The victory (maybe) of Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli election yesterday reveals the continuing power of tribalism in modern western politics. There can be little doubt that his appeals to fear and, most importantly, to racial hatred and racial solidarity swung enough voters to his side to increase the likelihood of him returning to the office of Prime Minister.
Americans are not unfamiliar with the power of race to impact their own politics, especially in the southern states. Hard right politicians frequently invoke code phrases – dog whistle politics – to fire up their more Neanderthal supporters. While few would actually say: get out and vote; the blacks are doing it in droves (the equivalent of Bibi’s election morning rant about Arabs) they have more subtle tactics.
However, there is another lesson to be learned by the Israeli vote. Netanyahu didn’t increase the right wing vote overall, merely shifted it around to ensure he got the most seats and therefore a stronger position to build a coalition of the right. This is a positive outcome for other democracies.
Despite the rise of ultra-right parties in Europe, few of them have managed to achieve sufficient momentum to actually make a difference to the formation of government. Shunned by those of the centre and left they are often relegated to the fringes of political life – frightening but not very dangerous. Maybe that’s why some of them are turning to Russia as an unlikely ally in their campaign to exert power over Europe.
In England and the United States, the ultra right have adopted different strategies to achieve their ends. Rather than focusing their wrath on parties of the left they initially concentrate on destroying the centre right. The Tea Party’s biggest victories in the United States have been against moderate Republicans. In many cases, after they have eviscerated the middle, they have gone on to lose to centrist Democrats. Not true in every case but often enough that one might conclude that in a modern society there is only so much space for hard right, racist parties. Once they occupy it, where do they go from there? Revolution?
In Canada we had a softer gentler version of the Tea Party called Reform. They managed – in part because of failures of moderate conservatives – to eventually take over and unify the right. This new more right wing party has so far shown itself to be nothing more than a minority voice, capable of taking power only because of the first past the post system and the continuing appeal of the more moderate wing in parts of the country. Despite forming a majority, they only garnered 39% of the vote and have seldom polled above 40% at any time in the last 10 years.
Now with their numbers hovering around 33% and sometimes dipping down to their hard base in the high twenties, the leadership is playing on fears of terrorism to try to motivate the base and scratch out another win. Even darker are the attacks on ‘brown people’s culture’ by the Prime Minister. One doubts the recent off the cuff racist remarks of conservative MPs are an accident in the tightly controlled caucus of Stephen Harper.
The only issue is whether the public and the electoral system can be skewed enough for them to achive a Netanyahu like victory.
And that’s a few more than ten minutes.