Which Democracy?

By Dr Jan Eichhorn 

A com­men­tary on the speech by the Ger­man Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or, Hans-Peter Friedrich, at the Con­gress of the Fed­er­al Insti­tute for Polit­i­cal Edu­ca­tion (bpb) 21st May 2012

At the open­ing of the 60th anniver­sary con­gress of the bpb titled “Strength­en­ing Democ­ra­cy – Fos­ter­ing Civ­il Soci­ety”, with more than 900 par­tic­i­pants, the Ger­man Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or spoke about the role of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in Ger­many. It was not sur­pris­ing that he attrib­uted great impor­tance to par­tic­i­pa­tion, pro­claim­ing the goal to “excite peo­ple about democ­ra­cy.” It was sur­pris­ing – in a dis­com­fort­ing way – how one-dimen­sion­al the under­stand­ing of Hans-Peter Friedrich regard­ing polit­i­cal engage­ment was, however.

At first sight, it sounds plau­si­ble and agree­able when the Fed­er­al Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or says that we need to “cre­ate trust in democ­ra­cy.” But it becomes prob­lem­at­ic when one con­sid­ers that democ­ra­cy does not mean the same for every­one, while Friedrich pre­sent­ed a sin­gu­lar, uni­ver­sal­ly applic­a­ble per­spec­tive. He sup­port­ed the rel­e­vance of the top­ic by describ­ing that polit­i­cal par­ties had prob­lems to find enough peo­ple who are will­ing to be engaged in region­al pol­i­tics, for exam­ple in local coun­cils. He demand­ed there­fore that con­gress­es like this one should cre­ate momen­tum for calls to peo­ple to be active­ly involved more strong­ly in the (par­ty-) polit­i­cal struc­tures of their envi­ron­ment again.

The min­is­ter did not spend any time to ques­tion why peo­ple did not want to be as exten­sive­ly engaged in polit­i­cal par­ties. There was no space for crit­i­cal reflec­tions about what par­ties failed to achieve. Par­tic­i­pa­tion was restrict­ed to engage­ment in the rep­re­sen­ta­tive, pro­fes­sion­al polit­i­cal busi­ness of par­ties and par­lia­ments. Con­sid­er­ing that there were hun­dreds of peo­ple in the audi­ence who prac­tice, research or teach a mul­ti­tude of forms of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion that reach beyond tra­di­tion­al ways of engage­ment, this was close to an out­right affront – which also caused some unrest in the audi­ence, which was voiced lat­er dur­ing the pan­el discussion.

The min­is­ter men­tioned oth­er forms of par­tic­i­pa­tion, but clear­ly posi­tioned them at a low­er place in the hier­ar­chy. A may­or would take on ‘real’ respon­si­bil­i­ty, while the head of a cit­i­zens’ ini­tia­tive would sim­ply just organ­ise protest – with­out accept­ing any soci­etal respon­si­bil­i­ty. Hear­ing state­ments like this makes it non-sur­pris­ing that we often find a dis­course of a per­ceived dis­tance between peo­ple inside and out­side the pro­fes­sion­al polit­i­cal process. While the impact of cit­i­zens’ ini­tia­tives, local groups and oth­er organ­i­sa­tions rep­re­sents real engage­ment for many peo­ple, bring­ing them vis­i­ble results, the influ­ence on polit­i­cal par­ties as chan­nels for deci­sion mak­ing appears rather limited.

When the Ger­man Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or val­ues oth­er forms of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, out­side of the pro­fes­sion­al polit­i­cal world in which he acts, so much low­er, then this shows clear­ly that obvi­ous­ly he has inter­nalised an under­stand­ing of democ­ra­cy which has lit­tle to do with the real­i­ty and under­stand­ing of par­tic­i­pa­tion of many cit­i­zens. It is an out­dat­ed, one-sided under­stand­ing. Pro­fes­sion­al, par­ty-polit­i­cal work and oth­er, less cen­tralised forms of par­tic­i­pa­tion do not nec­es­sar­i­ly form oppo­sites to each oth­er. A min­is­ter of the Ger­man fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should recog­nise how the two could com­ple­ment each oth­er remark­ably well. There were many good exam­ples to see at the bpb con­gress. These exam­ples should become nor­mal stan­dard through which we could active­ly widen the under­stand­ing of democ­ra­cy and par­tic­i­pa­tion and sub­se­quent­ly also improve the prac­tice thereof.

Dr Jan Eich­horn is a part­ner at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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    I agree. It is both wrong and obliv­i­ous to insist mere­ly on tra­di­tion­al forms of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion (most­ly: par­ties), as Min­is­ter Friedrich seems to do.
    It is wrong, because we have know that the real exist­ing lib­er­al democ­ra­cies, and espe­cial­ly their plu­ral­ist aspects, dis­play grave, sys­tem­at­ic dys­func­tions (veto play­ing, non-atti­tudes, col­lec­tive action problems …).
    It is obliv­i­ous because a lot of peo­ple have already turned their backs on par­ty pol­i­tics, and for good rea­sons. Par­ties often no longer offer an appro­pri­ate insti­tu­tion for many will­ing to participate.
    How­ev­er — and here’s the catch — I some­what share Mr Friedrichs sen­ti­ment about the “real respon­si­bil­i­ties” of demo­c­ra­t­ic office, that set for­mal par­tic­i­pa­tion far apart from oth­er, loos­er, new­er forms. May­ors, ide­al­ly, con­sid­er a com­mon good and they *have* to engage the (some­times unat­trac­tive) abstrac­tions that gov­ern our com­plex world.
    The set of abstrac­tions I under­stand best is tax, and so I’ll use that as an exam­ple to illus­trate. There is, to my knowl­edge, no non-tra­di­tion­al par­tic­i­pa­tion that seri­ous­ly talks about tax reform (to be fair, estab­lished par­ties don’t seem to under­stand it too well, either). But these abstrac­tions (for exam­ple: should we tax income or con­sump­tion?) *have* to be con­sid­ered and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly ruled upon, they are the stuff that makes up a social contract.
    I don’t mind the Parkschützer, Wut­bürg­er, envi­ron­men­tal activists and civ­il soci­ety peo­ple. They’re a wel­come addi­tion. But, under­stand­ably, they will not get into the too messy, too com­plex, too big stuff.
    Only tru­ly repub­li­can, and nec­es­sar­i­ly some­what for­mal (because it’s soo dif­fi­cult) insti­tu­tions can do that. And I agree that the exist­ing plu­ral­ist insti­tu­tions aren’t doing the job. So we should invent new, bet­ter insti­tu­tions (delib­er­a­tion?).
    So I would have liked Mr Friedrich to say:
    Yeah, sure we’re open to all kinds of par­tic­i­pa­tion. Any par­tic­i­pa­tion is bet­ter than none. But what we *real­ly* des­per­ate­ly need is new repub­li­can insti­tu­tions. And yeah, these are hard work, and maybe they’re hard­er, less attrac­tive work than join­ing yet anoth­er, sin­gle-issue, small-scale, plu­ral­ist organization.

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