Using Israeli elections to understand how people make sense of democracy around the world

Using Israeli elections to understand how people make sense of democracy around the world

The Y&S Nazarian Center supported Liron Lavi's doctoral research while she was a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University. Now Dr. Lavi returns to UCLA as a Research Fellow to pursue her investigation into how societies try to make sense of elections in Israel and across the globe.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, September 25, 2017 - Stories and how they help individuals make sense of their environment don’t seem like the typical areas of interest for a political scientist. But these themes are at the heart of Liron Lavi’s approach to understanding politics.

The former Visiting Graduate Researcher at the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies recently completed her PhD at Tel Aviv University, where her work focused on elections and democracy in Israel. However, her current projects look beyond her home country

One avenue of her current research focuses on the drastic shifts in narratives following the surprising results of the 2015 Israeli elections, which saw Benjamin Netanyahu defy numerous predictions by remaining in power as Prime Minister. But the other examines the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which also left many stunned.

Though both the US and Israel have very different electoral systems, Lavi is using the same theoretical model she developed in her dissertation to analyze elections in the two distinct democracies and understand the similarities in how Americans and Israelis make sense of their political environment.

“Being at UCLA has helped me explore the applicability of my construct for the United States,” she adds. “If it works here, then I can begin to look further for even more case studies to test my theory.”

A Political Upbringing

Though Lavi is expanding her research beyond Israel, her interest in politics is rooted in her experience growing up in the country. In Israel, politics wasn’t something abstract or remote for Lavi. Living in the contested Golan Heights, she learned at a young age that political decisions can have significant implications - even for people seemingly far removed from the centers of power.

Lavi and her family moved to the Golan Heights when she was six. At the time, negotiations were being held that included discussions about the future of the region. There were constant reminders of the importance of political processes. Lavi was confronted on a daily basis with people trying to make sense of the tenuous political environment.

“Because of the uncertainty of the political context, everything became infused with political meaning,” Lavi explains. “I remember even when roads were built, people would joke and talk about how we were building streets for the Syrians.”

This deep connection to politics was further fueled by Lavi’s parents who were “always listening to political shows on the radio.”

Path to Political Science

But when she finished her mandatory military service and enrolled at Tel Aviv University, her first instinct wasn’t to study political science despite her experiences growing up.

“When I first started my BA, I actually wanted to be a psychologist,” Lavi says. “But I also decided to take a few political science courses and I had some truly inspiring professors. They got me to look differently at the politics around me and that put me on a very different course.”

Lavi completed her BA with a double major in Psychology and Political Science in 2008 and decided to continue her political science studies at the master’s level at Tel Aviv University. However, her psychology studies have played a critical role in her political science career.

“My studies in psychology have had a very important influence on my work,” Lavi underlines. “For my master’s degree, I investigated the roles that feelings of belonging and identity play in politics and today, I’m interested in the process of creating narratives, all of which have psychological aspects.”

Making Sense of Elections

While at UCLA in the Fall of 2016, Lavi submitted her dissertation for her Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University. The focus of her research was and continues to be: Israeli elections; the stories people tell about elections, their results and their consequences; and those stories’ roles in helping voters understand these exercises in democracy.

In her dissertation, Lavi specifically studied the role of time in elections. Developing a theoretical model and exploring it in eleven of the 21 elections in Israel, she sought to understand how people bring up past events and predict the future when trying to make sense of elections. Such storytelling of past, present, and future, Lavi showed, has an important role in democracy and its legitimacy.

“People are always telling stories about how they got where they are and where they will go,” Lavi explains. “This is particularly true when it comes to making sense of elections, when voters are looking back at past elections and looking forward to see what they believe the future will look like in their aftermath.”

Beyond Israel

Though Lavi’s dissertation focused on Israel and sought to understand the narratives surrounding Israeli elections, her goal is not only to investigate the democratic process in her home country, but also to establish means for interpreting elections in countries around the world.

Her current project examining the 2016 U.S. Presidential election uses data from Twitter, print media and transcripts from Fox and CNN’s reporting on the election to test whether the theoretical concept she developed based on Israeli elections can also work in the US – and beyond.

“Israel was my case study,” Lavi explains. “But what I’m really trying to do is further develop a theoretical concept that can be applied if not universally, at least to other countries with similar democratic institutions.”