Democracy Under Stress

Democracy Under Stress

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Recent events in the U.S. and in Israel have brought forward a very scary idea about the nature, effectiveness, and viability of democracy and democratic values. In addition, one need only look at how the apparently failed Turkish coup brought into question the efficacy of the only democratic nation in the Arab world. To a certain extent, even the recent British Brexit vote to leave the European Union—which was the most obvious example possible of direct democracy in action—was seen by some after it was all over as a sign of a bullying democracy.

The events at and during the Republican convention last week certainly opened up many questions about what precisely the Republican nominee actually thinks about democracy and the rule of law. Clearly in a privately owned business when the owner does not like something or someone he can dispose of the matter as he wishes. Presidents are bound by rules and laws.

It does appear that Trump truly believes what he says goes and as President could unilaterally and single-handedly run the country with the cooperation of the other branches of Government; sounds eerily like a totalitarian state.  In national security policy and international affairs, Trump has suggested he can abrogate or modify the NATO Treaty or could eliminate, for example, many of the Free Trade Agreements. He can personally dismiss treaty arrangements or international obligations with the same unilateral authority that he discontinued Trump Steaks.  

One gets a sense that for Trump the will of the people as expressed by Members of Congress means nothing. Similarly, any suggestion that the Commander-in-Chief can single handedly order U.S. troops without baring any consequences for disregarding the will of the people as expressed by the Congress is dangerous and undemocratic. The world has experienced other leaders who have said that they did not mean what they said, but given the nature of the regimes that they produced one wonders if there is reason for the public to have pause as to whether Trump indeed has any sense of what are fundamental democratic values.

Clearly, there are concerns also being raised concerning Hillary’s use of a private email server which undermined proper protection for Government secrets. There was also considerable unease concerning her arrogant use of power; but given the Attorney General’s findings—which in a system of laws is final—it would seem that her inappropriate actions were foolish and dangerous but not illegal.

When seen from afar Israel continues to appear to be growing and developing as a remarkably resilient democratic country especially when seen within a region of repressive, authoritarian rulers. When examined up close some of the actions occurring during Bibi’s watch over the past weeks alone raise very serious questions about Netanyahu’s true commitment to democracy in Israel; even when strictly focused on non-defense or security matters.

It was learned that the newly appointed Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army some years ago had expressed a position that Israeli soldiers under the stress of combat could be permitted to rape non-Jewish women. A rabbi in charge of a pre-enlistment program for young religious soldiers in Israel responded to a series of questions concerning LGBT individuals by calling them perverts. When a graduate student in a leading art school has her work censored because it portrayed the Justice Minister in the nude, freedom of expression is clearly being challenged. Finally, a serious question was raised whether the Knesset’s recently passed law–requiring transparency from NGO’s operating in Israel which receive more than half of the funding from foreign governments or state agencies—was actually only an effort to restrict activities of left wing and human rights organizations which are critical of the Government.   

Many of these activities are clear challenges to Netanyahu and respect for and acceptance of democratic values. It goes even further when the his coalition in the Knesset affirms positions which are antithetical to democratic values.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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