Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel & America: Democratic Systems Poles Apart

As a political scientist, I can vouch for one very common denominator underlying the American and Israeli electoral/political systems: they are both dysfunctional and efficient – for totally opposite reasons. With US elections shortly taking place, and with serious noises coming out of the Israeli government about the need to call for another round of elections (that would be the fourth in less than two years!), it is worth considering their respective central weakness.

The US has a “winner take all” system, on the Presidential and Congressional levels. That’s because each district, state or the country as a whole is considered to be a “district” with only one winner. That inevitably leads to a race between only two parties or candidates. On the opposite side of the spectrum lies the Israeli system that views the country as a whole as one district in which all parties compete for a proportional part of the entire Knesset. The result: many, many parties vie for seats in the legislature.

What’s the problem? The American system is seriously deficient in representativeness. This essentially means that each voter has a choice between only two candidates (we can ignore third-party candidates, who almost never win an election, although occasionally they can influence the outcome by drawing votes from one of the two main candidates). With such limited choice, it is rare indeed for any voter to find a candidate with whom s/he agrees on many issues. In short, the U.S. electoral system leaves little room for a result that truly reflects the wishes of many voters.

On the other hand, with around fifteen parties running in Knesset elections – and around ten passing the minimal voting threshold (3.25%) – Israeli voters have a virtual supermarket of parties for which they could vote. In such a rich electoral smorgasbord, the chances are great that each voter can find a party that represents his or her position on the most salient issues.

However, when one turns the picture around to look at governability, we arrive at a mirror image of the situation. Because America has only two parties, when it comes to running the ship of state there is one party that acts as the “captain” and only occasionally there’s one other that is involved in “navigation”. For much of American history that situation has enabled the leadership to govern in relatively efficient fashion. Quite the opposite state of affairs is the norm for Israel, what with the need to form a governing coalition of (usually) four to six parties. That’s not a ship of state but rather akin to a carriage with four/six horses pulling in different directions.

Adding to Israel’s governability misery is the fact that in its parliamentary system, new elections can – and usually do – take place well before the four-year term is completed. In other words, the threat of “toppling the government” from within is a constant worry for the prime minster. Compare that to the American Constitutional mandate of a four-year term no matter what (even the president’s death does not change that). Israeli governance instability is counterpointed by American governing constancy.

Which system is “better”? That depends on whether one considers representativeness or governance to be more important for democracy. As to the question of “better”, most political scientists will say “neither”. There are plenty of election systems in the democratic world that combine these two elements in far better fashion. To take but one example (without getting too bogged down in the details), the German “mixed” system is far more stable than Israel’s (governments almost never “fall” before their term is up) but it’s also significantly more representative (four major parties vying at the national level). The German “secret sauce”? Half the legislative seats are elected by district, with the other half being proportionally representative.

None of this is to say that the “election system” is the only factor determining how well a democracy can function. Political culture is important, e.g. the Weimar Republic collapsed in 1933 in large part because Germany didn’t have much of a democratic past; given traditional Jewish argumentativeness, Israel’s political system would be “boisterous” no matter what the system; in light of its territorial separation from most of the world, America did not have to worry about foreign wars or serious entanglements for at least its first 120 years, lending a level of democratic stability that European countries could only dream of.

So when Israelis look at the American election system, they are nonplussed by the lack of choice and almost complete dearth of ideological variety. Conversely, Americans viewing Israeli elections are appalled by its quasi-“anarchy” (Israelis call it “balagan”). Both would do well to heed Churchill’s immortal description: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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