Oh, For the Days of the Party Boss and the Back-Room Deal!

Haim Watzman

There was a membership meeting at shul Saturday night to discuss plans to finish our building’s unfinished basement. A well-meaning, socially-concerned member (true, those labels apply to pretty much everyone in Kehilat Yedidya ) suggested that democratic procedures required that we poll the entire community, asking each and every member whether they favor or oppose the proposal.

If you’ve ever been involved in synagogue governance, or served on a PTA board, or tried to run any other organization, no matter how mundane, you’ll know why I started turning red. You work together with other concerned members and, through a process of study and deliberation, weigh various options, compromise between opposing views, and put together the best plan you can. Then you bring it before the membership and everyone becomes a partisan and wants to go back to square one. If the meeting isn’t well-managed, all your work is for naught.

How anti-democratic of me! I’ve been accused of precisely such dictatorial tendencies on several occasions during my life. But my socially-concerned, democratically-committed fellow-Yedidyan was wrong. In properly-functioning democracies, not everyone gets to decide everything. And an overdose of public involvement can in fact subvert true democratic process. It’s just such a surfeit of democratic politics that has turned Israel into a nearly non-functioning democracy in recent years, and led to a situation where Israelis will be presented in February with a choice of notably mediocre candidates for its legislature.

Paul Starr’s review</a of Nancy Rosenblum’s book On the Side of the Angels: An appreciation of Parties and Partisanship in the last issue but one of The New Republic summarizes the problems with participatory democracy. When everyone decides everything—and this can be directly, through a referendum (a reform that has, thankfully, not reached Israel yet), or indirectly through such devices as primary elections—the public is polarized. Voters and candidates are pushed into taking black-and-white, yes-or-no positions on complex issues.

Yet the essence of representative democracy is compromise and the creation of consensus. A legislature is better at setting policy for a country than a poll of the citizenry is because opposing interests can be balanced and majorities created. For the same reason, a small committee can create a building plan, while an entire synagogue membership never can.

Kehilat Yedidya’s kitchen is tiny and members often ask why we made it so small. But the size of the kitchen, like so many other details, was the product of deliberation over how to allocate limited space to a large variety of needs. Presenting such an issue to the full membership would have polarized the community between proponents of a big kitchen and proponents of a larger multipurpose space; with 250 people involved in making the decision no deliberation and compromise would have been possible.

Israel needs institutions that promote deliberation and compromise and discourage grandstanding and polarization. We need to bring back the back-room deal and to reinstate party bosses. Today we don’t have democracy—we have chaos.

More: https://www.stopoverdoseil.org/

4 thoughts on “Oh, For the Days of the Party Boss and the Back-Room Deal!”

  1. Haim,

    I think I am gonna have to side with your friend on this one. It’s true that a referendum in and of itself can’t create consensus or induce different factions to compromise, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a referendum at the end of the process which generates the proposed policy, nor that such a process shouldn’t allow for direct polling of the members. In the US, arguably a more mature and stable democracy than we have here, major policy questions – bond issues, capital projects, taxation, and many other things – are regularly posed directly to the electorate after the proposals have been crafted by legislators, and the system works just fine. I don’t see why we can’t do the same here, and kal vachomer within a community or synagogue I think there needs to be an organized process to ask member’s opinions if not at every step of the way then at least at key points.

  2. The idea of representatives coming to a decision based on compromise over the merits of the case would be fine and submission of their decision to the full electorate not necessary – but for that curse of modern democracy: the lobbies with their ability to call forth election funding. The legislation that passes through the United States Congress is testimony to the power of lobbies to push through items that the electorate would kill – witness the farm bill and the energy bill.

    But for your relatively small group, I think you make your case.

  3. Amen! I live in Colorado, which is suffering, really suffering, from a surfeit of democracy. We had so many issues on the ballot on Election Day that, for the first time in my life, I voted by mail ahead of time. I was fearful, in this presidential year, that I’d have to wait in line forever until the people ahead of me completed their ballots.

    One of the gifts that our super-democracy has bestowed on the state of Colorado is a so-called Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which effectively forestalls revenue increases to the extent that the state is now near the bottom, with Missiissippi, in many measures of what states provide to their citizens.

    I’m all for the legislature deciding things. That’s what I pay its members for. This isn’t a copout. With Haim, I believe that my state representative and state senator, whom I voted for, have a better handle than I do on the complex issues facing the state, none of which can be resoved by yes or no answers. Democracy requires reconciling opposing interests and finding space for compromise. So there is no viable simple yes nor a simple no.

  4. Perhap’s working together we can find a cure for “overdose of public involvement”

    Choice Voting — The Optimal Proportional Representation Election Method

    Choice voting is a proportional representation system in which voters maximize their vote’s effectiveness by ranking candidates, and the threshold of support necessary to win is lower than in winner-take-all elections. Proportional representation systems are ones where as many voters as possible in a given constituency elect a preferred candidate. Choice voting (also known as “preference voting”, the “Hare system” and the “single transferable vote”) is the fairest method of proportional representation that can be used in non-partisan elections, and also has a well-established history in partisan elections. Choice voting effectively eliminates the spoiler problem, and can encourage coalition-building among minority groups and parties, as candidates benefit from being one another’s second choices.

    Approximately two dozen cities in the United States have used choice voting, mostly in the first half of the 20th century when it was highlighted in the model city charter of the National Municipal League. New York City used it for five city council elections during the era of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Cincinnati used it for council elections from 1925 to 1955. Others municipalities using choice voting included Cleveland, Sacramento (CA), Toledo (OH) and Worcester (MA). Generally adopted to reform “machine” governments, choice voting faced persistent and ultimately successful opposition, despite voters typically opposing initial repeal efforts. The need for hand-counts and the fact that it represented racial minorities well were the main political problems for choice voting in the United States in this era.

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