I’m trying something a little different in today’s newsletter. A big part of what I try to do is to look for insights that explain the patterns and trends in world events, in ways that go beyond any single news story. Reading this newsletter should help you understand not just the latest development, but the bigger picture.
But when new developments happen, it’s not always possible to write a whole column to connect the dots, creating a bit of a gap in the Interpreter’s explanatory mission.
So this week, instead of a “what I’m reading” list, I’m switching it around: I’ll run through a few of the week’s major stories, then briefly connect them to bigger ongoing themes.
The politics of protests in Israel
Mass demonstrations continued in Israel this week, as outrage grows over the right-wing government’s proposal to limit the power of the judiciary. In the early weeks of the protests, the government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed determined to press ahead with its plans. But now there are hints of a shift: Patrick Kingsley, The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, writes that a small group of lawmakers and academics are holding secret talks to find a compromise.
What explains the shift? For one possible explanation, check out Patrick’s article with Ronen Bergman about protests spreading to the Israeli military: Hundreds of soldiers in the reserves have signed letters expressing reluctance to participate in nonessential duties, or have already pulled out of training missions. Many are from the country’s most elite units, including the military intelligence division.
In January, I wrote about the power politics of protest and social change, drawing on research that showed social movements in countries like South Africa were most successful when they connected with a political constituency that had leverage over the government.
In Israel, the military is a tremendously powerful institution, culturally and politically as well as for security reasons. It’s easy to see how protests within its ranks could exert much more effective pressure on the government than mass street demonstrations alone.
Importantly, military officers are concerned that weakening the judiciary could leave them vulnerable to future prosecution if the lack of judicial oversight makes it more likely that they could be ordered to engage in illegal operations, and that it could also strengthen calls for Israelis to be tried by the International Criminal Court. Those concrete concerns about self-interest may be far more difficult for the government to defuse than if the protests were just motivated by ideology and political solidarity.
Elsewhere in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran announced today that they had reached a surprise agreement — brokered by China — that paves the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. That could be a setback for Israel, which had hoped to establish closer ties with Saudi Arabia to protect against threats from its archenemy, Iran; and also for the United States, which has long been the dominant superpower in the Middle East.
Immigration politics in Britain
In Britain this week, the government unveiled a controversial new bill that it claims will make it nearly impossible for people who arrive in small boats to successfully seek asylum. The risks for people with legitimate asylum claims are existential: refugees are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and this new bill would erect even greater barriers between them and safety. It’s not clear whether the proposed laws would be able to survive a legal challenge. But it’s the latest example of how the Conservative Party engages with the politics of immigration in Britain.
Last week, I wrote about how the salience of immigration has dropped significantly in Britain in the last few years. Since Britain left the European Union, it has become more difficult for politicians to whip up support by appealing to fears of uncontrolled borders.
Taking a hard, repressive stance on asylum seekers can be a way for the current government to tap into the same kind of fear-based politics that led to Brexit and helped the Conservatives win a large majority in the last election.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seems to be reaching back into the same playbook.
Why unions matter (for more than workers’ rights)
In today’s installment of The Morning, David Leonhardt writes about a political fight over labor unions in Michigan that could have much wider consequences.
David’s piece notes that strengthening unions might help the Democrats appeal more broadly to voters on economic issues. “Many working-class Americans hold progressive economic views while also being religious, patriotic and socially moderate,” he writes. “When a labor union talks to these voters about economic policy, they become more likely to vote for a Democrat. When they are not in a union, they may instead be swayed to vote Republican by their evangelical church or Fox News.”
Another way to think about it is that unions have historically been part of the infrastructure of the Democratic Party in the United States, serving as a kind of subcontractor of party functions like getting out the vote, distributing messaging and helping to select candidates for office. (For more on that, I recommend “When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History” by Daniel Schlozman.) When Republican officials have undermined or dismantled labor unions, they undermined the Democratic Party along with workers’ bargaining power.
The impact of that goes far beyond economic issues. As I discussed in my January column about social movements and protests, unions played a crucial role in forcing the Democratic Party to support civil rights, even though the party leadership resisted out of (entirely correct) fears that doing so would cause it to lose support in the South. As unions have weakened in recent decades, so has social movements’ ability to use them as a lever of change — which has ramifications for American politics that go far beyond just economic issues.