Saturday, June 05, 2010

National populism and democracy

As a Guardian reader, I have to take this rebuke seriously - and I've rarely written here about Israel or Palestine. It's not a subject I'm an expert on, or one that I feel that strongly about as a contained subject. It seems a good deal more complicated than a lot of public debate would have it to be.

It does, however, raise a few questions that are closer to home for us here in the UK. Following the flotilla incident earlier this week, I'm concerned at the question of proportionality.

On the one hand, when a country is attacked over its handling of minority rights by Turkey, you have to wonder why some persecutions dominate the global news agenda more than others. Given the unenviable situation Israel finds itself in / has created for itself* (some readers will have a preferred formulation here) it's possible to conclude that the global reaction to this attack is somewhat disproportionate.

On the other hand, on it's own merits, the actions of the IDF on that boat were pretty inexcusable. Leaving aside the legitimacy of the blockade itself, the balance of opinion seems to be that they could have boarded the boat and taken control of it without the killing. The subsequent statements by Israeli spokespeople were very plainly prepared for a domestic audience rather than the global one, and one suspects that the very expansive definition of what makes up weaponry (baby milk formula?) and other aspects of Israeli policy (settlement of the 'occupied territories' in particular) can be explained by these priorities.

I'm already into this subject deeper than I meant to be, but here's the question:

Is a national populism causing Israel to put short-termism (over-reaction, grandstanding, diplomatic inflexibility) ahead of it's long-term interests? Would it be possible to adopt a more sophisticated and pragmatic approach that than the one chosen by Israel?

Is this a fundamental challenge to all democracies? I'd like to think that the benefits of social justice and a respect for minority rights would be self-evident to modern democracies, but as far as I can see, the main reason Israel is prepared to allow continued building in the occupied territories along with it's inflexible and charmless approach to international diplomacy is largely because their electorate demands it.

It's a country that appears to have politically rejected the politics of Yitzhak Rabin in favour of the bombast of Binyamin Netanyahu. Yet for me, the most interesting question (one that it's impossible to answer with certainty) is this: If any EU country found itself in a similar situation to Israel, would it behave any differently?

And if Israel's behaviour is short-termist (we will only know if it is short-termist in the long run, see Keynes aphorism on this matter) and it's continuance as a democracy with secure borders would be better served by a more nuanced and humane approach, are we seeing another instance in which a debased, creepingly direct democracy is threatening the moral foundations of democracy?

Are we seeing democracies taking a path along which they are less interested in electing clever pragmatic people than in getting popular prejudices reflected in government? In relation to the question of climate change, this was the question explored by this recent Radio 4 programme. Extending the question, are we - as Chris argues here - more interested in electing 'prissy, priggish followers of rules' rather than politicians with any other virtues?

Is this the actual trajectory we are on generally? I think it is, but I'd be interested to hear the flipside of this argument. And will that path ultimately result in the collapse of those democracies in the face of undemocratic rivals?

Is a simple concerted re-statement of the values of representative democracy our only salvation? And if so, why isn't it a growing political movement?

3 comments:

Ivan Pope said...

In contrast to what you suggest, I would say that Israel constantly works towards (what it sees as) its long term interests and pays little heed to its short term interests.
Settling the west bank, constantly destroying and controlling Palestinian leaders and using any means to control the narrative are all headed towards annexation of the west bank.
In a way short term events like the response to the flotilla work in their favour because they divert attention from the long term strategy.
What we have to concentrate on is that Israel has got itself into this situation deliberately by building on the west bank. It is at peace with Egypt and Jordan in the long term, Lebanon is a destroyed husk, Syria feeble. The only threat there may be is Iran, and this would be there whether or not the Palestinian issue was still live. (Is that simple or complicated - seems simple but insoluble to me).

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Matt said...

Here. Excerpt:

"But there is another, existing response, easily overlooked. What it doesn't do is deny the value of direct participation, because direct participation is actually a genuinely good thing. Instead, it expresses a measured skepticism of populist movements that criticizes populist rhetoric for excluding people from the democratic rights such movements claim for themselves."