When Democracies Vote Wrong
from Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy and Democracy, Human Rights, and American Foreign Policy

When Democracies Vote Wrong

An Israeli man casting his ballot on the day of Israel's general election in a polling station in Rahat, Israel Amir Cohen/Reuters

December 19, 2022 4:56 pm (EST)

An Israeli man casting his ballot on the day of Israel's general election in a polling station in Rahat, Israel Amir Cohen/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

There was a joke told during the Cold War about the citizens of the Soviet Union. The Soviet line about human rights was that U.S. human rights and democracy policy constituted an unacceptable interference in its internal affairs. The joke was that “Soviet citizens are the only people in the world who are forbidden to intervene in their own internal affairs.”

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That line works for any dictatorship, where internal matters are resolved by force and by a tyrannical imposition of what rulers insist on rather than what the ruled wish for. It was long ago settled, in the West anyway, that human rights and democracy policy is not an unwarranted interference in self-rule—because it is an intervention in cases where self-rule does not exist, or is being used by a majority to destroy the rights of minorities. When democracy policy means promoting free elections, freedom of speech and of the press, and other human rights, foreign interventions are meant to establish self-rule in the target countries and to protect fundamental rights.

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This line of argument is persuasive in most or all cases of dictatorship, but what is the justification for foreign intervention when there are free elections and voters simply “vote wrong?” Many questions arise: How can governments justify pressing other nations for policy changes when those policies have been arrived at democratically? Is the case different if the appeal is not to foreign governments but to foreign pressure groups such as the nation’s diaspora around the world, whether that be a diaspora national group such as Indian Americans, Polish Americans, or Cuban Americans, or a religious group such as Jewish Americans? Is it more legitimate for the electoral losers to appeal for support to private citizens in foreign lands than to their governments?

If it is clear that voters have chosen to undermine democracy itself, norms of human rights policy may justify both private and official diplomatic intervention. If for example a majority in some country voted never again to hold an election, or to eliminate freedom of the press, one would expect democratic governments to voice criticism. But those are extreme hypotheticals, because they would affect irreducible minimal conditions for the preservation of democracy. We may be seeing such a case today in Mexico, where that nation’s popular president has persuaded its Congress to approve changes in the hitherto independent National Electoral Institute that may undermine the fairness of all future elections.

In many other cases, though, democracies may differ quite a bit in how they conduct their public affairs without bringing democracy itself into doubt. They may have a unicameral legislature, not the bicameral form familiar in the United States. They may demand secularism in public spaces and by public bodies in a way familiar to the French but that would be viewed as a violation of religious freedom by Americans. They may have a state religion and a national language. They may put restrictions of freedom of speech that would be unconstitutional in the United States, but are accepted as proper libel laws in the United Kingdom. The role of the top judicial body may look quite different than it does in the United States, as may the way in which judges are chosen.

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Such differences are reflections of national experiences and preferences, not obvious compromises of democracy—and entirely acceptable so long as they are democratically chosen. Accordingly, it is improper for those who seek changes in such internal arrangements in their own country to seek foreign pressure as the means of achieving them. The reformers must win over their fellow citizens, not try to substitute foreign pressure for internal political support.

These generalities come to mind now because of the case of Israel, where the Right has recently won a free election. There have been no complaints about the election per se, but many about the right-wing government that it produced. And along with those complaints have come appeals to American Jews and the United States government to jump in and press the new government of Israel on issue after issue.

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We have just noted the distinction between actions that genuinely threaten democracy and those that do not, with only the latter justifying foreign pressure as a matter of human rights policy. Now another distinction is useful: actions that foreign diaspora communities do not like, versus actions that directly affect their own interests. It is reasonable for foreign diaspora populations to jump in when their own direct interests are harmed. It is to be expected that a draft law that would, for example, deny or restore citizenship to anyone whose parents or grandparents were born in the “old country,” or would limit certain forms of land ownership exclusively to citizens who are residents of the country, would elicit diaspora reactions. In the Israel case, American Jews have certain direct interests that may be subject soon to new legislation. What will be the validity in Israel of conversions to Judaism conducted abroad by non-Orthodox rabbis? What is the definition of “Jew” for purposes of the “Law of Return” that allows such persons the right to settle in Israel?

There are two cases, then, where intervention is morally justifiable: when the change that is proposed changes directly assaults democracy, and when it directly assaults the interests of diaspora communities in their relationship with the country in question.

That leaves a large area of possible political change where it is inappropriate for domestic political actors—who have just lost a free election—to seek foreign support to resist the will of the majority. A fair example in the Israeli case is the selection of supreme court judges. In the United States justices are selected by the president and must then be confirmed by the Senate. In other words, the two political branches control the selection of judges for the judicial branch. In Israel, a nine-person panel selects supreme court judges. Two are cabinet ministers and two are Knesset (parliament) members, representing the elected branch of government, but the other five consist of three members of the supreme court and two members of the Bar Association. A majority of five, then, do not represent the voters, and because 7 votes are needed to be appointed, an appointment can be blocked by sitting judges or a combination of sitting judges and Bar Association members regardless of the votes of elected officials.

The new Israeli coalition says it will change this and does not want sitting judges to have such a large role in selecting their colleagues. This position may be right or wrong, but is certainly not “undemocratic” nor is it less democratic than the current Israeli system.

There are other examples, in the judicial field and elsewhere, raising again the issue of when what might be called “anti-democratic” foreign pressure is justifiable— “anti-democratic” in that those who seek the foreign pressure have lost an election and want their way nevertheless. Unless the fundamental democratic structures are at risk, such intervention cannot be justified. If for example the government of Romania sought to take away voting rights from the roughly 6 percent of the population that is Hungarian, India restricted suffrage to Hindus, or Israel took away the right to vote from Muslims, human rights policy would justify and indeed demand protests and pressures. But when what’s at stake are “mere” voter preferences for one policy over another, the protection of democracy requires acknowledging that the new majority has every right to go forward with policy changes the voters have just approved. Indeed, what theory of democracy would justify abandoning such steps because foreigners who do not vote do not like them, when election results indicate that citizens and voters do?

The case of Israel is complex because it has long depended on support (including especially military sales and assistance, and political support in the United Nations) from the United States—and within the United States from American Jewry. The recent Israeli election result has led some Israelis to wring their hands and tell American Jews that their intervention was now essential to saving Israeli democracy; I participated in a zoom call recently where a just-retired figure of real influence made that case directly to the Americans on the line. The election result has also led some American Jews to threaten they would withhold their own support, including the influential Abe Foxman, leader of the Anti-Defamation League from 1987 to 2015. Even before Israel’s new government had come to office, Foxman told The Jerusalem Post that “it is critical that this new government not do damage to relationships; not tamper with Israel’s democracy, its institutions, its legal systems, its civil rights of Arab minorities; not tamper with the Law of Return and the status of Christians and Muslims....” But if not, “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”

This is very broad language, and Foxman is here mixing all our categories: proposed changes that (in his view) directly undermine democracy, policies that he doesn’t like but would not seem to affect democratic structures, matters that directly affect the interests of Jews in the Diaspora, and matters that do not. That is what makes his language, and this case, so instructive. The lack of clear distinctions suggests that he is going beyond what is defensible as a matter of democratic theory, by seeking to oppose policies he doesn’t like and that have just been rejected by voters. Because Israel’s new government has not yet taken office as I write, its policy choices are not yet clear. What is clear is the utility of the Israeli case in clarifying important distinctions.

The responsibility to be true to majority voter preferences and avoid seeking support from foreign pressure lies in two places: on the losers and on the foreigners. Losers should be using democratic institutions to resist policies they think wrong, and should be making their best arguments and trying to win the next election. They should not be asking foreign governments and individuals to intervene in domestic affairs to overturn the results of democratic elections. And foreign governments, organizations, and individuals should be careful not to elevate their policy preferences over those of the voters in a true democracy. Of course they should explain and cajole, but demands should be out of place because they seek to defeat the results of democratic elections. It would be ironic indeed if human rights and democracy policy became a means for foreign governments and pressure groups to undermine democratic processes. Every election has winners and losers, but it would be grotesque to make democracy the loser whenever those without the right to vote dislike the results.

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