Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Center Pushes Back

Political extremism comes in waves. Just like the ocean, high tide is succeeded by low tide in cyclical fashion. Recent political outcomes in Israel and the U.S. are signaling the transition from extremism to moderation – but “transition” entails gradual change over time.

The 2020 American presidential election was the first sign: a very moderate, centrist, candidate defeated an extremist incumbent by seven million votes. This, despite Biden’s “advanced” age and lack of charisma. Most germane was (and continues to be the fact that) President Biden’s main “platform”: a call for moderation and bipartisanship. Despite the calls for “sticking to our ideological guns” by party extremists from Left (Bernie and AOC) and Right (Cruz and McCarthy), the recent agreement on a massive, trillion-dollar “Infrastructure” bill suggests that the message is beginning to get through: the public wants realistic action, not verbal histrionics.

We can be sure that as such bipartisanship (or “moderate policy”, if you will) continues to succeed, the extremist voices will actually become louder in desperation – a self-immolating phenomenon that should only reinforce the vast Center’s revulsion, leading to more centrist candidates getting elected (as occurred a few of weeks ago in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primaries – and even more recently, in Ohio’s special Congressional election where Shontel Brown defeated Bernie Sanders-backed Nina Turner). In short, as the Hebrew expression goes: “the dogs bark but the parade passes them by”.

When we turn to Israel, the centrist picture comes into even greater focus, albeit in a different way. Because of the basic difference in the electoral system between the U.S. (winner-take-all presidential vote) and Israel (proportional representation of many parties, necessitating a coalition), the “center” in Israel today looks like the complete opposite of its American counterpart: a conglomeration of Right, Center, and Left – not only regarding “National Security” issues (the territories etc.) but also socio-economics (laissez-faire capitalism vs. social democracy) and even religion (secular Meretz and highly religious, Moslem RA’AM).

Israel has always had a strong Center, at times even constituting the “king-maker” (e.g., in 1977 Yigal Yadin’s DASH put the Likud into power for the first time), but this government is novel for Israel: never has there been such a wide array of parties across the political spectrum coming together to form a governing coalition. Indeed, strikingly the largest party (by far) in this coalition is the (right-in-the-middle) Centrist party Yesh Atid, quite aptly named for the present situation (“there is a future”).

And so far, what outwardly seems to be a motley crew of antithetical ideologies is proving to be workable: for the first time in three years (!) the Cabinet recently agreed on the country’s national budget. (It now goes to the Knesset for the usual political horse-trading, but by all accounts, it will pass before the Nov. 4 deadline.)

The unofficial name given to this coalition is “The Change Government”. That is taken as constituting a change from twelve years of Right-wing rule – true as far as it goes. However, the real “change” here is the (so-far successful) attempt to bring some bi-partisanship and civility to what was an overly vituperative, political dynamic throughout this past decade.

Of course, no one is a prophet about the future (at least no one for the past 2500 years), but here too the international signs are encouraging. Two examples should suffice to see which way the political winds are blowing in western democracies: Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party failed to win a single region in this past June’s French provincial elections; last year, Britain’s Labor Party removed its own far-Left leader Jeremy Corbin.

Will the swing back to political moderation last – in Israel and in the U.S.? Stay tuned with your finger on the Center button.

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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