Beyond the Compass, Columns, Opinion

Where there’s popular will, there’s a way | Beyond the Compass

The Trump presidency ushered in fears of democracy’s demise due to the former president’s disdain for decorum and precedent. Opponents formed a strong bulwark against any perceived effort to undermine our country’s traditions and institutions. The balance of power within any country is indeed fragile, and the threat of Trump galvanized strong opposition in the United States.

Analise Bruno | Graphic Artist

While we can debate what might have happened here if such opposition to Trump failed to form, it is clear the current judiciary crisis in Israel represents a category of threat we never had to endure. Yet, even in the face of this threat, the power of popular will is still evident, a reminder to maintain that same energy here in the United States.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed several changes to how Israel’s Supreme Court would be chosen and operated moving forward. 

First, the committee that selects judges would change in composition such that any ruling coalition would have a majority on the committee and could choose its own judges. Second, the changes would limit the court’s ability to strike down laws.

If this came to pass, any party or coalition in power would have the means to force through any laws it likes, even potentially restructuring the government to its own advantage. Israel’s current system would largely cease to exist and instead resemble the more autocratic regimes seen elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Israeli people, however, are not unaware of this possibility, and they have taken to the streets in response. Though opposition is largely from Israel’s secular centrists, parts of the country’s more religious right have also participated. A strike across the country, including military reservists, has finally prompted Netanyahu to put a hold on the passage of the bill. Whether and in what form the bill will move forward remains unclear.

While Trump did indeed abuse power, particularly at the end of his presidency in undermining the results of the 2020 election, and arguably endorsing interference with the passing of the torch on Jan. 6, 2021, he never attempted to restructure government in his favor like Netanyahu and his party. Perhaps this is because he lacked the strategic capacity to do so but the point is, we never got there. 

The case of Israel raises some interesting questions about the role of popular opposition in the government’s workings. Typically, we understand democratic governments representative democracies, to be more specific to be machines that enable the will of the citizens. When the public does not support a particular law, or at least when there is a majority opposition, proposals are, in effect, non-starters.

This is what separates an autocratic government from a democracy: an autocracy moves forward with its own objectives, independent of what the public wants. In Israel, though, we are seeing the public’s ability to counter the initiative.

Compare this to the protests following Mahsa Amini’s tragic death in Iran. People took to the streets in droves, calling for change in the country’s laws and enforcement they endured threats, imprisonments and even beatings, yet the only government response has been to actually strengthen the same laws that led to Amini’s death.

The interior ministry announced that there would be no retreat or tolerance on the issue, and upheld  the principle that the hijab is an essential element of Islamic law.

What is the difference here? Is it the Iranian government’s willingness to use violence to enforce its laws? Is there a sense of learned helplessness among the Iranian people that limits the effectiveness of protest? Or does Iran’s style of government prevent a critical mass of support from forming? Whatever the reason, the stark distinction between the protests in Israel and Iran  suggests that popular opposition may be more influential than we think at least when going tête-à-tête with a democratic, or mostly democratic, government.

We can only speculate how a more aggressive Trump power grab might have played out, but the fact that American society is still standing while Netanyahu has paused the judicial overhaul suggests there may not be as much to fear as anticipated, at least in the United States and at least for now.

Still, maintaining strong institutions, norms and civic energy is a thin line that separates democracies from more oppressive forms of government. We should use Israel’s example as a reminder to stay vigilant and active, since it can make all the difference in the world.

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One Comment

  1. Very thoughtful commentary!