Democracy in Decline

It is not a happy season for democracies. The American President and the Israeli Prime Minister are under constant, endless investigations, with no end in sight. The British Prime Minister and the French President are besieged, incapable of implementing their preferred policies, whatever the merits might be. Riots abound in both places, and in Germany, where the long-serving Chancellor has lost support, power and is nearing the end of her tenure. Italy and Greece are as unstable as ever.

In each case, the media and hostile special interest groups are obsessed with opposition, resistance, tearing down societal structures and fomenting instability. And by comparison, Russia and China are authoritarian islands of stability, notwithstanding the internal problems of each. But it seems as if each democracy is intent on cannibalizing itself, and many “free” countries have enormously high rates of dissatisfaction with life, government and society. People are always agitated about something. Almost every government leader in democracies across the world is the target of some sustained personal, legal or political attack, without respite. It is the era of permanent investigation and relentless criticism. What was once democracy’s strength – the people’s power to change governments – has now become the symbol of its stagnation and weakness.

It is no wonder that after almost forty years of growth, promoted by the Reagan Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is now on the decline. The Democracy Index, a somewhat tendentious but annual barometer (last measured in 2017) of the state of democracies across the world, finds that there are only 19 full democracies in the world today, compared to 52 dictatorships (authoritarian regimes, as they are politely called). Both the United States and Israel rate as “flawed” democracies, the latter partly for its religious ethos that irritates the secularists who measure these things, but both because of the dysfunctional governments that rule their respective countries. Israel rates well on the level of political participation of its citizens; the United States rates relatively poorly in that regard, tied with Mexico and Bulgaria.

President Trump, no conventional steward of governance by any means, riles up the opposition simply by proposing something. Policies that were once supported by Democrats (e.g., border wall over a decade ago) are now opposed simply because of their proponent. Kicking the can down the road and obsessing over elections (and not the actual tasks of elected officials) are the norms of political life. Money and power (which gives access to even more money) are the coin of the realm. The only area in which politicians excel is in spending money they don’t have.

Israel’s government is in such disarray. The Prime Minister is under threat of multiple indictments and his wife currently under indictment and awaiting trial. Binyamin Netanyahu today serves as the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister (and Health Minister, and possibly several other ministries). That is not a successful formula for good governance, effective leadership, astute problem-solving or crisis management. The new elections on the horizon will shuffle the deck but except for the customary one or two new faces who will shine brightly and then flame out, all the cards are still the same.

We are experiencing the veracity of Winston Churchill’s adage that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Why is there such discontent?  A number of points need to be made. The authoritarian countries do present greater stability, less crime, less opportunity, often a keener adherence to traditional values but at the cost of less individual liberty. Lest one think that the benefits outweigh the detriments, there are very few people immigrating to Russia and China, nor for that matter are people from across the world flocking to the most highly-rated democracies – Norway, Iceland and Sweden. European countries have been undermined by waves of Middle Eastern migrants, most of whom have not sought acculturation and still others who have transported such alien values to their new homes that violence and crime have rendered parts of Germany, Belgium, France and Britain off limits to citizens – and to the police. Riots and dissatisfaction abound. Many governments flit from party to party in successive elections, with the voters always voting for change, then either not liking the change or not seeing enough of it. The British and American governments are world leaders in stagnation and paralysis. Most voters resent politicians’ failing to keep their campaign promises, except in America where many people are outraged when the President tries to keep his.

There is such a state of perpetual ferment, unrest and turbulence that the happiest people tune out of public affairs, and only wake up (too late) when some unfortunate policy affects them deleteriously. Democracy has been so frangible that some newer democracies have drifted towards authoritarianism in recent years.

What is going on? The Torah certainly doesn’t incline towards democracy (it favors a benign monarchy) although it certainly doesn’t oppose it. But the era of discontent has been fueled by internal, personal struggles that only play out on the public stage of the politics of the moment.

The inherent and ongoing problem has been the secularization of society that has fostered a loss of meaning in life that causes both the obsession with politics and the disgruntlement with government. With freedom comes responsibility, and the freedoms of democracy have been abused to nurture a climate of irresponsibility that has produced aimlessness, the breakdown of the traditional family, rampant out-of-wedlock births and a steep deterioration in the numbers and state of marriage. Moral commitment has been so enervated that (1) people shy away from discussing traditional morality in public forums, (2) seemingly intelligent people are re-visiting (with straight faces) the definitions of male and female, and (3) the rock of society since time immemorial – the Biblical moral norms that set the standard for human interactions and aspirations – has been eroded and marginalized.

Lost in meaninglessness, some have made a religion of the environment and climate change. The priests of this movement, who warn, threaten and predict doomsday ahead, and, in their initial policy foray tried to raise fuel taxes in France to reduce dependency on oil, received their comeuppance in the form of riots that forced the elitists to back down. Call it the French Reformation, spearheaded by the common folk tired of paying indulgences to the Davos set.

Others think they will find meaning and happiness in the triumphs of their favored candidates or party – only to be disappointed when they win and horrified and apoplectic when they lose. The win brings a momentary high – which of course does not endure because it is utterly insignificant in the course of things. Still others – especially, and surprisingly, young people – are embracing restrictive speech codes to spare themselves from having to suffer from hearing contrary views or words they consider harsh, not realizing that these official encroachments on personal liberty will come back to haunt them. The intrusions of Facebook and other social media outlets into people’s private lives rival that of any dictatorship – except for their inability to erase your real existence (they can erase your artificial one) – and the persecution and silencing of conservative or traditional viewpoints do not bode well for democracies either.

One would think that there would be some satisfaction in voting for the government of your choice – but almost 40% of the American electorate never votes. President Trump won in 2016 with 63M votes, in a country of 330M people; neither candidate garnered even 20% of the population. That is a small percentage, which is not to say that it is Trump’s fault. Turnout was less than 56% – and that exceeded the turnout in 2012.

It has occurred to me over the years that the wrong politicians can make life dramatically worse but the best politicians can only make life marginally better. Meaning has to be pursued in the areas that make life meaningful – our relationship with G-d, our commitment to the greater good, our love of family and friends, our pursuit of good deeds and always seeking the good in other people. Those have always been and always will be the key factors in the contented life: faith, family, community, tradition, values and good deeds. Almost everything else is fluff or distractions.

The disappearance of G-d from public and private life – and the creation of new gods to take His place – has spawned restlessness and despair across what used to be called the free world. It has led to the revival of socialism – the idea that the state and its organs (i.e., others) are responsible for me and my needs because I choose to desist from self-help and productivity. It has led to the robust movement to legalize marijuana across the democracies, although rarely in the autocracies; that too is very telling. It has led to the collapse of traditional morality that was one of the linchpins of a world that seemed more normal and more stable, because it was.

The god of dictatorship was slaughtered in the wake of the evil excesses of fascism and Communism; it seems that the gods of democracy are being slaughtered today, with the leaders in all the well known democracies scurrying about for solutions or even viable approaches moving forward. None are obvious or forthcoming; temporary balms are all that are on the horizon. Churchill was right, and Jews and the rest of the world have always fared better under democracies than under dictatorships. But history has taught us that states are more fragile entities than we think, and many things seem unbreakable until they break.

We certainly pray for the welfare of government, as our Sages taught, but we must seek stability, purpose, and true satisfaction in the private and communal areas of life – not in the public arena.

When all forms of human government fail abjectly, what then is our recourse? Perhaps that, too, is one vital role of Moshiach – to redeem society from its waywardness and relieve it of its bitterness and recriminations. That will be true freedom for all and the triumph of G-d’s kingdom on earth, may it come soon and in our days.

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