right, isn’t just about getting a majority. It is a system of checks and balances, a universal and local set of values and a defense system for minorities. An unrestrained government of the majority in Israel spells disaster for democratic institutions. Those on the right who scream that politicians pick judges in the United States always fail to mention that, in the United States, there’s a constitution and separation of church and state. The proposed law to override Israel’s Supreme Court won’t strengthen separation of powers, but give the current coalition untethered control.

A protest against incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, last month. One sign reads: 'Saving democracy'Credit: Moti Milrod

No one really believes that democratic values are important to any party in the upcoming government. Religious Zionism leader and possible Finance Minister-to-be Betzalel Smotrich said the government needs to target human rights organizations and deal with them as “an existential threat”; Likud MK David Amsalem last month called to imprison the ex-attorney general and state prosecutor over their role in Netanyahu’s trial. Not to mention Shas and United Torah Judaism, who are more beholden to their rabbis than they are to the institutions they are supposed to represent.

The task of the left, then, is to wake the public up to how this democratically elected government can dismember democracy by using their 65 Knesset seats to crush the judiciary, expel political opponents and treat the public treasury as a slush fund for their constituency.

It is education, then, that is the problem, and according to an article on civics classes in Israeli schools by Haaretz’s Or Kashti, it’s getting worse. “At the heart of the democratic system is the human being, together with various combinations of values of equality and liberty. This is not seen in the curriculum,” an education ministry official said.

Black Flag protest against Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel. The protesters typically congregated on traffic bridges and overpassesCredit: Oded Balilty / AP

What the Democrats learned is that displays of outrage, such as the Women’s March, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the demonstrations against the so-called Muslim ban and the ban on abortion are only the first step. The next one is to allow these audiences to create their own space in the civil and political system, and to educate themselves not just about which decisions are made, but why they came to be and how they impact every last one of us.

“Just not Bibi” is equivalent to “Just not Trump”: both are fiery battle cries that bring people into the streets – or, in Israel’s case, onto bridges. In Israel, the protesters stayed on those bridges, but in the United States, the protesters joined their local governments, social organizations and the House of Representatives.

In 2020, even the most zealous ideologues joined ranks, and chose “Sleepy” Joe Biden over the charismatic Bernie Sanders because they knew it’s was not just about issues, it’s about building a robust camp. Different political connections and citizens groups were formed because democracy was, and still is, under threat. They channeled their outrage into political activism and real votes.

Imagine if, two years ago, Ossoff and Warnock had lost. Would the Senate still have confirmed Biden’s election? Would the Republican majority in the Senate, having seen the rabble walk to Capitol Hill on January 6, have resisted temptation and choose democracy? It is impossible to know. And that is a dangerous thing.

As in the United States, as in Israel. Democracy is not a static idea, it is something that lives and breathes because it is made up of people. There is no vacuum in society. The left can vacate the field because of ideological purism or defeatism, leaving anti-democratic forces as the only active players, and taking their place to boo them from the stands. Or it can fight for every inch of the public-political space.

It’s debatable how robust Israeli democracy is with the ongoing in the occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with the dominance of the Rabbinate and marginalization of Israeli Arabs. But there are still democratic institutions and a sense of society which Israelis can defend and strengthen.

Bolstering democracy means giving everyday Israelis the tools and vocabulary to continue breathing life into it. The more we can understand what’s at stake for us and our communities, what we can strive for and what can be achieved when working together, the faster this movement can grow, and the stronger it can be.

Eitan Nechin is a New York-based Israeli writer and editor. Twitter: @etanetan23

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