The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


Public Opinion and Democratic Despotism

Filed under: Democratic Methods Polls & Statistics — eidelberg @ 1:18 am

Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, June 25, 2007.

A waggish commentator defined opinion polls as foolish persons asking stupid questions of ignorant people. Nevertheless, it’s commonly believed that a country is democratic if public opinion more or less influences the government’s laws and policies. But what in all seriousness is “public opinion”?

A democracy can manifest four types of public opinion. I shall relate each type to Israel to see whether Israel is really a democracy, as its ruling elites would have us believe.

The first and most familiar type of public opinion is “media-generated” or “statistical” public opinion. This type of public opinion is known by the one-word responses a sample of the population gives to questions asked by pollsters.

Media-generated public opinion is therefore superficial and transient. Such opinions do not require much thought or inquiry. When Joe or Jane is asked the question—”Do you believe Prime Minister so-and-so is doing a good job?”—what can a “yes” or “no” reveal about the competence of that prime minister or about the respondent’s understanding of the vast array of problems confronting a prime minister? Besides, media-generated public opinion is often confused, especially in Israel.

For example, a Dahaf poll of August 9, 2002 asked various questions concerning Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:

First question: “Is Sharon a reliable prime minister?”—63% of Israelis said Yes.

Second question: “Do you count on Sharon to successfully lead the nation?”—57% said Yes.

Third question: “What grade do you give to the performance of Sharon as prime minister?”—63% said Good.

Fourth question: “Does Sharon have a diplomatic program?”—only 36% said Yes, while 55% said No! This unfavorable response places in question the favorable responses to the first three questions.

Fifth question: “Does the Sharon Government know how to wipe out terrorism?”—36% said Yes, while 60% said No!

Sixth question: “Since the establishment of the Sharon Government, who has been winning the struggle?”—30% said Israel, 33% said the Palestinians, while 33% said Neither!

From this response one may conclude (a) that Sharon is not a reliable prime minister; (b) that he can’t be counted upon to successfully lead the nation; and (c) that his performance as prime minister is bad!

To clinch the point, when asked, “Will the frequency of terror attacks change in the near future?”—67% said it will increase! And when asked, “Do you fear being hurt in a terror attack?”—77% said Yes!

So much for what I have termed “media-generated” or “statistical” public opinion—which is clearly indicative of the public’s confused state of mind, hardly flattering to Israeli democracy.

A second type of public opinion is “electoral” and “party-generated” opinion. This type of public opinion is manifested during election campaigns, when political parties discuss public issues and offer diverse party programs. Although party programs are usually stated in general terms, the program of the winning party can be said to approximate public opinion.

In Israel, however, no party has ever come close to winning a majority of the votes cast in an election. The voter never quite knows which parties will form the government, or what will be its program.

Consider, however, the January 2003 election. The paramount issue was Labor’s policy of unilateral disengagement from Gaza. The Likud and six other parties campaigned against that policy and won 84 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. Nevertheless, even though a vast majority of the electorate rejected Labor’s policy, it was adopted by Prime Minister Sharon in December 2003. What is more, the Knesset enacted that policy into law by a vote of 67 to 45! Clearly, the Knesset made a mockery of public opinion—easily done since MKs are not accountable to the voters in constituency elections.

A third type of public opinion is “deliberative” or “institution-generated” opinion. It emerges from serious public inquiry and discussion in legislative committees and executive agencies. This type of public opinion is embodied in public law and may be said to reflect the “deliberate sense of the community.” It is subject to change, but not as rapidly or as readily as those mentioned previously. But here again Israel falls far short of its reputation as a democracy.

For example, in voting for disengagement, the Knesset utterly disregarded the testimony of Israel’s highest military and intelligence officials before the Knesset’s own Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs. Prime Minister Sharon himself refused to hear the professional views of these officials. This is not an isolated case.

When National Security Adviser Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland resigned last year, he revealed that every prime minister in the past generation who initiated a foreign policy move was swept into a process with unexpected results. Menachem Begin never imagined he would cede all of Sinai and sign a document which, by recognizing a “Palestinian people,” prepared the ground for a Palestinian state. Yitzhak Rabin never imagined he would effectively create an Arab terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep. Ariel Sharon never imagined that unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would lead to the Second Lebanon War and depopulate Sderot, a city of 24,000 people.

A basic reason for this abysmal record is Israel’s unknown and unchecked system of prime ministerial government. The impotence of the Knesset and its perennial indifference to public opinion between elections makes Israeli democracy a malignant fraud.

A fourth type of public opinion is “immemorial” or “constitution-generated.” It consists of a nation’s fundamental moral convictions and political principles. These may be regarded as most resistant to change. For example, prohibitions against murder and robbery are not subject, in any direct way, to opinion polls and public debate; nor are such values as due process of law and political freedom. But what shall we say of Israeli democracy when its Supreme Court so often scorns the heritage of the Jewish people? Here are a few of countless examples:

• The Court has sanctified homosexuality and same sex marriages.

• The Court nullified a ban on pornographic movies by ruling that nothing can actually be declared pornography, as one man’s pornography is another man’s art (a charming example of relativism).

• The Court ruled that land purchased by the Jewish National Fund for the purpose of Jewish settlement must be sold to Arabs on an equal footing.

• The Court has quashed indictments against Arab MKs who incite violence against Jews or negate the Jewish character of the State.

• The Court ruled that Judea, Samaria, and Gaza are “belligerent occupied territory.”

• The Court often substitutes its own judgment on matters which, in any democracy, are assigned to the legislative and executive branches of government.

Since a large majority of Israel’s Jewish population identifies with the Jewish heritage—25% are Orthodox, and 50% are traditional, any candid observer would accuse Israel’s Supreme Court of judicial despotism. Far from upholding the rule of law, the Court has imposed on Israel the rule of the judge.

This leads me to Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of democratic despotism, which he saw in the socialist-oriented government that came to power just before the French Revolution. Under this despotism the people were sovereign in theory but carefully deprived of any means of controlling or even supervising the activities of its own government. For above the people was a single authority, the State, which was entitled to do anything and everything without consulting the people. The State could not be controlled by public opinion since public opinion had no means of making itself heard. The State, Tocqueville concluded, was a law unto itself and “nothing short of revolution could break its tyranny.”

Of course, there will be no revolution in Israel. Israel’s ruling elites—politicians and judges, academics and journalists—have brainwashed the people to believe they live in a democracy. Instead of rebelling against this despotic system, they will merely wait for the next election, exercise their political freedom, and then relapse into servitude.

Can Israel avoid this fate? Yes, but not before we explode the myth of Israeli democracy.