Democracy, the process through which the people get to choose who governs them, involves a choice of leaders telling competing stories about how the world should be organized.
A healthy society, we have told ourselves, involves regularly changing those leaders and their stories to provide the checks and balances essential to avoid the dangers inherent in one-party rule.
In Israel, the United States and Britain, that process has stalled. The reason is that, in all three countries as elsewhere in the West, the story offered by the progressive side of politics has simply collapsed.
In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud delivered a decisive election victory this week with 36 mandates to 33 for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, and with the right-wing bloc winning 58 mandates to the left-wing’s 55. It is unclear whether the prime minister will be able to cobble together a coalition government. Nevertheless, this was undeniably a personal victory for Netanyahu.
Despite the looming prosecution against him for corruption and the overwhelming hostility of the media, a majority of people still voted for him, delivering the highest vote for the Likud in decades.
The reason is clear. Regardless of his undoubtedly formidable political skills, Netanyahu is not a magician. He didn’t win this popular mandate through the dark arts of political alchemy. He won because the majority of Israelis simply don’t trust anyone else to meet their overwhelming concern—to keep the country safe from its enemies.
Gantz may have been a fine military general, but as a politician he lacks the one quality people require: trustworthy leadership, with a clear and persuasive story to tell.
His mixed, ambiguous signals left people worried that while he sought strenuously to show he’d be as tough as Netanyahu over security, his real political leanings were on the left.
And in middle Israel, the left is regarded as a danger to the nation. In the election, the Labour-Gesher-Meretz bloc won only seven mandates.
The left’s unbroken commitment to a Palestine state is viewed as an existential threat to Israel’s security. This also makes the public nervous that it would fail to keep Israel safe from other threats, such as Iran.
With no alternative leader able to match Netanyahu’s strategic grasp of regional opportunities and risks, the majority of voters pragmatically decided to overlook his faults—even if he turned out to be guilty of corruption as charged—because no one else could be trusted to safeguard the interests of the nation.
In the United States, something similar is happening. The momentum in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination had been with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. After this week’s “Super Tuesday,” however, former Vice President Joe Biden, who had previously been all but written off, astonishingly emerged as the frontrunner.
The reason was that Democratic grandees, panicking over the momentum behind Sanders whose extreme leftism made him in their view unelectable, had thrown everything behind the more centrist Biden to stop it.
As a result, the Democratic frontrunner is now a man who can scarcely string a sentence together without losing its thread or making basic mistakes. The extraordinary fact is that the Democratic Party has simply been unable to field a plausible candidate at all.
So while Trump sails unopposed towards the Republican nomination, the Democrats’ new best hope is a man who called Super Tuesday “Super Thursday,” and grabbed his wife’s hand and said, “This is my little sister, Valerie.”
The reason the Democrats are in such disarray is that, like the Israeli left, they, too, don’t have a plausible story to tell. They no longer know what the party stands for. That’s why a growing segment has lurched towards the extreme left.
The rest inhabit a supposed center ground that has itself lurched leftwards into endorsing identity politics and winking at the anti-white racism of Black Lives Matter, the harassment of conservative speakers on campus, the demonization of Israel, the undermining of the rule of law by sanctuary cities and the erosion of the very idea of the nation through lax border controls.
Far from promoting a fairer, more decent society voters can see that all this produces the opposite. To the outrage and bewilderment of liberals, Trump is perceived as standing instead for the values of patriotism, law and the constitution, where most of the public believe the true middle ground to be.
In Britain, the same aversion to the left propelled Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson into power with a large majority at last December’s general election. This was thanks to the working-class, former Labour Party voters who astonishingly deserted en masse to the hitherto detested Conservatives.
The headline issue was that these people, who had voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, believed that Johnson was the only leader who would honor the country’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union.
The deeper reason was the profound revulsion among this patriotic, aspirational, hard-working class of people against what they saw as a Labour Party run by a metropolitan elite pursuing a ruinous war against the nation and its traditional values, and openly despising all who stood up for them.
They recoiled from Labour’s hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn for having allied himself with the enemies of Britain and democracy, and who was also doing nothing to stop the rampant anti-Semitism in his party.
In fact, the Labour vote among these blue-collar workers had been declining for many years. And there lies the message for the Western left.
The front-runner in Labour’s election next month to replace Corbyn is a centrist politician, Sir Keir Starmer. Even if he becomes leader, however, Starmer will face the problem that has bedeviled not just the British Labour Party, but the left ever since the fall of the Soviet Union—that it no longer has a convincing story to tell or a constituency that believes in it any more.
For like the U.S. Democrats, Israel’s post-Zionist left and others in Western progressive circles, the Labour Party has redefined itself around globalism and identity politics. As a result, its members disdain and undermine the nation-state and its values, act to weaken their country and appease its mortal enemies, and repudiate liberty, truth and reason.
The public revolt against all this delivered the Brexit vote in Britain, brought Trump to power and has sustained Netanyahu in office.
The left, however, has refused to acknowledge that it is Trump and Netanyahu who now occupy that middle ground the left so falsely claims for its own (in Britain, however, there are worrying signs that Johnson, himself a social liberal, similarly doesn’t understand the socially conservative blue-collar workers who brought him to power).
The public has understood that for decades, they have actually been offered only one basic story: the progressive worldview that bears no relation to their own lives and aspirations, but which has become the default position of the entire political establishment across the now obsolete left-right divide.
That’s what the public are in revolt against; that’s why the left no longer knows what it stands for.
And that’s why, for the foreseeable future, millions of decent people will be holding their noses and voting for flawed leaders who they believe are the only ones who actually have their backs—and who have thus become the only political show in town.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy,” in 2018. Her work can be found at: www.melaniephillips.com.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.