Pro-democracy movements all too often spiral into illiberalism. Take the French Revolution, where cries of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” degenerated into the Reign of Terror. Or the Russian Revolution, which demanded “power to the people” but spawned a totalitarian regime. Or McCarthyism, where an attempt to expose anti-democratic forces devolved into witch-hunts and the trampling of civil liberties.
In the past century, across all five continents, this pattern has been the rule rather than the exception. The Arab Spring, the Iranian Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary movements in South American countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and Zimbabwe’s transition to one-party rule under Mugabe, all illustrate how ideological movements tend to gather steam, take on a life of their own, and ultimately turn on the very ideals they had set out to promote.
Happily, the past century also saw a handful of exceptions to this rule, and they are similarly instructive. The anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement in America, and the independence movement in India all managed to achieve their democratic aims without losing sight of their founding principles. But here’s the thing: it took leaders of the stature of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi to counter the runaway momentum in their own camp, and MLK and Gandhi paid for their moderation with their lives. The exceptions prove the rule.
The checkered past of pro-democracy mass movements, and the low odds and high costs of keeping them on course, should be of concern to those of us who have taken to the streets across Israel with the cry DE-MO-CRAT-YA. Once alerted to the natural senescence of ideological mass movements such as ours, signs of potential decay are easier to spot.
While the majority of demonstrators want compromise and consensus, the protest movement has some dominant voices that do not. Through the bellow of their megaphones, opponents are demonized rather than debated, dissent within the camp is silenced rather than valued, bridging proposals are catastrophized rather than engaged, and political-compromise is condemned as treachery, rather than encouraged as a hallmark of the democratic process. Hardly the calling cards of card-carrying liberals.
To the extent that our camp inflames such ‘us versus them’ tribalism, we must question whether we are unwittingly tearing the very fabric of the democracy we hold dear. As we’ve seen, we wouldn’t be the first to be entrapped by that paradox. Indeed, the lesson from history is that we should assume our movement will be sucked into that vortex – our righteous indignation notwithstanding – unless we actively resist its pull.
It’s tempting to brush off our more inflammatory voices as just the rough-and-tumble of realpolitik, but the illiberalism they telegraph is amplified as it traverses the networks, and it reverberates in the real world.
During one of the demonstrations, a hi-tech persona sporting a protest t-shirt, excitedly summoned a cameraman to capture the moment when he threw wads of cash at a group of young Haredi students dancing in the courtyard below. He was roundly condemned for this antisemitic trope, and he later apologized, but the incident raised worrying questions.
Then, a few days ago, a group of young women on a bus, wearing the very same t-shirts, started singing loudly and pointedly in the ears of a Haredi man who was sitting there minding his own business. They smiled at the camera as they taunted him, quite indifferent to the anguish and humiliation they engendered, and apparently proud of themselves for having delivered a blow for democracy. It was shameful and ugly, but alongside the condemnations, many of the talkbacks expressed ‘understanding’ this time, while some lionized the women for their “heroism.”
These kinds of dehumanizing displays are emblematic of the corrosion that was the undoing of so many pro-democracy mass movements. Such incidents are thankfully uncommon, and support for them is confined to the fringes, but we must call them out lest they become the new normal.
It should go without saying that the targets of our protest are riddled with illiberalism, and it isn’t confined to their fringes either. The government includes a convicted racist, self-declared homophobes, ministers hellbent on eradicating checks and balances on their power, and others for whom demonization and demagoguery are tools of first resort. But I draw little comfort from such whataboutism. After all, it is that illiberalism that we are protesting against in the first place.
In the services of that protest, many have sacrificed much. Some sacrifices – like offshoring funds and paring back support for the military – are highly controversial, and reasonable people can debate their worthiness and worthwhileness. I’m not a fan. But, there’s no case to be made for sacrificing our democratic values on the altar of our democracy. There’s nothing noble about becoming illiberal in the defense of liberalism. That’s not a sacrifice in the service of the cause, it’s a sacrifice of the cause itself.
Martin Luther King preached that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Our movement is not led by MLK, it’s not led by anyone. It is the collective that stood up the movement and imbued it with incredible momentum, and it falls to us, collectively, to protect it from the forces of hate and darkness that have derailed so many well intentioned pro-democracy movements of the past.
Some trappings of illiberalism are part and parcel of all protests, which is why our task is so fraught. In rallying the masses, clear lines are needed between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ unifying supporters at the cost of polarization. In mantras and on banners, meaningful differences among our opponents must give way to sweeping generalizations. In broadcast and social media, soundbites must substitute for subtleties. For the liberally minded, these are painful prices to pay, and we should pay them sparingly and begrudgingly. Necessary evils, after all, are still evils.
Above all, we must never lose sight of the goal which brought us out of our comfortable homes in the first place. A country with a plurality of ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles, and a culture of openness, tolerance and respect towards people with whom we disagree strongly, is what liberalism is all about. These are the ideals that we set out to defend, and it is this worldview that is encapsulated in that word that we chant over and over again: DE-MO-CRAT-YA!