Dan Perry
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble"
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It’s the turnout, stupid!

If Tuesday's election leaves Netanyahu and the right in charge it will be because of Israeli Arabs and lazy leftists
You may not change their minds, but you might get them to vote (Dan Perry photo)

Imagine bashing your head into a mirror, gently placing a cockroach in your humus, hurling your wallet into a river, or driving straight into a tree. You wouldn’t do any of those things. But that’s what you’ll be doing if you’re in Israel and don’t vote on Tuesday.

Not voting amounts to causing yourself harm for no reason. Saving the time to go to the polls, which in Israel is never more than an hour including travel, is not a reason.

It causes such harm because voting is much more important than before. Here’s why.

First, we are living in the Great Age of Mulishness, when people are stuck in their ways and wedded to their views. Persuasion is markedly more difficult than it once was, and more difficult than it should be in a healthy society where words should matter. That reduces the effectiveness of political campaigns whose purpose is to change opinions.

One cause is social media, which has spread like the Black Plague in the past decade and which reinforces opinions by bombarding its victims with validation of pre-existing views in order to maximize Zombie clicks (and therefore drive ad revenue).

A second cause is that the developed world (including Israel) is in the throes of a cultural war between traditionalists and modernists, brought on by the miseries of globalization and tech disruption. People love their culture more than almost anything else. So cultural wars are stickier than the mere party affiliations of old.

In Israel there has been almost no change since 2003, the first election that can be called post-intifada: the right-religious block has about 55% support (and about two thirds of the Jewish public, absurd as that may be). Ariel Sharon’s formation of Kadima and Yair Lapid’s establishment of Yesh Atid skewed results in 2006 and 2013, respectively, by creating a somewhat illusory center (in the sense that in the end things break into pro- or anti-Netanyahu and the center is basically against him). The creation of Blue and White has so far not proven such an event.

In a situation so static few voters will move from right to center-left or vice versa by persuasion. Victory depends on which side votes with more determination. A smart campaign is one that tries to maximize the turnout on the side it’s promoting without scaring the other side into action as well.

This won’t work in a situation of full participation, as there is no one left to push to vote. That used to almost be Israel’s situation. Until 1999 Israel’s participation levels hovered around 80%, which accounting for emigres who maintained residency, absenteeism, and other factors, amounts to near full turnout. But it’s not that way today. Israel now struggles to get two-thirds of the registered voters to the polls – so turnout is absolutely key.

Benjamin Netanyahu realizes this better than anyone and is always calibrating. This is why Netanyahu and his lackeys are currently claiming they will lose the election; a few saps on the left may believe it, think a win is in the bag, and stay home on Tuesday.

But Netanyahu, the country’s best campaigner by far, needs to worry less about turnout than his rivals. He has a built-in advantage in that he is widely supported by three groups of what one might call “dependables”:

  • Haredim: This group does not tend to overthink and votes as a block for their parties which can be depended on to support the right bloc and which manage to inspire turnout levels pushing (and cynics would say sometimes exceeding) 100%. This is enabled by tremendous levels of obedience to community leaders and by practical need, since political power is translated into state subsidies for a community where participation in the labor force is low. Also, high birthrates mean that despite some attrition (young people leaving the sector) it is constantly growing.
  • Settlers: Similar to the Haredim, this group votes in very nigh numbers as if their livelihoods depended on it. And considering how economically unviable and heavily subsidized many of the settlements are, indeed they do. To be fair, they are also genuinely ideological and they have no alternative to the right. On top of which they feel besieged; if they fear that their political opponents would like to drive them from their homes, it is basically because they do (certainly in the case of the almost 100,000 settlers beyond the security fence line, whose location is a security nightmare and stands in the way of separation from the Palestinians).
  • Likudniks: Time after time leftists are amazed to hear Likudniks rip Likud to pieces and they say they’ll vote for the party again. One man I once interviewed called the party a bunch of idiots who are destroying the country but likened his support of it to support for a football team. He is not the first person to love his team more than his country. It is a true phenomenon, and a dispiriting one for fans of rational debate.

These groups are motivated, but the stakes for everyone are high.

One possible outcome of Tuesday’s vote is a country that rules millions of Palestinians without giving them the vote and is viewed by the world as an apartheid state, and one where religion increasingly holds sway and the Haredim are allowed to constantly expand the proportion of young people who do not know math or science. The other is a country where none of that is true.

Rarely in the history of the world has there been a choice so profound. And yet, at least two groups on the left need persuasion to not drive into a tree:

  • Israeli Arabs: Netanyahu has made agitation against the one-fifth of Israelis who are Arabs a main feature of his strategy. Last year he passed the nation state law eliminating Arabic’s status as an official language. His coalition includes shameless racists. His 2019 campaign has essentially used “Arab” as a four-letter word. So what do they do? They punish Netanyahu by not voting. The Arab turnout fell from almost two-thirds in 2015 to less than half in April.
  • Lazy Leftists: The turnout in the Tel Aviv area in April is estimated at barely over 60% because of hipsters and idealists who let the great be the enemy of the good. They need an excellent reason to think clearly. They are as the American progressives who will vote for the Greens even if the result is Donald Trump. They are as the British urban youth who stay at home on Brexit referendum day and then call other people idiots.

To both of these groups I say this: Not voting will double the mathematical value of your rival’s vote against you. Voting is one of the rare instances in life to make an ethical statement. Voting is free. If you do not vote this will please your political enemies. Not voting is cynical, and cynicism is bad karma.

And here’s a fun mathematical fact: just over 4 million people will vote on Tuesday, which means there’s a one in 2 million chance that yours will be the one that decides. These are better odds than Israel making the World Cup.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. Previously he led AP in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him at: twitter.com/perry_dan www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1 www.instagram.com/danperry63 https://www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/
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