Which Democracy?

By 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.

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One response to “Which Democracy?

  1. 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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