Is Democracy In Decline? – OpEd


The world needs lots of thinking about the health of democracy, which has declined significantly in many nations over the past several years.

Solid majorities in each of the 24 countries surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2023 describe representative democracy, or a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law, as a somewhat or very good way to govern their country. However, enthusiasm has slipped in many nations since 2017. 

In the countries included in the study: a median of 59% are dissatisfied with how their democracy is functioning, 74% think elected officials don’t care what people like them think, and 42% say no political party in their country represents their views.

Support for a “strong leader” who can make decisions without court or legislative interference increased since 2017 in eight of the surveyed countries. These included Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Kenya and Argentina. In a recent Gallup survey, 28% of Americans named immigration as their top concern, over every other topic, including the economy and inflation.

Some of the world’s democracies may prepare for an Armageddon year, with elections scheduled in more than 50 nations that represent half the world’s population: that includes Indian and Israeli elections this spring, European Union-wide elections in June and the November presidential election in the United States. 

Iran held a parliamentary election on March 1, 2024. The vote will be the first test of public opinion after anti-government protests in 2022-23 turned into the worst political turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Polling closed in Iran’s parliamentary elections with officials claiming the nationwide turnout was a record low of 40.6%. After 10 hours of voting, turnout had stood at only 27%, and in Tehran it was just 12% after eight hours, before the polls were unexpectedly kept open for an extra two hours.

Watchdogs warn that this year’s elections on June 2 could be Mexico’s most violent on record.

A poll for Reuters News Service reported (May 2, 2012) that “nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime. The ten percent who thought the world would end on 12/21/12 were clearly wrong; as were the people who thought the Year 2000 computer problem would lead to world wild chaos or the second coming of Jesus. 

But why do some people keep fearing the end of the world? “Whether they think it will come to an end through the hands of God, or a natural disaster or a political event, whatever the reason, one in seven thinks the end of the world is coming,” said Keren Gottfried, research manager at Ipsos Global Public Affairs which conducted the poll for Reuters. 

Responses to the international poll of 16,262 people in more than 20 countries varied widely. Only six percent of French and eight percent of Great Britain residents believe in an impending Armageddon in their lifetime, compared to a high of 22 percent in Muslim Turkey, and Christian United States; and slightly less in South Africa and Argentina. 

Gottfried also said that people under 35 years old, were more likely to believe in a judgement day during their lifetime, or have anxiety over the prospect. 

It is true that human society world wide changed more rapidly, violently and fundamentally in the last 120 years than in any other period. 

Doctors saved the lives of millions. Dictators sacrificed the lives of millions. Populations are exploding in Africa and birthrates are declining in Europe. Technology produces both worldwide prosperity and pollution at the same time.  And antibiotic resistance is a significant and growing medical problem worldwide.

Should we look upon the first century of the third millennium with optimistic hope or with fatalistic trepidation?  

Is the world and our society heading towards a wonder-filled new age, or toward a doomsday? Or are both occurring almost concurrently because breakdown is always a prelude to breakthrough?

The long tradition of trying to foresee the eventual goal of human history started with the Prophets of Israel over 2,700 years ago. The Biblical vision of a Messianic Age may provide us with guidance in understanding the social, economic, scientific and cultural upheavals that will sweep society as it approaches the next stage. 

Often, it is the dramatic dangers of the pre-Messianic tribulation that are emphasized by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars and teachers.  I will focus on the positive signs developing throughout the world that accord with the hopeful Messianic visions of the Biblical Prophets.
In many religious traditions, redemption is defined in terms of individual enlightenment or personal salvation.  

However, the Prophets of ancient Israel conceived redemption as a transformation of human society that would occur through the influence of the teachings of future prophets, like Jesus and Muhammad, and the catalyst of a transformation of the Jewish people. 

This transformation, which will take place in this world at some future time, is called the Messianic Age. The transition to the Messianic Age is called the birth pangs of the Messiah. 
The birth of a redeemed Messianic world may be the result of an easy or difficult labor.  If everyone would simply live according to the moral teachings of his or her religious tradition, we would ourselves bring about the Messianic Age. 

But, if we will not do it voluntarily, it will come through social and political upheavals, worldwide conflicts and generation gaps. 

Prophets are sent to every nation to issue a warning that their behavior has consequences, and these consequences must be faced on Judgement Day. As the Qur’an states, “Accountability for mankind is getting closer and closer, yet they are heedless and turn away.” (Al-Anbiya 1 and Al-Qamar 1-8)  God of course, is always ready to help us defeat evil, if we are ready to work for the establishment of a just and peaceful local and world society; that is why a Messiah will come. 

The Messiah refers to an agent of God who helps bring about this transformation. This agent of God (with several forerunners and many disciples) will be a human being with great leadership qualities; similar to Moses or Mohammed.  The arrival of the Messianic Age is what’s really important, not the personality of the agents who bring it about, since they are simply the instruments of God, who ultimately is the real Redeemer.  

The Messianic Age is usually seen as the solution to all of humanity’s basic problems.  This may be true in the long run but the vast changes the transition to the Messianic Age entails, will provide challenges to society for many generations to come. For example, the Prophet Isaiah, 2700 years ago, predicted that someday there would be a radically new world in which Jerusalem would be fulfilled with joy for “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives only a few days.” (65:20)  

Before the mid 19th century the annual death rate for humans was  between 30 and over 50 deaths per 1,000 individuals. A century ago, the infant mortality rate in Jerusalem (as in most of the world) was 25-30%.  Now it is less than 1%. For thousands of years almost every family in the world suffered the loss of at least one or two infants; now it happens to less than one out of a hundred.

The improvements in human health are unprecedented in human history.  Truly we are close to Isaiah’s prophecy, “One who dies at 100 years shall be reckoned a youth, and one who fails to reach 100 shall be reckoned accursed.” (65:20). Such radical change will necessitate major changes in the way we think and act when faced with decisions about life and death.  Yet who among us would want to return to the high mortality rates and early deaths of previous centuries? 

The fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy has thus gone unnoticed and uncelebrated.  But even when the events are rapid and dramatic, people rarely connect them to their Messianic significance for very long.  

The amazing 1991 covert rescue of 14,325 Ethiopian Jews in an airlift lasting less than 48 hours stirred and inspired people for a few weeks. Subsequently, the difficult problems the newcomers faced (similar to those of the 900,000 recent Soviet immigrants) occupied the Jewish media.  Now both have long been taken for granted.  The miracle has become routine. 

But if you had told the Jews of Ethiopia a generation ago that they would someday all fly to Israel in a giant silver bird, they could only conceive of this as a Messianic miracle.  If you had told Soviet Jews a generation ago that the Communist regime would collapse, the Soviet Empire disintegrate, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews would emigrate to Israel, they would have conceived it only as a Messianic dream.  

In our own generation therefore we have seen the dramatic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “I will bring your offspring from the (Middle) East and gather you from the (European) West.  To the North (Russia) I will say ‘give them up’ and to the South (Ethiopia) ‘do not hold them’.  Bring my sons from far away, my daughters from the end of the earth.” (43:5-6) 

Isn’t it amazing how people adjust to living in a radically new world and forget the past. Indeed, Prophet Isaiah himself said, “Behold, I create a new Heaven and a new Earth, and former things shall not be remembered.” (65:17)

Where does the Messiah fit in with all of this?  He will still have lots to do when he arrives. Most Orthodox Jews would not commit themselves to any individual as a Messiah unless he successfully rebuilds the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of Zachariah, “He shall build the Temple of the Lord, and he shall bear the glory, he shall sit on the throne and rule, there shall be a priest before the throne, and peaceful counsel will exist between both of them.”  (6:13)  

Now that a large part of the Jewish people have returned to the Land of  Israel, and resurrected a Jewish State, one might think that rebuilding a temple of the site where Solomon originally built one almost 3,000 years ago, would be relatively simple.  And it would, except for the fact that a Muslim Shrine presently occupies the site called; The Dome of the Rock. 

Often erroneously called the Mosque of Omar, it is not a mosque and it was not built by Omar. It was built in 691 by Abd-Al-Malik and it is regarded by Muslims as the third holiest site in the world.  Any attempt to replace the Dome of the Rock would provoke a Muslim Holy War of cataclysmic proportions.  

There is, however, a lot of vacant land on the Temple Mount, and a Jewish house of worship could be built adjacent to the Dome of the Rock provided the Muslims would cooperate. Most observers agree that anyone who could arrange such Jewish-Muslim cooperation would really be the Messianic Ruler of Peace (Isaiah 9:5)  

Christian support for such a cooperative venture would also be important, and anyone who can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in mutual respect and cooperation would surely fulfill the greatest of all Messianic predictions, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war.”  (Isaiah 2:4)  

Indeed, such Jewish/Christian/Muslim cooperation would not be possible without great spiritual leadership in all three communities. Thus, each community could consider its leadership to be aids of the Messiah, and this would fulfill the culminating verses of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy as enlarged upon by Micah (4:3-5), “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives. Nation shall not take up swords against nation, they shall never again teach war, but every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him, for it is the Lord of Hosts who spoke.  Though all peoples walk each in the name of its God, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.”  

If every person truly followed the best of his or her own religious teachings, the Messiah will surely have arrived, and God’s Kingdom will be established

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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