As Israel heads toward national elections next month, some fear the country is in danger of losing its democratic character. More than half of Israelis surveyed by the Israel Democracy Institute perceive the country’s democracy to be in “grave danger,” although the survey also found that these worriers tend to fall on the left of the political spectrum.
Yascha Mounk, a German-Jewish-American political scientist who teaches at Harvard University, is one of the world’s leading experts on the global retreat of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. Mounk’s 2018 book “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” describes a by-now familiar pattern that is shocking only in how widespread it is.
In country after country, a restless, angry, economically stuck populace has become disillusioned with democracy and is electing leaders who purport to express the pure will of the people. The problem is that once these people take power, they tend to eschew liberal freedoms and take steps to crush the opposition and transform their society.
“Donald Trump in the United States, Nigel Farage in Great Britain, Frauke Petry in Germany, and Marine Le Pen in France all claim that the solutions to the most pressing problems of our time are much more straightforward than the political establishment would have us believe,” he writes in his book, “and that the great mass of ordinary people instinctively knows what to do.”
Once in power, populists take strikingly similar steps to consolidate their power, Mounk explains. When they’re running for office, “they primarily direct their ire against ethnic or religious groups whom they don’t recognize as part of the ‘real’ people. Once populists hold office, they increasingly direct their ire against a second target: all institutions, formal or informal, that dare to contest their claim to a moral monopoly of representation.”
These include a free press, foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious association, and NGOs. Populist governments often introduce laws limiting foreign funding of NGOs. Once they have weakened the press and civil society, populist governments attack those government institutions that are independent or serve as a watchdog or check on their power.
“Over time,” writes Mounk, “populists come to regard anybody who disagrees with them as a traitor and conclude that any institution that stands in their way is an illegitimate perversion of the people’s will. Both have to be done away with. What is left is nothing more than the populist’s whim.”
The Times of Israel asked Mounk whether he sees populist trends rising within Israeli society and whether Israel is in danger of electing a populist government on April 9.
The Times of Israel: The big question on everyone’s mind is the upcoming Israeli elections. And in Israel we don’t have the situation that you see in country after country where a populist leader emerges out of nowhere. Here we basically know who the main contenders are. But nevertheless, are there authoritarian trends to look out for?
Yascha Mounk: It’s helpful to understand how political scientists think about the nature of populism. There are real dissimilarities among populists in different parts of the world. Some, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, are left-wing on the economy, others are more right-wing. The nature of the groups they set themselves against also varies. Most populists in Europe, for example, vilify Muslims. But in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan vilifies anyone who’s not a Muslim.
What populists do have in common, however, is a strikingly similar rhetoric: They all say that they alone are legitimate representatives of the people — and that anybody who opposes or criticizes them is an enemy of right-thinking folks.
When you look at it from that point of view, Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric — the way he criticizes the opposition and vilifies the media — certainly seems to fit the populist pattern.
Where do populists get their rhetoric from? Do they have the same political advisers? Is there something in the air that’s causing them to behave the same way?
It’s two things. The first is emulation. They observe what’s going on in other countries and realize how effective a tactic it is.
Some of that may involve the use of actual consultants. The European press, for example, has lately been obsessed with Steve Bannon running around the continent trying to build political alliances. But mostly, emulation is more informal. In Israel, many politicians are intimately familiar with the United States and some of them also know Europe pretty well — so they are perfectly capable of looking around the world for strategies to try out for their own benefit. The spread of populist tropes doesn’t require some mastermind consultant or strategist who tells them about an idea they had never thought of before.
Another important point is that the efficacy of populist strategies really depends on the amount of popular trust in the political system. For a variety of reasons, the level of trust that ordinary citizens have in institutions, in the government, and in journalism has been falling across Western democracies. This is the case in Israel as well. So it’s not a surprise that, just as in the United States, those kinds of populist tactics are taken up more now in Israel than they were before.
It does seem as though there is an increase in populist rhetoric in Israel in recent years on social media, on billboards. You see the police and judicial system being demonized. You see people being detained at the airport not because they are a terrorist threat, but merely for their political views.
I recently published a global database of populist governments which demonstrated that, over time, the use of these kinds of tactics is very corrosive of democratic institutions. Only a minority of populists who are elected leave office through free and fair elections. They often make their countries more corrupt, rewrite the constitution to give themselves more power, and violate basic civil and political rights. So the spread of this kind of populist language in Israel is very concerning.
However, the extent to which populists manage to damage democratic institutions does depend on how centralized power is in their hands — and whether they have a clear majority in their own right. And this is the one respect in which the Israeli political system reassures me somewhat.
This is, of course, a bit paradoxical: after all, the extreme fragmentation of the Israeli political system has historically been one of its biggest problems. But as a result, the Israeli prime minister is nearly always dependent on the support of coalition partners who have strongly independent agendas. That creates some checks on populist governments that may not have been present in the most worrying cases around the world.
So it may prove to be very difficult for any one individual to hold the amount of power (in Israel) that authoritarian populists like Viktor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey have been able to amass.
What is the connection between populists and criminality? Why do supporters of populist leaders often not seem to care about their criminal associations or about criminal investigations against them?
There are two strong links between populists and criminality. First, there’s strong evidence that misbehavior, from lying to serious crimes, is punished very strongly when voters have trust in the political system. When they think that the rules are working, that the powerful care strongly about them, then they have a stake in preserving the system — and anybody who breaks its rules suffers an electoral penalty.
If you are in power and facing criminal allegations — as Benjamin Netanyahu now is — then that pushes you towards populist rhetoric. What better way to tell your supporters to disregard a criminal investigation than to say: ‘All of the institutions are corrupt. These criminal allegations are just a political ploy against me.’
But when people start to think that the system is rigged, that nobody really cares for them, that everybody is corrupt anyway, then they become willing to tolerate — or even reward — liars and rule-breakers who are perceived as being on their side. That is, for example, probably the best explanation for public tolerance of Donald Trump’s lies: There is good evidence that most of his supporters are perfectly aware that he lies about a lot of things. But because they assume that all politicians are corrupt anyway, and believe that he’s lying on their behalf — or fighting for them in other areas — they are willing to look past that behavior. So this is the first connection: a loss of trust makes people willing to vote for rule-breakers and criminals, and this means that politicians no longer have an incentive to stay honest.
The second connection is even more direct: Many populist politicians enter politics, or ratchet up their populist rhetoric, in order to stay out of prison. Silvio Berlusconi, for example, entered the political fray in good part because he knew that being in power would protect him from serious criminal allegations.
And of course if you are in power and facing criminal allegations — as Benjamin Netanyahu now is — then that pushes you towards populist rhetoric. What better way to tell your supporters to disregard a criminal investigation than to say: “All of the institutions are corrupt. These criminal allegations are just a political ploy against me. I alone stand for the people and its enemies are conspiring to stop me from fighting on your behalf.” And that kind of rhetoric is, of course, at the core of populism.
To what extent is Netanyahu a populist? For instance several weeks ago Likud sponsored a billboard over the main highway in Tel Aviv. It showed images of four Israeli investigative journalists looking sinister with the headline “they will not be the ones to decide.”
We tend to think in binary terms. Politician X is a populist and politician Y is not a populist. I don’t think that’s the most helpful way of looking at it. In many cases, politicians can change over time, or they can lean into populist rhetoric whenever it suits them.
When Netanyahu entered Israeli politics, he wasn’t using that kind of populist language. But in recent years, he has started to lean into populist rhetoric more and more strongly. The kind of billboard that you mentioned is a classic and quite worrying use of populist rhetoric to delegitimize the free media and set yourself up as the only legitimate spokesman for the people, who are supposedly being sabotaged by a sinister force. So yes, at this point, there certainly are striking similarities between Netanyahu and authoritarian populists like Trump or even Orban.
Let’s say Israel were going down an authoritarian or populist path — to some extent, we don’t know to what extent–what could we expect the next steps to be? Let’s say, for instance, whoever got elected tried to rein in the power of the Supreme Court and to delegitimize the police and took other steps that populists like to take. If that happened what could Israel look forward to in the coming years and how would that affect the average person on the street, because maybe the average person on the street doesn’t really care. How would it affect their life?
When populists take power, they start to undermine the independence of political institutions. They create outlets for state propaganda. From what I understand, there have already been attempts to do that in Israel in the past years. They vilify the opposition and restrict the ability of people to criticize the government.
Even as the populist leader and his allies try to take more and more power, opposition activists will try to preserve the independence of those institutions. This is a struggle in which both sides have a real chance of winning. So the outcome is uncertain and it would be particularly uncertain if, as is likely, the populist government does not have a unified bloc of support with a majority in parliament.
Eventually, populist governments face a legitimacy crisis. They become less popular for one reason or another — perhaps there’s a recession, or a big political scandal. And at that point, the populist has to ratchet up the pressure in order to stay in power. Suddenly, citizens who didn’t notice the loss of their liberty are starting to feel the boot of the state in their daily lives. And this is when populist governments either fall or turn into more straightforward dictatorships
For most ordinary people, all of this doesn’t matter so much at the beginning. The initial set of changes impacts citizens with a strong interest in politics, especially those who are critical of the government. But the bulk of citizens are not particularly interested in politics — and in the first years of a populist regime, their lives don’t change all that much. Anybody who’s not highly active criticizing the government or organizing against it, who’s not a journalist or a judge, who doesn’t belong to one of the minority groups that are being vilified, can go about their lives in much the way they did before.
But, eventually, populist governments face a legitimacy crisis. They become less popular for one reason or another — perhaps there’s a recession, or a big political scandal. And at that point, the populist has to ratchet up the pressure in order to stay in power. Suddenly, citizens who didn’t notice the loss of their liberty are starting to feel the boot of the state in their daily lives. And this is when populist governments either fall or turn into more straightforward dictatorships.
A country like Venezuela illustrates this process very well. Through the early 2000s, most citizens were able to go about their lives in a relatively normal fashion, and did not recognize the extent to which Chavez was building up absolute power. But over time, even ordinary citizens came to feel the consequences of the regime’s economic mismanagement and its increasingly extreme repression. As a result, virtually nobody in the country can, today, go about his life in a normal way or afford not to care about politics.
You’re saying the canaries in the coal mine are journalists and people who are politically active or who are trying to preserve the independent institutions? They feel the impact of rising authoritarianism first but then eventually everyone feels it?
That’s right. So basically what happens is that populists attack independent institutions. They cannot recognize the legitimacy of any power center that is not dominated by them. At first, that seems quite abstract to ordinary people. Who cares if the police are suddenly under the control of a loyalist of the government? Why worry if some people claim that the police are bringing trumped-up charges against some opposition leader? Most people don’t deal with the police in their daily lives. If you are a teacher or a cab driver, that stuff doesn’t change your daily life — at first.
But over time, as the regime becomes more repressive and corrupt, it does start to affect the lives of schoolteachers and cab drivers. The schoolteacher is suddenly asked to teach propaganda instead of a Hebrew lesson. The cab driver suddenly faces demands for a bribe when he tries to renew his license. That’s when resistance to the populist regime becomes more widespread — and either succeeds in forcing out the government, or is violently quashed.
I wanted to ask you about the widespread demonization of George Soros and what that is about?
If you want to make people believe that you truly speak for the people, and that anybody who disagrees with you is illegitimate, it obviously helps to invent a compelling story about some sinister, powerful figure who’s threatening the interests of ordinary citizens. Conspiracy theories have always been a very appealing way of doing that. So if you can claim that there is a billionaire who has strong political views and is using his money to impose them on your country, then that is a tempting story to tell.
And of course there is a strong anti-Semitic context to the vilification of Soros, which sadly makes this tactic all the more effective in many countries. When you look at Hungary, where many citizens, according to polls, hold strongly anti-Semitic views, the attacks on George Soros should be seen as falling in the same tradition as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a century ago. What’s striking to me is that these anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have now come, of all places, to Israel.
Right, about a year ago the prime minister’s son posted a picture depicting George Soros controlling the world.
That is classic anti-Semitic iconography. That picture is a modern-day adaptation of pictures that were popular from czarist Russia to Nazi Germany — of hook-nosed Jews with long beards pulling the strings of the world.
As someone who grew up Jewish in Germany, and who obviously had to be sensitive to the resonance of those connotations, I find it startling to see the son of an Israeli prime minister share a meme which, in Germany, would immediately remind people of the propaganda that filled the pages of Der Sturmer.
In your book you don’t talk about or place an emphasis on outside forces fanning the flames of populism, for instance, Russia and its election meddling in the West.
There’s strong evidence that social media manipulation swayed some votes in 2016 — and the election was, of course, decided on a relatively narrow margin in three key states. So it is at least imaginable that Russian influence or outside propaganda tipped the balance. But the important thing to note is that this kind of interference can only have a big impact preying upon actual attitudes and divisions in the society. So the most important problem is that so many people are so susceptible to these kinds of tactics in the first place.