Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Populism

An interesting argument about direct democracy (via Bob):
And if Israel's behaviour is short-termist (we will only know if it is short-termist in the long run, see Keynes aphorism on this matter) and it's continuance as a democracy with secure borders would be better served by a more nuanced and humane approach, are we seeing another instance in which a debased, creepingly direct democracy is threatening the moral foundations of democracy?
I think he undervalues one aspect of the particular case. The particular case is really a stepping off point for Paulie, though it's an important case for me, but I can use it in the same way as Paulie. A huge part of the Zionist perspective is "we have a right to make decisions about our own self-defense, since the rest of the world has demonstrably failed to care," and a huge part of the world replies, "ummm, no you don't, because you're not a real nation unless we say so. And we promise to protect you next time (provided you obey us right now, but otherwise, we'll force ourselves on you), so stop bringing that up." That kind of discourse is just.. Well, it really shouldn't be a surprise that one goal of Israeli governance to make it's own decisions with pointed stubbornness just to spite those who deny Israeli sovereignty. I think you see that all the time in postcolonial states, usually mocked by the privileged who see themselves as enlightened. Israel is founded on the notion that Jews cannot thrive without sovereignty, but that discourse is about denying Jews that sovereignty. Often, denying Israeli sovereignty while either ignoring or even championing that sovereignty for others. Disagreement is often important, but mocking and hateful shows of economic or political force aren't particularly productive in such cases.

In the general case, however, let me respond to this end:
Is a simple concerted re-statement of the values of representative democracy our only salvation? And if so, why isn't it a growing political movement?
Increasingly direct and populist democracy may be a symptom of the information age or merely a cyclically recurring problem. Perhaps, after a period of adjustment, we'll look back and say this was when Democracy grew up. I have my guesses, but I'd feel out of my depth to put them forward. There are, however, other responses besides such restatements. These restatements happen all the time, and they're usually a good thing. Toni Morrison's endorsement of Obama during the campaign, where she credited him with wisdom, being one such case (that I found moving and persuasive). Of course, when populists talk about politicians they can trust, which is something they do constantly, they're also (however dysfunctionally) working inside the rhetoric of representative democracy. But there is another, existing response, easily overlooked. What it doesn't do is deny the value of direct participation, because direct participation is actually a genuinely good thing. Instead, it expresses a measured skepticism of populist movements that criticizes populist rhetoric for excluding people from the democratic rights such movements claim for themselves.

With Zionists (like me) one of the winningest arguments is "Don't the Palestinians have the same right to sovereignty?" That's why a two-state solution is favored today by almost all Jews worldwide, which wasn't the case some 25 years ago. Unfortunately, a great deal of the rhetoric arrayed against Israel is exactly that sort of short-sighted, populist rhetoric we ought to be criticizing. That's why so much support for the Palestinians (which would be a good thing, if it were more genuinely progressive) is about the supporters getting to feel good about themselves.

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