Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors at Harvard University, published the book How Democracies Die last year. Compelled equally by a sense of duty and increasing worry, their purpose was to awaken Americans to the need for vigilance against what they believe to be systematic, calculated erosions in the vital institutions of democratic government.
They make the point over and over again that democracy must be nurtured, protected and constantly affirmed by the rules, regulations and civic practices of civil society.
The authors meticulously demonstrate how authoritarian leaders in modern times subvert democracy “by packing and ‘weaponizing’ the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”
The behaviour of Donald Trump in the White House was the catalyst for their decision to write How Democracies Die. In light of recent developments in Israel, our concern for the targeting of democracy’s vulnerabilities is no longer restricted to the United States, Europe, or Latin America. We now also feel incipient anxiety for the sinews of Israel’s democracy.
In a stinging, obviously pained echo of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s words, highly respected Benny Begin, the son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, and an MK in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, recently accused his leader of “attempting to assassinate the public’s trust in law enforcement institutions.”
Begin was referring to the shameful ad hominem attacks Netanyahu levelled at Israel’s attorney general and at the state prosecutors for deciding last month to indict him on three counts of bribery, fraud and abuse of trust.
Netanyahu’s broadside against the attorney general and the prosecutors were part of a larger exculpatory invective aimed at opposition members, the media, the police and the entire law enforcement apparatus whom he charges are biased against him. He accuses them of conspiring to prevent his re-election as prime minister on April 9.
As reported by David Horovitz, in the Times of Israel, Netanyahu said the charges were “a house of cards of flimsy accusations, hatched by opposition parties who seek to harm the country, inflated by a media that shares the opposition agenda and loathes him for his very success, investigated by a biased and dishonest police force, overseen by a politicized state prosecution, and marshalled by a weak, incompetent attorney general who shares the leftists’ agenda.”
Horovitz condemned Netanyahu for “wilfully inflicting damage upon Israel’s democracy as he seeks to extricate himself from criminal prosecution and his fall from power.”
The Israel State Attorney Association also criticized Netanyahu, denouncing “with disgust the grave personal attacks by the prime minister and other senior officials on attorneys and Israel’s state prosecution.”
The announcement by the attorney general struck like a thunderbolt. It followed by mere days, a stunning announcement by the prime minister himself. Netanyahu arranged for the merger of a minor far-right religious party, Jewish Home, with an even further-right party, Jewish Power, nearly universally shunned for its propagation of racist policies. The newly merged party would likely bring one or two members into a Netanyahu-led coalition. The spectre of the inclusion into the government of such radically extreme, unapologetically racist individuals has further compounded the concern for democracy’s pre-eminence in Israel.
The democratic way of life is not an assured condition of human self-governance. “The drift into authoritarianism,” the authors warn, “doesn’t always set off alarm bells. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”
That is why we must be permanently on guard against the attempts to diminish democracy. Now, alas, we must be watchful from the ramparts of Jerusalem as well.