Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Too Much Democracy?

Jesse Ventura, the new governor of Minnesota, has become a celebrity in part because of his colorful background as an actor, Navy Seal and professional wrestler, but also because he was a third party candidate who shocked everyone by beating two veteran politicians from the major parties. In this bastion of democracy, Ventura was a rare example of a candidate who the people felt would represent them. Most of the time the choice is restricted to Democratic or Republican candidates whose views are not all that different from each other and don't reflect those of most voters.

Compare the American political reality with that of Israel where three parties have serious candidates for Prime Minister, the newest of which leads the polls, and at least 30 parties are registered to field candidates for the parliamentary election. The majority of voters support one of the two parties, but this is in large measure due to the desire to vote for one that will run the government. Still, it is far easier to find a party that reflects a citizen's views in Israel than in the U.S.

Also, here the system is stacked against third party candidates. It costs so much money and incumbents have such incredible advantages in name recognition, resources, and access to the press that the Jesse Venturas are oddities. In Israel, you need to win only 1.5 percent of the national vote to win a seat in the Knesset. Eleven parties reached this threshold in 1996.

Of course, plenty of Israelis lament that they have too much democracy because having so many choices has always prevented any of the parties from winning a majority. Subsequently, the party winning a plurality has been forced to form coalitions with other parties that use their ability to bring down the government to advance their agendas. Often the goals of these smaller parties are different from those of the citizens who elected the Prime Minister and the result is cynicism and anger.

The most blatant examples are of the religious parties, which have always played key roles in the government, and have used their influence to secure funding for their institutions and protect their control over certain aspects of Israeli life, such as marriage and divorce, commercial activities on Shabbat, and acceptance of immigrants. From the point of view of the majority that opposes their policies, the religious parties often thwart the will of the people. On the other hand, it is also a democratic idea that the rights of minorities should be protected and the religious voters use the ballot box to gain representation to do that.

Think what would happen if the Moral Majority was a party rather than an advocacy group. If its candidates won seats in Congress, supporters would feel enfranchised. Certainly some candidates in the Republican Party support similar policies, but it is not the same as having a political institution dedicated to the Moral Majority's ideology. Groups associated with the left, like environmentalists could have parties as well, as is the case in Europe. Our democratic system, however, makes it nearly impossible to form viable parties to compete with the two majors. It's no wonder that voter turnout in the U.S. hovers around 50 percent while nearly 80 percent of Israelis go to the polls.

Of course, both the United States and Israel offer stark contrasts from the Arab countries in the Middle East. In Syria, for example, an election was just held that offered the voters the choice of supporting Hafez Assad or nothing. He won with a mere 99 percent of the "vote." When King Hussein died, no elections were held to determine the next ruler. There was never any question that Yasir Arafat would be the President of the Palestinian Authority and discussions of his successor never mention an election to select between rival candidates; instead, they focus on whom he will anoint or who will win the power struggle when Arafat dies.

For all its problems and unwieldiness, I think I prefer Israel's democracy, at least from the perspective of giving its citizens a real chance to choose representatives who share their views.