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Endangered Species?

The common challenges facing American and Israeli democracies

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Donald Trump.

The stunning conclusion of the US presidential campaign, coming on the heels of Brexit, shocked the world and shook the foundations of the American republic. Although a full reckoning with the events of 2016 will take some time, it is not too early to conclude that liberal democracies of the West are facing a crisis of historic significance.

In light of recent events, two striking features of the democratic West’s emerging landscape have come into focus. First, the personalization of politics is wreaking havoc with political parties. Second, public trust in government institutions is collapsing.

Those two challenges are not merely an American phenomenon. Indeed, they are increasingly the defining characteristics of other democracies, including the younger, and potentially more fragile, Israeli democracy.

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The insurgent candidacies of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders illustrate the new potential to circumvent once powerful party establishments. Israel’s major political parties are facing a similar challenge. To a surprising extent, for a parliamentary democracy where citizens vote for parties rather than individual candidates, Israel has witnessed an increasing fixation on party leaders at the expense of the parties they represent or the platforms they espouse. Simultaneously, politicians have learned to communicate with their followers directly over social media, rendering party institutions and traditional media obsolete.

In this “age of me,” there is a yawning gap between the online reach of some Israeli leaders and their parties. On Facebook: Benjamin Netanyahu (1,873,588 likes versus 19,152 for the Likud party), Yair Lapid (411,242 versus 13,026 for Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (76,479 versus 30,968 for Jewish Home).

And the same gap exists in the US: The official Republican Party page has 300,888 Facebook followers. Donald Trump has 1,179,614.

The intense personalization of politics in this age of digital communication is threatening the viability of the party as a mediator between elected officials and their constituents. In Israel in particular, this development is contributing to shallow policy debates and ever thinner party platforms. The very future of representative government may depend on the ability of thoughtful reformers to address the challenge of reinventing the party for the information age.

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