Dayenu, dayenu on my writing on the Israel-Gaza war, I am taking a temporary break, a humanitarian internet pause, and a blog ceasefire. Now for something totally different.
I am a citizen of each of the three countries in the title of this blog post. After the summer 2016 Brexit vote, I started to ponder on the respective futures of these three countries. I thought that the UK would have a tough time economically post-Brexit. I also thought that Trump posed a big threat to America but was confident that Hillary would win. So my 3-horse race placement on the futures of this triad was Israel first, the US second, and the UK third. Then came November 2016. As the Trump presidency unfolded, the UK and the US changed places, but Israel remained top-dog, or, rather, top-horse. Then came COVID. In terms of COVID deaths per million, comparing developed democracies, the US was one of the worst, the UK a little bit better, and Israel far better. Israel was a clear futures winner with the UK and the US dragging. The US fell even further behind from 2021 onwards with election denial, the January 6th insurrection, the Trump indictments, and political dysfunctionality. Then came the October 7th catastrophe and the Israel horse stumbled and fell. Now my country future’s horse race order is the UK, the US, and Israel. Time will tell.
But this triadic comparison is merely a prelude to a more static triadic comparison of the political structures of these three countries.
Let’s start by looking at some political structural issues. Let’s pair off countries in this trio. Let’s start with non-legislature issues. Britain is a monarchy; the US and Israel are republics (even if Israel does not usually think of itself that way). Britain and Israel are parliamentary democracies; the US is a presidential democracy. The US is a federal system; Israel and the UK are unitary. The US has the oldest written national constitution; Israel and the UK are globally alone in not having formal constitutions. Israel and the US have had Supreme Courts from their inception; the UK waited about 300 years (measured from 1707 – the parliamentary union of England and Scotland) before acquiring a Supreme Court. Israel and the UK have a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges (Israel 70; UK 75). The US has no mandatory retirement age or term limits. The US has had two justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Paul Stevens, who still served as nonagenarians. The US, unlike Israel and the UK, has the undemocratic electoral college as its means of electing presidents.
Now, let us consider the legislature and its elective processes. The UK and US have bicameral legislatures; Israel is unicameral. The UK and US have FPTP (First Past The Post) election systems (single district constituencies won by pluralities, not necessarily majorities); Israel, like most developed democracies, uses the proportional representation (PR) system. The PR system results in more parties in the legislature than the FPTP system. Its disadvantage is the constant post-election coalition making; its big advantage is that there is a party for nearly all shades of opinion, e.g. moderate religious, ultra-religious, Arab, socialist, center-right, center-left, green. All of these may obtain seats in parliament. In the US, they are locked out; in the UK, mainly so, except for the regional Scottish Independence party. There is no gerrymandering in Israel or the UK; Israel, being PR, cannot do it; and in the UK political parties do not control the rebalancing of seats and boundaries. In the US, gerrymandering is widespread. Israel and the UK have, roughly speaking, 100,000 inhabitants per member of the legislature; the US weighs in at about 760,000 (lower house members numbers are used in UK and US calculations). The House of Lords, an undemocratic absurdity, makes the UK differ markedly from Israel and the US, but it has limited powers. Lastly, the UK has the dubious privilege shared with only one other country in the world, viz., of having members of the clergy permanently assigned seats in a house of legislature. Yes, believe it or not, 26 bishops have permanent seats in the House of Lords (all C of E, Church of England, Anglican church, or Episcopalian church to Americans). They are even called the Lords Spiritual!!!! READER QUIZ: What is the other country? You guessed correctly…………………… see the end of the article for the answer.
Oh, well, enough paired-off comparisons of political structures. Which system is the best? It is commonplace in American Jewish discussions about Israel that the Israeli system is worse than the American system. Perhaps this opinion is a little less common than it was before 2016. I think American Jewish pressure was instrumental in Israel’s brief flirtation with a directly elected Prime Minister, a big no-no in parliamentary democracies. The usual complaint about Israeli democracy is that coalition building is difficult and unstable. The coalition-building problem is also seen in American eyes as plaguing countries in Europe such as Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Finland, and others. The other more recent complaint is that Israel has had too many elections. American Jewish Democratic friends would air this complaint during the later Trump years, saying, for example, “Israel has had 3 elections in 2 years. How terrible.” I would respond, “Trump has a solid four years with no election possible. Wouldn’t you love to have three chances in two years of deposing him?” The silence of speechlessness was the universal response.
The US is an outlier among long-term (half-century or more) developed democracies in being presidential rather than parliamentary. South America has presidential democracies but experienced military dictatorships until fairly recently. With a few exceptions, parliamentary democracies are prone to fewer strong-man attempted takeovers than presidential democracies as seen in this century in Turkey, the Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, and the USA. Exceptions are Hungary and India, both parliamentary systems.
Other big American undemocratic features include very unequal Senate representation of states’ populations, gerrymandering, excessive campaign expenditures, the malign influence of corporate and super-wealthy individuals, the electoral college, and lack of either Supreme Court justice term limits or mandatory retirement ages, and the lack of Washington D.C. legislative representation. The large number of these undemocratic features makes the US system much worse. On all these major points, Israel and the UK beat the US by a long lead in our political structures 3-way horse race.
For more on the US Constitution and its problems, see the three book recommendations at the end.
Now comparing the UK and Israel, we see the following: Israel is not a monarchy. Monarchy, inherently, is an undemocratic, hereditary, parasitic institution. Israel has possible breakaway geographical areas as is the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the UK. Israel has no unelected legislative house, i.e. the UK’s House of Lords. Most importantly, as an electoral system, proportional representation is better than FPTP, which is undemocratic. Interestingly, New Zealand switched from FPTP, inherited from the UK, to PR in the 1990s. They are much happier with the new system.
So overall in terms of political structures in our 3-horse race: Israel is best, the UK second, and the US third.
Do you disagree? Please comment.
Books explaining the major issues with the US Constitution:
“How Democratic is the American Constitution?” by Robert A. Dahl
“Our Undemocratic Constitution” by Sanford V. Levinson
“A More Perfect Constitution” by Larry J. Sabato
READER QUIZ ANSWER: Iran