There you go! Democracy in diversity is back!

12 October 2021
Berlin - © Markus Winkler/Unsplash Markus Spiske

In the midst of a pandemic, a climate crisis, a misanthropic migration policy and after a world financial crisis, a disastrous Brexit and an Afghan tragedy, Germany stumbles with its eyes wide open... into a strengthened parliamentary democracy and follows... Italy, of all places. Parliamentary democracy – a reborn role model for Europe?

A new federal government is still a long way off and, of course, the whole of Europe must be hoping that the coalition partners will soon come to an agreement. But nevertheless, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is right: a "fine lesson in democracy" is taking place in Germany right now - in a still "highly endangered Europe".

An aggressive authoritarian populism has been rampant on the old continent, not just since Berlusconi. Diplomats, think-tankers, commentators, civil servants, many decision-makers and even certain academics have long feared the supposed end of old party democracy and the Western model of democracy. So much so that decision-makers and executives have almost capitulated and are also losing themselves in populist promises of salvation. They look down on the people and want to "pick them up" and educate them with facts. By doing so they seek refuge in populism whilst talking down classical parties, associations, parliaments and creating new citizens' movements, inventing lottocratic citizens' councils (Jan-Werner Müller) or talking airily about "civil society", concealing who they are describing and, above all, excluding.

I will never forget the day when, after the success of "République En Marche" and the election of Emmanuel Macron, a delegation of extremely intelligent Parisians and German Macron fans sat in my office to try and convince me that it was now Italy's turn to destroy the already weak party system in France. What's more, Germany’s democracy was also supposedly doomed to fail: that's why the disintegrating German party landscape needed an "En Marche Deutschland". Parliamentary democracy was said to (finally) come to an end in Central Europe as well. I will also not forget the day of Brexit. It was finally then, that I realised English democracy had long since lost its exemplary function - shallow technocratic "better regulation" and pure imperial nationalism gutted a once proudly differentiated democracy.

And now this strange German federal election, in which many small parties increased their electorate and all the former people's parties shrunk. The election has also weakened the extreme fringes. The anti-democratic right has been trimmed down, and only pro-European parties are likely to form the next federal government.

Now the hour of German parliamentary democracy begins: building consensus with patience and respect. Of course, Italy has a different culture, but what has currently come together successfully to implement European reform requirements under "Mr. Europe" Mario Draghi would not have been possible in Rome without parliamentarism either. It is good that Berlusconi’s dream of a presidential dictatorship with a “bipolarismo” two-party system never came true.

There are only three presidential democracies in Europe that function according to the Tocquevillian word of the "dictatorship of the majority": Russia, Turkey and France, albeit the latter is still on a liberal level. But even Great Britain, which is actually oriented towards parliamentarism, has simplified its democracy. In UK, with the help of majority voting aka "the winner takes it all", the prime minister became too powerful.

There are good reasons for simplification in politics. Above all, it was the often-understandable exasperation with old corporatist structures, which was undoubtedly partly responsible for the mismanagement or even corruption in many Western European countries and thus for crises, not only in Italy.

But the answers given by the spin doctors and the elites since the 80s with populist simplifications were in large parts exaggerated. Rousseau's ideal society was not that of Athens but rather Sparta (Pankaj Mishra). And there are many followers of Rousseau, even in the fascist and socialist extremes. But there is a paradox: the contempt of the elites is promoted by themselves, by putting themselves at the forefront of populism and increasingly despising democratic pluralism. The contempt for self-reliant democratic clubmen (all of us) and the "chatterbox parliament" (Wilhelm II) has the same origin and is shared by elites and populists alike. In this sense, Jan-Werner Müller is right when he names not only populists but also technocrats as the enemies of pluralism.

And now Germany where the exploratory talks are already taking place with a high degree of sensitivity. The politicians of the parties come from the most diverse of milieus in terms of content and are endowed with a great deal of sensitivity. They respectfully call each other democrats. They have practised this in the most diverse governments of the 16 Länder and in the Bundesrat. It is not a coincidence. It is not a zeitgeist. It is the DNA of the German Basic Law. There will be a result and it will reflect the diversity of social interests in compromises. And of course, there will finally be a strong democratic opposition that marginalises the authoritarian nationalists.

Liberal democracy is not doomed. Loosely following Giovanni Sartori, we must resist simplicity and dare to have more complexity and path dependence. Sartori is also right: our pluralistic democracy must still be explicable. But why should we declare the competition of the best ideas and the sustainably successful compromise as the ideal? Should we learn to fall in love with it? Why not proudly call ourselves democrats again when we compete for the best results? If the people of Europe love democratic competition again, they will become more immune to the contempt for democracy fomented by a few. And Europeans could proudly distance themselves from the authoritarian regimes in the world. So let's move closer together in the competition. Courage!

Bernd Hüttemann

Bernd Hüttemann is the secretary general of the European Movement Germany.


Hüttemann, B. There you go! Democracy in diversity is back!

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