Netanyahu's multi-ethnic coalition proves that demography isn't destiny
Despite the breadth and intensity of the ongoing political protests in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu’s coalition — in possession of 64 of the seats in the 120-member Knesset — has the support of just over half the electorate.
And it draws on a diverse range of demographics, including ultra-Orthodox Haredim, West Bank settlers, and the Mizrahi and Ethiopian working class; the ‘left behinds’ of peripheral Israel. In fact, Israel is one country where the darker your skin colour, the more conservative your politics are likely to be.
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In fact, there are many nations around the world where conservative and authoritarian leaders came to power through harnessing the support of ethnically diverse, or entirely non-white, working- and lower middle-class voters.
These include Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro — where at one point a whole one-third of the former president’s party in Congress was non-white, a much higher proportion than that of Labour in the UK or the Democratic Party in the US. Other examples include Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and more recently Ron DeSantis in Florida. All have shown the potential of conservatives to mobilise a broad-based, multi-ethnic, working- and lower-middle class support.
It highlights a potential problem for Left-wing and liberal parties: demography is not destiny, and increasingly diverse societies will not by themselves produce increasingly liberal or redistributive policies.
We are seeing this with Hispanic voters in the US, and we may yet see it with black and Asian Britons: as the political scientists Rob Ford and Marie Sobolewska point out in their book Brexitland, the current support of most ethnic-minority Britons for the Labour Party is contingent and by no means permanent. It is easy to see the current alliance between ‘white identity liberals’ and ethnic minorities breaking down over the next few decades, with the potential result of the Left in both the UK and the United States becoming as isolated and impotent as it is in Israel.
The situation in Israel today therefore provides a salutary warning of a possible future for the Anglo-American Left: a multi-racial working and lower middle-class voting for conservative and populist politicians while a marginalised Left reliant on white postgraduates is shut out of political power. Because, while there is plenty of evidence that the general population is becoming more liberal on a host of issues, they will only catch up with the activist base of Left-wing parties if the latter do not themselves become ever more radical.
The case of Israel also tells us that this would not be helped by proportional representation, which far from guaranteeing that a ‘progressive alliance’ would dominate politics, might instead allow a small number of religiously devout voters to serve as kingmakers and exert a political influence vastly disproportionate to their numbers.
In a PR system, a UKIP/Brexit Party-style social conservative party might win 5-10% of the seats in Parliament. PR would presumably lead to the emergence of new parties, and hence the possibility of a ‘religious rights’ party opposed to abortion and LGBT rights winning a few seats — and potentially holding kingmaker power, forcing concessions from the Conservatives in exchange for their support.
To avoid the irrelevance of the Israeli Left, social democratic parties around the world would therefore do well to avoid divisive ‘culture war’ topics, and instead focus on the socio-economic issues that can consistently win support among a majority of the population.