The 2020 elections pose a daunting question for Democrats – will they go with a progressive candidate or a moderate one? In helping to decide which way to turn it could be helpful for the Democrats to consider the history of the Israeli Labor Party, which faced a similar crossroads and took a direction which led to its demise.
But first, it is important to understand the Israeli democratic process. Firstly, the political system in Israel is a multiparty system. Secondly, the Israeli governmental system is a parliamentary republic, which means voters vote for parties to represent them in parliament where each party receives a number of parliament seats in proportion to their share of the total vote. Then, the leading party is required to form a governing coalition with other parties. Since there are 120 seats in the parliament, the leading party must create a coalition with other parties in the parliament of at least 61 seats. After that, all members of parliament vote to elect a prime minister (who is typically the leader of the largest party since his/her party has a majority). That is basically how leaders are elected in Israel and how the parliament is made up.
In the 1992 elections, there were two main parties who represented two opposing camps and points of view. One was the Labor party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, which represented the progressive, left-wing camp in the country. The other was the Likud party, led by Yitzhak Shamir, which represented the extreme right-wing, conservative and nationalist camp in the country. In the elections, the Labor party won, gaining 44 seats in parliament (which is actually an abnormally high number, leading parties normally get between 27-35 seats at most). They completely blew out the Likud party, which only gained 32 seats (again, it’s a lot but a 12 seat difference between the two leading parties is extremely rare and impressive; in fact, the party that came in third had only 12 seats).
However, in the next elections, in 1996, something changed. The Labor party, under new leadership, lost 10 seats from the previous elections. The Likud party, under Netanyahu now, remained with the same 32 seats. What happened you ask? When Netanyahu became the Likud party’s leader, he introduced many new extremist and very right-wing, conservative, and nationalist policies. In order to understand why that is important, you have to understand a term in political science called the Overton window. On the political spectrum, there is the left-wing and the right-wing. Left being more progressive, while right being more conservative. The Overton window is where the ‘moderates’ or the ‘centrists’ are located. It is the range of ideas and policies that are accepted by a vast majority of the population.
The reason I am mentioning this term is because this window can shift. If a certain party or candidate pushes further to either end of the spectrum the window will shift that way. What happened in the 1996 Israeli elections is that Netanyahu, by introducing extremely hateful, racist, and inflammatory policies and ideas into the mainstream, shifted the window to the right. What was considered right-wing policies became centrist/moderate policies, such as the idea of annexing the West Bank and treating Palestinian citizens of Israel (such as myself) as second-class citizens. In response, the Labor party began to also shift to the right, in order to be, as they believed, more relevant. What ended up happening over the years was that, at first, the Labor party became a more centrist party, abandoning some of their progressive policies in order to “stay relevant”. Meanwhile, Netanyahu continued to push farther right and to greater extremes, pushing the Overton window into entirely right-wing territory. In response, the Labor party continued to drift rightward. The result was quite simple. Supporters of the Labor party began to migrate to the Likud party as both were now firmly right-wing parties.
This development led to the far-right Likud party absorbing much of the Labor vote. The Labor party, in choosing to nominate more moderate leaders in order to “unify” the country and appeal to more voters, simply ended up becoming irrelevant.
Since that election in 1996 the Labor party has been on a continuous decline in the polls, no longer becoming a top tier party. Keep in mind that for over 50 years, the Labor party was firmly in control of the government, winning many elections both nationally and locally. Now, it has completely collapsed due to its belief that being more moderate will allow them to win, when in fact the opposite is true. In yesterday’s Israeli election, a small coalition of center-left parties that included the Labor party is estimated to have won only 7 seats! They went from controlling a third of the entire parliament and being the largest party by a mile, to being one of the smallest parties in the parliament with only 5.5% of voters supporting them.
Now, what should they have done so as not to collapse you may ask? The answer is very simple. They should have put their foot down and refused to drift to the right. This means not abandoning their progressive platform by continuing to run as a progressive, left-wing party. Moreover, in order to counter the Likud party extreme push to the right, they should have put forth candidates and policy proposals that stayed firmly in the progressive platform, or even put forth a more progressive and left-wing agenda, in order to prevent the Overton window from shifting; thus, preventing the collapse of the progressive camp and the domination of far-right conservatism.
Returning to the American elections, if the Democratic party nominates anyone aside from Bernie Sanders, it is possible we will see a similar collapse within in the coming decade as its voters will drift into the Republican party, allowing them to consolidate their power. Trump, like Netanyahu, has been pushing a more and more extreme, right-wing, and conservative agenda. Democrats like Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and even at times Elizabeth Warren have said that being moderates or ‘not too left-wing’ will allow them to connect with all voters, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.
If the Democratic party nominates a moderate, it will not only lose the election, but it will also find itself rendered irrelevant in future elections.