Many political scientists and constitutional experts are skeptical about the role played by political parties in functioning democracies. Like the U.S. Founding Fathers, they view parties as an eternal source of sectarianism and corruption. The collapse of confidence in political parties across the democratic world indicates that public opinion increasingly shares their concerns.
Nonetheless, the skeptics remain in the minority. Since the start of the 20th Century and the advent of mass parties, the prevailing view adheres to a renowned maxim formulated in 1942 by scholar Elmer Eric Schattschneider: “The political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”
Political parties instill order in the otherwise unmanageable mess of political opinions. They tunnel divergent positions and views into recognized and influential frameworks. They are essential in ensuring the proper function of parliaments. And they serve, or are meant to serve, as a check and balance on charismatic and authoritarian leaders seeking absolute, one-man rule.
This is true in democracies where voters cast their ballot for a candidate, such as the United States, and doubly valid in democracies with a proportional voting system, such as Israel, in which political parties are the only vehicles for expressing the public’s preferences.
Over the past decade, however, the existing party regime in Israel, with its established, if only occasionally democratic rules and procedures, has been replaced by a system in which parties exist for the sole purpose of providing a personal platform for their founders and/or leaders.
The neutering of the previous party-based regime, though it has largely passed unnoticed and certainly unspoken, provides Benjamin Netanyahu’s with one of his most powerful instruments to sabotage Israeli democracy and control it.
Like Donald Trump and the GOP, Netanyahu has quashed internal opposition and seized total control of his Likud party, once seen as a paragon of pluralism and internal democracy. He has turned his faction into a legion of obedient mercenaries at his every beck and call. Through his loyal minions, Netanyahu has eroded the Knesset’s already limited independence and turned it into a rubber stamp for his increasingly anti-democratic whims, as well as his ongoing efforts to escape his impending criminal trial.
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The situation on the center-left is, in many ways, far worse. The void left with the collapse of the once all-powerful Labor Party has been filled by two parties – Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – which are, in fact, their leaders’ personal fiefdoms. Gantz and Lapid, respectively, determine who will run on their Knesset lists, impose their views on the chosen ones and stifle any and all signs of dissent. Their “parties” will disappear into thin air the moment they leave the political arena.
But while a cult of personality creates widespread support in Likud for Netanyahu’s tyrannical ways, despondent center-left voters view their chosen representatives with frustration and a sense of futility. They are resigned to the certainty that in the next election, whenever it’s held, they will once again have zero influence on the makeup of the Knesset lists they are compelled to support.
Nonetheless, this isn’t necessarily so. If center-left voters find the will, they are bound to find the way. One avenue, for illustration purposes only, is to utilize the rapidly spreading digital conversations that, under the influence of the coronavirus epidemic, have replaced personal meetings as well as the public functions and rallies normally associated with political parties. With that, alongside the Israeli public’s widespread addiction to reality TV shows, one can conjure a televised and digitalized spectacle that will allow center-left voters to circumvent established parties and to usurp the exclusive monopoly of their leaders over the selection of future Knesset members.
Imagine a reality show, loosely based on programs such as “American Idol” or “The Voice,” in which a panel of well-respected judges identified with the center-left holds “auditions” for qualified candidates, giving the public the last say on their ranking in the Knesset lists, with the winner automatically designated as candidate for prime minister. Voting would be open to citizens who register in advance and who declare their intention to vote for the list that will be chosen, all on live TV.
The idea is fanciful and the obstacles more than formidable, but substantial viewer ratings are virtually guaranteed in advance. Resolute management, generous financial backing and a powerful PR effort could excite the public and yield widespread interest in the program and subsequent support for the list that will be chosen.
Such an enterprise – and myriad others – could wrest back control from self-anointed politicians and render it in the hands of the voting public. It may be too late to revive the old party regime itself, but not for saving democracy itself, before it dies in broad daylight, in front of our very eyes.