Can Democrats become a political juggernaut like Israel’s Likud?

2020 Democratic National Convention logo (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On the evening of May 17, 1977, Israeli Channel 1 television anchor Haim Yavin announced “g’virotai v’rabotai- mahapakh!” (ladies and gentlemen, an upheaval). For the first time in the young Jewish state’s history, the center-right Likud under Menachem Begin came to power, winning forty-three seats in that day’s Knesset elections and forming a government with small right-wing and religious factions (the coalition would later expand to include the centrist Democratic Movement for Change party). 

Since its founding in 1948, Israel had been led by coalitions centered around the socialist Labor Zionist Mapai and its successor, the Alignment. Multiple factors led to the rise of the Likud and the Alignment’s electoral decline, including the Alignment’s perceived mishandling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, internal social tensions after the war, and government corruption scandals. However, the most important factor may have been a demographic one. 

Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia had long faced what the Israel Democracy Institute calls “an arrogant and patronizing attitude on the part of the Mapai establishment,” leading many to vote for Begin’s Likud (Begin and other Ashkenazi Revisionist Zionists were also largely shunned by the Labor Zionist political, cultural, academic, and business elites during those first decades of statehood). Ever since “the upheaval,” the Likud and its allies on the right have largely dominated Israeli national politics.

The Likud has been the largest party following nearly every election since 1977. The Labor Party has only beaten Likud twice in this period, under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999 (Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud and the Labor-dominated Alignment under Shimon Peres formed two national unity governments in the 1980s due to stalemates following elections. In 2006, the centrist Kadima won the most number of seats and formed the government). 

To understand this political trend, one needs to simply look at the coalition of voters Begin formed and that many of his right-wing successors have cultivated, chief among them Benjamin Netanyahu. Together, these groups constitute a formidable electoral force (it must obviously be stated that there are many exceptions as no group is monolithic). It includes working and middle class Sephardim and Mizrahim, many of whom are religiously traditional and live in the geographic and social periphery of the country; secular (and largely Ashkenazi) Revisionist Zionists; religious Zionists and West Bank settlers; Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews); and many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom made aliyah in the 1990s.

Not all of these groups directly vote for the Likud party. The overwhelming majority of Haredim support their own sectoral parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Many religious Zionists and West Bank settlers vote for religious Zionist parties. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union are the backbone of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Netanyahu’s former ally and now arch nemesis Avigdor Lieberman. Together, these parties form the so-called “national camp.” 

These groups do not always have the same priorities or policy views. The Haredi parties support government welfare payments and generous child allowances due to the community’s high birth rate, a policy more supported by Arab parliamentarians (who largely represent another constituency with high birthrates) in the Knesset than the neoliberal capitalist Likud. Secular Yisrael Beiteinu voters do not want Haredi rabbis telling them who they can and cannot marry, what stores can be open on Shabbat, or in some cases even questioning their Jewishness (the party is currently in the opposition due to disagreements with the Haredim over religion and state issues). Hardcore religious Zionists living in a hilltop settlement in Samaria and working class south Tel Avivim are in no way identical. 

Generally, what binds these groups together politically are security and diplomacy issues (most are wary of, and some are even downright opposed to, grand diplomatic ventures on the Palestinian front and hawkish on security and the settlements) and tribal identity and political affiliations. Demographics are seemingly on the political right’s side. A growing number of Israeli Jews today are traditional, religious, and Haredi. The horrors of the Second Intifada and waves of terror following the Oslo era of the 1990s also played a key role, driving many Israelis to the right due to the belief that a final status agreement with the Palestinians is not achievable anytime soon. 

Today, the Likud and its political allies are a mighty force to be reckoned with in Israeli national politics. Does this mean that a future Israeli prime minister cannot come from the broad political center? Not at all (a left-winger is pretty unlikely in the near future). However, it would be more difficult given these trends. 

American electoral politics has also been undergoing dramatic shifts in recent decades, many of which have intensified since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. As of this writing, President-elect Joe Biden has won over 78 million votes and is well above 270 electoral votes, re-building the “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin while also flipping Georgia and Arizona from red to blue. The voters that got Biden over the finish line, and those that did not, represent two coalitions that have come to define modern American politics.

Biden’s coalition differs slightly from those that sent Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the last two Democratic presidents, to the White House. As Josh Boak and Hannah Fingerhut reported for the Associated Press on November 7, “Biden voters saw a nation in chaos and a void in presidential leadership, while Trump’s supporters believed the economy was roaring back to health and that the president was delivering on the dramatic political change he campaigned on four years ago.” 

Obama’s coalition was young and diverse, “but white working-class voters were an underappreciated foundation, helping Obama win the entire upper Midwest,” according to Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News. However, the exodus of many white working class voters that began in the 1980s and 90s and continued during the Obama years became even more pronounced in the run up to the 2016 election and during this cycle. 

Biden won the presidency thanks to a diverse coalition of voters. African Americans, segments of the Latino community, Asian Americans, Native Americans, young people, progressives, women, and college educated moderate suburbanites (many of whom are Republicans and independents) were all critical to Biden’s electoral success. The former vice president made some gains among the white working-class in the Rust Belt. Exit polls also show that between seventy and eighty percent of American Jews voted for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Trump, the recipient of the second most number of votes in U.S. presidential history, did best with white working-class voters, those living in rural areas and small towns, evangelicals, and social conservatives. He made noticeable gains among Black and Latino men, but shed much of the white suburban vote that propelled him into the Oval Office four years ago. The president also did particularly well with large segments of the Orthodox Jewish community and other right-wing Jews.

The President-elect, proud of his middle-class Scranton roots, will have likely won fewer white working-class votes than Obama but did better with suburban white voters with college degrees and made inroads with seniors, two longtime Republican strengths. The 2020 election solidified one of the major political divides in the country: increasingly diverse urban and suburban voters rejecting Trump in large numbers, and rural and small town voters overwhelmingly voting for him to continue in office. 

Biden’s winning coalition presents a number of challenges for Democrats. The landslide many hoped for did not happen. There is a good chance the GOP maintains control of the Senate. Democrats will keep the House, but with a noticeably smaller majority than what they had following the 2018 midterms. It is clear that some of Biden’s voters supported Republicans in down ballot races. Divisions between the party’s moderate and progressive wings over the direction of the incoming administration’s agenda and how the party should handle future elections will likely lead to some deep soul searching and intraparty feuding. 

Despite these serious challenges, there are opportunities. Balancing the needs and concerns of a diverse coalition is not easy, but if anyone can bring people together it is Joe Biden. Most importantly, Biden will work to unite the entire country during these times of crisis and uncertainty. Democratic proposals for COVID relief, support for small businesses and workers, fighting climate change, addressing systemic racism, and restoring American leadership on the world stage are supported by most Americans and will be priorities on day one.

Donald Trump has accelerated geographic and demographic political divides during his chaotic four years in office. It is up to Democrats to not just maintain the parts of Biden’s winning coalition that are more traditionally Democratic-voting, but also continue to make inroads with independents and moderate Republicans disgusted by Trump and his Republican enablers. The Democratic nominee for president has won the national popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. If it can maintain a big tent in an increasingly diverse America, the Democratic Party could become an electoral juggernaut just like the Likud and its partners in Israel. 

About the Author
Brian Burke is a Pittsburgh native and 2019 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied political science, history, and Jewish studies. In college, he was involved with Hillel and the David Project, holding several leadership positions including president of the Pitt Hillel Jewish Student Union in 2018. Like many early 20-somethings, he is figuring out what comes next amidst the health and economic uncertainties of these times.
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