At first glance, there’s no connection between the Israeli election and the upcoming elections in the United States. But if the Democratic Party wants to know what awaits it in the future – including on the most important question of all, which is who will be elected president in 2020 – it would be very wise to take a look at Israel and learn some lessons from what has happened to the Israeli left.
If the Democrats don’t find a way to stop the radicals’ noisy takeover of the party’s agenda, which is happening right now, millions of the party’s longtime voters, whose positions are far more moderate than those of party activists, will abandon it, and it will gradually turn from a ruling party into a marginal one devoid of influence. That’s exactly what happened to Israel’s left-wing parties.
For all the enormous differences between the two countries, and even though the concrete reasons for what happened differ significantly, Israel and America have undergone very similar processes. Starting in the mid-1970s, and even more so since the mid-1980s, the cultural, academic and media elites in both Israel and the United States began challenging the legitimacy of their country and its values with growing intensity.
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In Israel, of course, there was a very real reason for this – the onset of the occupation and the prolongation of Israeli rule over the Palestinians. That is apparently why the process was faster here.
With the emergence of the New Historians, many members of Israel’s cultural elites began increasingly to raise questions and voice harsh criticism not only about the occupation, but about the very legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise, especially after 1948. The Israeli public, seeing the most important elements of its identity under constant attack, was in shock.
But the leaders of the electoral left didn’t take on the activist left explicitly, or openly defend society and its values, so the entire left was painted in the colors of the rejectionist elite. It’s no wonder the voters gradually despaired and deserted it. And today, the remnants of the left have trouble even making it across the Knesset threshold.
In the United States, things developed differently. The activist left began its activity primarily under the influence of Marxist critiques of American capitalism, and it ultimately reaped broad societal success with its opposition to the Vietnam War.
One could debate whether the harsh criticism of American life that was increasingly heard in literature, art and, most importantly, Hollywood films was born of Soviet propaganda, as Senator Joseph McCarthy suspected back in the 1950s. What’s incontrovertible, however, is that virtually the entire American cultural elite, with the exception of tiny islands of conservative intellectuals, has been party over the last 40 years to a campaign that cast deep doubt on the legitimacy of the American way of life and even of the American project itself. This approach changed – and, as it turns out, only temporarily – only with Barack Obama’s election as president.
Hillary Clinton’s failure to be elected president, which was due not only to right-wing incitement against her and Russian intervention in the election but also, to a large extent, to opposition from the progressive wing of her own party, indicates that this time, it won’t be easy to elect moderate candidates. The Trump administration has sparked extreme reactions, to the point of delegitimizing white America as a whole.
Thus all the signs point to the Democratic Party’s centrist establishment suffering a crushing defeat by the left. This time, the latter wants to dictate the political conversation and the agenda, including deciding who the candidates are.
We know how this ends. It’s impossible to launch a substantive attack on the feelings of legitimacy of a large part of the public and still emerge victorious. The Israeli left has been forced to learn a very bitter lesson. The same looks likely to happen in America.
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