Accusations of voter suppression in the lead-up to the U.S. elections and of voter fraud since then have led some Americans to express concern about the nature of their democracy.
Yet the instability that the United States is experiencing is not that unique; it’s similar to what many European countries, Israel and Lebanon have been going through in the aftermath of their somewhat inconclusive elections.
Explanations for this “new normal” have included everything from economic woes to immigration from countries without democratic traditions, to COVID-19, to social media and to the natural ideological bubbles that many find hard to escape. Whatever the cause of the above, if democracy wants to thrive, it must renew itself and adapt to the conditions of 2020.
About a decade ago, Belgium operated without an elected government for nearly 500 days, due to simmering ethnic tension. More recently, Brexit has toppled governments and led to multiple elections. Italy continues to suffer from political instability.
The Austrian government was led by a group of non-elected government experts for several months. And in the Middle East, many consider Lebanon a democracy, despite the challenges it suffers from instability, largely due to the overwhelming influence of Hezbollah.
These issues are also apparent in Israel, where after three rounds of elections, a multi-party, “unity” government has been formed. But it, too, is struggling to make decisions, just like the Israeli public. The public sees the government becoming crippled and the country paralyzed.
In retrospect, it is possible to point to a number of events and ideas that have led to this culture of indecision. First, the economic crisis of 2008 left scars on the United States and Europe that are still visible today. Fear of a similar catastrophe largely undermined the economic dream of the European Union. At the end of the day, people are less concerned about global trends than they are about the financial stability of their own country, city and family.
The second point is related to the demographic issue. The wars that broke out in the Middle East, the rise of ISIS and the killing that erupted in the Middle East and Africa led to a rise in human migration that has not been seen since World War II. This has had many consequences. The arrival of foreigners directly impacts separatism and senses of nationalism. Yet there is also an instinct to be compassionate and help the vulnerable, while on the other hand there remains a concern that foreigners will take jobs and damage one’s society.
The third point to consider is the mainstream media, social media and the need for instant gratification. For years people were accustomed to media outlets that merely reported the news. They did not present half-baked stories that were presented in tweet form before the details were properly vetted to enable a story to go live ahead of the closure of a news cycle. There was barely a need for “fact-checkers.”
Today, social media can be more influential than traditional media, as the boundaries between them have been broken. Those who surf and scroll no longer know what is true and what has been falsified.
The public is exposed to a confusing array of real news and fake news, real data and fake data. Not surprisingly, the pseudo-anonymity of social media discourse has become extreme. It has crushed one’s ability to be attentive to the other side—to the claims and the needs of those with whom one disagrees.
Social-media networks have become a place of strife and collision, where there are no police to separate the hawks. The social-media titans ended up intervening in the closing days of the U.S. election, which only heightened the polarization. This is evident in the frantic hours bleeding into days during which Americans have been and are still waiting for the final results.
The challenge of balancing democracy with 21st-century instant media is something the United States and much of the Western world continues to struggle with. How can we improve the conversation? How can we encourage differing groups to work together? How can we foster collaboration and respect dissention?
If we do not wake up now, our liberal democratic ideals may disappear before our eyes, despite the fact that we face worldwide challenges—such as global warming and the coronavirus pandemic—and geopolitical ones involving Iran, China and North Korea.
If the condition of elections and governments throughout the world has taught us anything, it is that we must change the way we talk about them.
Now is the time to make our discourse great again.
Oded Revivi is the mayor of Efrat and the former chief foreign envoy for the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.