World politics in the age of deceptively easy answers

Why We Wrote This

The idea that solutions to the complex problems facing democracies may require time often doesn't resonate. That’s boosting an appetite for “quick fixes.”  

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump meet the media at the White House in Washington, March 25.

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In an age of Instagram and Snapchat, citizens often have little patience for nuanced or sophisticated answers. Democracies, in particular, struggle to get past the quick fix – even if it ignores problems down the road for voters. In times of economic inequality and erosion of trust in “governing elites,” nuanced answers often seem no match for the siren song of simple solutions, especially when they locate the root of all troubles in an external threat.

Take Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning for reelection. Even some left-of-center citizens are choosing to set aside his opponents’ warnings that his aim of unilaterally asserting a long-term hold on disputed territories would be a recipe for trouble. For now, the simpler message is winning out.

Or Brexit. Some polls suggest support for the simplest and most radical option, a “no-deal” departure from the European Union, even though its champions acknowledge it risks serious economic dislocation. Still, the political haggling may be, in fact, reducing apathy. One poll suggests a majority of the mostly young voters who didn’t vote in the 2016 referendum would now vote to stay in the EU if given another opportunity.

One day, we may look back at this time of anger and instability in world politics as the age of deceptively easy answers. But judging from identity crises gripping two important democracies – in Europe and the Middle East – it may be with us for some time yet.

The key question isn’t why the promise of political panaceas has become so alluring. What matters most, if we’re to understand the staying power of this trend, is the inability of time-honored institutions and traditions of democratic government to do much about it.

It’s not for lack of trying. Legislators, opposition leaders, media commentators, and other political voices have responded with a message broadly similar from country to country: government is complicated; promised panaceas ignore problems down the road that will impact seriously on our day-to-day lives and livelihoods. But at a time of economic dislocation and widespread erosion of trust in so-called governing elites, that message often seems no match for the siren song of simple solutions, especially when they locate the root of all troubles in an external threat or enemy.

That certainly seems true in Britain, where a thousand-day effort to convert one such glittering offer – a Brexit withdrawal from decades-long membership in what’s portrayed as a distant and controlling European Union – has descended into chaos.

Will Prime Minister Theresa May manage to get her own compromise formula through Parliament on the third attempt? Will she survive as PM? Will some alternative Brexit plan win a parliamentary majority? For those not living through it, there will no doubt be a dark fascination with the ordeal in the days ahead.

But more telling may be Ms. May’s address to the nation last week, in which she rounded on members of Parliament and set herself up as the people’s champion, determined to keep the MPs from somehow betraying the result of the 2016 referendum that decided, however narrowly, in favor of getting out of the EU.

Parliamentarians from all parties denounced her performance. Still, some recent polling has suggested growing support for the simplest and most radical option, even though its own political champions have acknowledged it risks serious economic pain and dislocation: a “no-deal” Brexit. Simply walking out the door.

That impulse – the hallmark of the age of deceptively easy answers – also seems in play in Israel, where four-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning for reelection on April 9. The vision he has offered is not just a muscular focus on his country’s undoubted security challenges. His main center-left rival, Israeli Defense Forces former chief of staff Benny Gantz, has also been talking tough on defense.

The real promise being held out by Mr. Netanyahu and his allies further to the right has been the idea of unilaterally asserting Israel’s long-term hold on the disputed holy city of Jerusalem, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights – in effect removing from the table even the theoretical notion of future peace deals involving the return of territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Will Netanyahu win another term? That remains to be seen. But as with the Brexit polling, what struck me on a recent visit to Israel wasn’t the extent of support from those ideologically committed to a “Greater Israel” vision. It was that even some people in left-of-center political strongholds seemed drawn to Mr. Netanyahu’s pitch.

They told me: Look, we live in a tough neighborhood; the White House has Mr. Netanyahu’s back. Yes, they had heard – and even accepted – opponents’ warnings that permanent control over the West Bank, home to some 3 million Palestinians, would be a recipe for trouble. Demographic trends alone could force Israel to choose between being a Jewish state and a truly democratic one. But that was in the future. For now, it appeared, the simpler message won out. 

Interestingly, the Brexit conundrum does suggest how, over time, the pendulum might yet swing back, with younger people disproportionately alarmed at the real-life costs that have become clearer during the Brexit debate. One recent poll suggested a majority of the mostly young voters who didn’t take part in the 2016 referendum would turn out, if a second one were held, and back staying in the EU.

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