The world’s 20 oldest modern democracies are concentrated exclusively on three continents: North America, Europe and Oceania. Top on the list is the United States, which will mark its 245th anniversary next year; Israel rounds out the list at 20th, with 73 years of democracy behind it.
Both countries, however, share another dubious distinction: Of the 20 oldest democracies, they are the only two defined by the Economist Democracy Index as “flawed.”
Freedom House, which publishes annual country rankings of democracy, has repeatedly warned in recent years that both the Israeli and American democracies are in decline. Of the 20 oldest democracies, the U.S. and Israeli models are the only exceptions routinely attached to the burgeoning list of increasingly authoritarian and ethnocentric countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, which proves that global democracy is retreating.
Older democracies are not immune to the turbulence that destabilized their regimes even before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic catastrophe. All were and are beset, to one degree or another, by waves of immigration, outbursts of racism and xenophobia and a growing distrust of politics and government. In the U.S., Israel and to a certain extent Britain as well, however, the political crisis is especially acute – and almost exclusively on the right.
In all three countries, nationalist and, to a large degree, isolationist leaders are challenging the Western alliance, bedrock of the free world since the end of World War II. In all three, a resentful and arguably supremacist right wing is on the march. All three are engaged in a vicious and polarizing war of cultures and civilizations. In the U.S., and Israel, egocentric, self-pitying leaders are waging war on the rule of law and the checks and balances of liberal democracy.
The negative distinction of the U.S., Britain and Israel requires a search for the common denominators or shared histories that distinguish them from other established Western democracies. All three are geographically and hence psychologically separate from Europe. Their national consciousness is based on a sense of historical exceptionalism and “manifest destiny.” All three have a problematic past and present in terms of military conquest, occupation, control over other nations and what the world defines as imperialism and/or colonialism.
The democratic systems in all three countries derive from the British model. All three are currently threatened by the rise and rise of a xenophobic, anti-democratic and largely racist right, which yearns for a strongman as leader. Contrary to the continental legal system in most European countries, Israel, Britain and the U.S. adhere to common law, in which binding precedent and supremacy of the courts are paramount. In all three countries, authoritarian-minded leaders are trying to neuter the system, which hampers their ability to rule by whim and fiat alone.
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Of the 20 oldest democracies, Israel, Britain and the United States are the only ones that did not experience local fascist rule, Nazi occupation or collaboration between the two. Nonetheless, the Second World War plays a pivotal role in their self-perception: Israel as the victim that rose from the ashes, Great Britain as the stalwart lion that held the fort and the U.S. as the great liberator of Europe and the free world.
Contrary to European democracies, the U.S., Israel and the U.K. are unburdened by national trauma induced by their experiences in the war. They are free of historical shame or sense of guilt. Their right-wing flanks did not go berserk. Their democracies were not destroyed. Unlike European countries, which banded together and enacted sweeping democratic and constitutional reforms, Israel, Britain and the U.S. felt and continue to feel themselves immune.
Which is why, even though conditions seem ominously ripe – authoritarian leadership, polarized public, debilitated democracy, rule of law on the ropes, corrupt, paralyzed and ineffectual politics, rampant nationalism and resurgent racism, all against the terrifying backdrop of the coronavirus crisis - there’s actually nothing to worry about. After all, it can never happen here.