In 1787, James Madison articulated in Federalist Papers No. 10 that partisan polarization could fundamentally threaten a democratic republic. “Violence of faction,” as he called it, must be controlled.
Madison’s vision has been proved right yet again this week – in Jerusalem.
On Monday, Israel’s teetering eight-party coalition government imploded, triggering the fifth general election in just four years. This collapse occurred after multiple right-wing legislators refused to compromise with their left-wing colleagues and then rebelled against the coalition. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confessed that his coalition of ideological antagonists, consisting of right-wing Orthodox, left-wing and Arab parties, had “exhausted all efforts to stabilize” itself.
This state of political turmoil has brought real costs to the well-being of the people. The partisan polarization led legislators to refuse compromises for fears of appearing weak, causing the legislature to fail in passing any state budgets for more than three consecutive years. With no state budgets, Israelis lost a total of more than $6.5 billion. For Israel’s neighbors, such political polarization in Jerusalem means few leaders dared to call for negotiations with Palestinians to advance regional peace and human rights agendas. Successful negotiations are often the art of mutual compromises.
American citizens should take notice of these latest developments in Israel. At a time when democracy in America has also been marked by partisan gridlock, Israel provides vital lessons on what to do, and what not to do, to stabilize democracy and serve the needs of the people.
The one thing we can learn from Israel’s recent events is the determination to pursue cross-ideological coalition building to mitigate polarization during election cycles. Even though Israel’s eight-party alliance fell after one year, it was not a failure. Coalescing legislators across religious, ethnic and ideological lines, the Naftali government launched public transportation initiatives, reformed kosher certificates for food quality and consolidated the peace with the United Arab Emirates. These concrete actions improved people’s lives, and they would not have happened if endless paralysis dominated the past year.
Informed by the Israeli example, America should actively seek unifying figures who are willing to and capable of building such coalitions across racial, religious and ideological lines. Democrats, for instance, can look for consensus candidates who can reach out to both the left and the right, if President Joe Biden forgos another run in 2024. One example, though rarely mentioned so far as a potential presidential contender, is the Rev. Raphael Warnock. As Georgia’s first African American senator and the senior pastor at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, he is in a position to understand not only the religious concerns often espoused by right-leaning voters but also the civil rights aspirations of liberal voters. The senator’s moderate stance on legislative issues and determination to restore civility also further bridge the political divide, allowing him to heal polarization in a presidential election rather than exacerbating it.
Meanwhile, the current political morass in Israel also shows us actions that we should avoid. Over the years, centrist scholars in Jerusalem have been warning about the need to reform the parliamentary structures to reduce the room for partisan gridlock. The Israel Democracy Institute proposed the idea of making the leader of the largest party the prime minister automatically after each general election. But these calls were never heeded by the Parliament. Similarly in the U.S., we need commonsense improvements to existing institutions before it is too late, and the prime target should be the Senate filibuster.
It is the moral responsibility of the government to deliver results per people’s needs. Yet, the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate has become a tool often employed to block the elected majority party from realizing the policy outcomes it campaigned on. From restoring voting rights and enhancing gun safety, the Senate struggles to pass critical legislation because the filibuster requires 60 votes. Israel has demonstrated that we need a healthy balance between maintaining institutional stability and reforming ineffective structures. It’s time to reform the Senate filibuster to require actual efforts in speechmaking to reduce legislative obstruction.
Israel is set to have a new interim prime minister in Yair Lapid, a moderate legislator and son of a Holocaust survivor. Lapid called on his nation “to find the shared good” and “to take Israeli society from disagreement to agreement” last year. We need to do the same to save American democracy.