We Will Be the Ones to Save Our Democracies

8 March 2018

A few weeks ago, the Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit came out with its annual Democracy Index: a global ranking of the state of democracy in the countries of the world. Each country is evaluated by a set of criteria and then placed in one of four categories: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime, or authoritarian regime.

This year, the news isn’t good. In many parts of the world, the movement is away from the democratic end of the spectrum and toward the authoritarian one. But it gets worse: in 2017, both the United States and Israel were ranked as flawed democracies. On the one hand, this should shock us. On the other hand, it isn’t totally surprising. As we’ve been saying for the past decade or so, and as difficult as it has been for some to hear, Israel has been experiencing a democracy recession, drifting further away from its liberal democratic founding values. And here in the United States, the last year and a half have shown how quickly damage can be done to central democratic values and institutions.

As tempting as it might be to feel a sense of despair at these awful developments, we don’t have time for that. Despair is a luxury Israeli and American progressives cannot afford. Instead, this latest update on the health of our two democracies should spur us to action.

We need to ask ourselves, what can we do to help push these two countries back toward democracy? It turns out, there’s a lot we can do. Luckily, there is even an operating manual about how to do it. It’s called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.”

In his short, searing, and invaluable little book, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, offers us a kind of citizen’s guide for navigating and pushing back against the slide toward authoritarianism. His prescriptions range from supporting civil society organizations to practicing what he calls “corporeal politics” (i.e. taking it to the streets), to defending institutions (like the media, but also like the judiciary, and yes, like the FBI and the Israeli national police), to being courageous and “calm when the unthinkable arrives.”

On Tyranny is a chilling and essential read. I believe that each of us should carry a copy with us during these difficult times. And I am so heartened that, in Israel and in the United States, citizens are taking Snyder’s recommendations seriously and acting on them.

Last year’s spontaneous protests at American airports were both a response both to the Trump Administration’s attempts to enact a “Muslim Ban,” and also a show of support for the independent judiciary that stopped them. And the demonstrations in front of the Attorney General’s house in Israel – and now in the streets across the country – are both a demand that allegations of the prime minister’s corruption be investigated and also a very public defense of the Israeli institutions that are being pilloried by the prime minister and his allies for carrying out those investigations. This includes the national police which recently recommended that the prime minister be indicted.

And just last week in Tel Aviv, the NIF Board of Directors got to witness first hand as more than twenty thousand people turned out to practice Snyder’s corporeal politics. They also embodied another one of his lessons – “standing out,” or setting a moral example – as they took to the streets to protest the government’s plans to summarily deport thousands of people seeking asylum in Israel, many of whom fear for the lives and safety if forced to return to their countries of origin.

There is a powerful sense of hope in these examples, and from hundreds of others, in both of our countries — from Israeli airline pilots publicly refusing to fly those refugees to countries in which their safety cannot be guaranteed, to American high school students leading the way on gun control after countless failures by their elders.

That is what resistance means. It is true our beloved countries have become flawed democracies. And it is equally true that there is no cavalry coming to save us. But we don’t need the cavalry. We have ourselves and we have each other.

If our democracies are going to be saved, we are the ones who are going to have to do it.