Democracy’s Revenge?

In the last days of May, several right wing ethno-nationalist leaders suffered blows to their holds on power and the aura of muscular triumphalism they love to project.

In Israel, a feud between two far right icons prevented Netanyahu, whose right wing bloc won the April 9 election, from being able to form a government within the legal time limit of 42 days. Now Israel is going to have an election do-over in September.

British PM Theresa May announced her resignation effective June 7, after multiple failed attempts to get Parliament to pass a law approving the agreement that May negotiated with EU leaders to create an “orderly” Brexit process. With no such agreement, the alternative is a “no deal” implementation of Brexit, which could result in major economic setbacks and other undesirable impacts on Britain and the EU member countries. Her departure doesn’t mean that the British public have turned against Brexit, but it does mean that Nigel Farage’s xenophobic nationalist campaign has now led to the resignation of two consecutive Conservative PMs.

Finally, Special Counsel Robert Mueller made public remarks in which he openly contradicted Attorney General Barr’s characterization of the Mueller report as exonerating of Trump, and in which he pointed to Congress as the governmental body tasked with holding presidents accountable for improper behavior (some have interpreted this as a strong hint on his part). Mueller’s remarks may create a catalyst to move House Democrats to go forward with an impeachment inquiry.

For sure, it’s possible to chalk these three events up to the inevitable bumps in the road that right wingers in all three countries can expect to encounter from time to time on their path to enduring victory. That’s certainly what Trumpists, Brexiteers, and Bibi fans are hoping, and who knows – maybe that will prove to be the case. I’ve long given up on having much confidence in my own ability to read the political zeitgeist in the US, Israel, or anywhere.

But for those of us who fervently hope for the ideals and institutions of democracy and rule of law to regain their lost footing around the globe, it’s hard not to feel encouraged by these last couple weeks. What these three events have in common is that they are examples of well-established norms of democracy and rule of law prevailing over demagoguery. In each case the specific norms that have interfered with and slowed down the far right’s agenda are different, but the common thread is nonetheless important.

In Israel, for a long time now Bibi has been undermining democratic institutions and rule of law, drawing heavily form Trump’s playbook. He calls the press the enemy of the people and has consistently accused the country’s police and judiciary of being taken over by leftist conspirators. In his delight after the April 9 election result, he sought to put in place a government that would pass a new law giving him prosecutorial immunity from the multiple criminal bribery and corruption charges he is facing. That undemocratic effort was just thwarted by the rules of Israel’s parliamentary democracy. Bibi needed one more party to join his coalition, but a politician whose views are as loathsome as Bibi’s (worse, in some cases) used those rules to block Bibi and shift the probabilities of Bibi’s political future dramatically.

Before last week, most experts were predicting that Bibi would probably get his immunity law passed in exchange for giving all of the parties in his coalition pretty much whatever they wanted. In the process, Bibi also sought passage of a law to undermine the authority of the Supreme Court permanently, also in order to further protect himself from criminal accountability.

Now, facing the reality of having to run another campaign, even if Bibi’s right wing bloc wins again and he gets another chance to cut those same deals, it may be too late. The new elections are called for Sept. 17. Bibi has a date with the criminal court in October, and the AG has made it clear that that date will not be delayed. Bibi could appeal that decision to the Supreme Court, but then, he’s now on the record seeking to strip that same court of its main power, so good luck with that move. You can bet that politicians to Bibi’s right and left will press the case that voting for Bibi makes no sense because he may have to resign and even serve prison time within the next year.

Now, of all the heads of state around the world, Bibi may be the very best at pulling rabbits out of hats when it seems that he’s finally going to lose his hold on power. And he may squeak out of this bind somehow. But at minimum, the rule of law and democratic process has dealt him a severe blow and slowed him down.

Similarly, Theresa May’s resignation announcement is the result of the inability of Brexiteers to overcome the rule of law in two different jurisdictions – within Britain, and within the EU. The big lie that Farage and the bigoted political con artists he associates with sold to the UK’s voters was that Brexit would be much simpler than all this. That Britain could simply say goodbye and “restore its sovereignty and independence” cleanly.

But lo and behold, Britain actually inhabits an interdependent community of nations, just like the rest of us, and it turned out that leaving the EU meant disrupting hundreds of different economic, trade, and political agreements, potentially with chaotic consequences. Britain’s leaders sought to convince EU leaders to negotiate with them on the details of how all of those agreements would be ended or modified as part of Britain’s departure – to agree on a deal for an orderly Brexit. But democratic process and rule of law gummed up the works again, because even when May completed the daunting task of reaching such a proposed agreement with the EU, she then had to get the UK’s Parliament to approve it.

She tried. Three times. Members of her own party helped vote the agreement down each time. Exasperated and out of alternatives to offer, her premiership is over. Meanwhile, businesses in Britain are paying a huge price. Investors in UK businesses have to factor in the uncertainty of not knowing just what laws and regulations are going to govern business there. And businesses themselves are spending money on lawyers and accountants as they try to prepare for multiple legal scenarios that will play out differently for them depending on just how Brexit actually gets implemented. If it ever does.

In my home country, despite his repeated temper tantrums and anti-democratic public statements, Trump and his fan-base got whacked with a two-by-four in the form of constitutionally protected oversight of the Executive branch. The Special Counsel’s office is one part of that oversight, and Congress is the other. Despite Trumpism’s many successes at undermining rule of law and treating Trump as above the law, several different kinds of democratic processes are still alive and consequential in the US.

The Democrats’ taking over of the House in 2018 means that Congress is actually taking its duty to provide oversight of the Executive seriously. That only was possible because elections across the country in 2018 saw grassroots organizing lead to the defeat of the ruling party and the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in the House. This is a development I no longer take for granted as an American.

And, of course, the effectiveness and integrity of the Mueller investigation and the inability of Trump to get the Special Counsel taken off the case – these are all elements of democracy and rule of law that still are functioning in the US. Mueller’s freedom to speak publicly last week, which he didn’t have to do, is also a sign that there are still real power centers apart from Team Trump in this country. And Mueller’s clarification that his investigation did not exonerate Trump of criminal behavior has made an important impact.

What will happen as a result of these developments I can’t say. I spend a lot less

Screenshot 2019-06-01 at 13.45.23time reading, watching, or listening to news and analysis, and a lot more time doing things like writing postcards to voters as part of a grassroots effort to help Democrats will local, state, and Congressional elections everywhere. I want to make a difference with my energy and resources, not sit and stew in anger. I want to act and for my actions to matter, and this is one way I feel like I’m doing that.

There are still all kinds of signs that right wing xenophobic nationalism is growing in different parts of the world. The EU’s parliamentary elections last week featured big gains by “eurosceptic” nationalist parties like Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. (But then again, the Greens also did really well in those elections.)

In Israel, there’s every reason to assume that the same right wing dominance that has shrunk the center-left down to maybe 40% of the citizenry will elect another right wing government this fall. Bibi may not be the head of it, but there’s no reason to think a sudden leftward shift is on the horizon there.

And in America, Trump has a base of somewhere between a third and 40% of the country who are as motivated and organized as ever, and who are increasingly likely to follow his lead wherever it goes. And his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Latino messages continue to align with the views of a huge number of Americans.

All in all, the events of the latter part of May give us some reasons to hope that the structures and foundations of western liberal democracy may be more resilient than we thought. Or not. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I am going to keep writing postcards. There’s a special election for a state house representative in Florida in a couple weeks, and we are trying to help Kelly Smith flip the seat from red to blue.

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