For quite some time now democracy is subject to numerous attacks. The French and Dutch referenda regarding the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005, the Greek referendum on the EU measures in 2015, the handling of election results like the recent US presidential election – there are political forces which did and do not want to accept all this and did and do everything in their power to overturn the will of the respective majority of citizens. Without scruple they are using all their means. On the other side we can observe that those who are still “in power” in many western states more and more see their position not as having power borrowed for the sake of the common good but as a quasi-absolutist power for the implementation of minority interests. The French journalist Natacha Polony has demonstrated this impressively (not only) for her country, speaking of a spreading soft-totalitarianism (cf. Current Concerns No 2, 24 January 2017).
And what about the published opinion? Many mainstream media are supporting the game plan of the political elites. Especially direct democracy is insinuated – unfortunately also within Switzerland – being a risk for law and freedom, giving vague emotions too much weight and being a gateway for seducers of the people. Some even suggest that the citizens’ majority decisions could lead to a tyranny. However, it is remarkable what is lurking beneath the surface of such claims: the strive for a “rule of elites” – not something new in history but generally with fatal consequences for states and peoples.
In Current Concerns No 7 of 22 March 2017 Werner Wüthrich cited from a speech of the former chancellor of the University of Zurich, Zaccaria Giacometti: “The people needs to be prepared for liberal democracy, needs to be politically mature. A people appear mature for real democracy if certain preconditions are fulfilled.” The rest of the article is listing Giacometti’s “preconditions”:
“Idea of freedom: ‘First the idea of freedom needs to be alive in individuals and in the people and the constitutional natural law has to be effective, not necessarily legally but as ethical power.’
Political conviction: ‘There need to be liberal value concepts, but not as spontaneously born euphoric emotions or opportunistic intuitions but as deep political convictions which lastingly dominate the consciousness of a people and are carried by the driving forces of political life.’
Historical consciousness: ‘The people need to have a liberal tradition. Its liberal convictions have to root in such a tradition. But tradition is historical consciousness which makes liberal tradition a liberal historical consciousness. But democracy has a historical consciousness in the case that a liberal past is still exerting its influence such that the previous generation has handed down a treasure of liberal political ideas and experiences to the living generation. […] The poet’s word is valid also here: Your father handed it down to you – acquire it to own it.’
Political education: ‘The living generation has to appropriate this inherited treasure of liberal political insights and liberal political experiences, even to fight for it by a corresponding political education, trial and probation as constituent or simple legislator of a real democracy.’”
Taking these statements from the 1950s today at face value we would have to admit: We are far from that – in every country. Then are the critics right after all? Are people still (or already) ready for democracy?
But this question is leading us in the wrong direction. The fact that, for a democracy to survive, preconditions are necessary can for democrats only mean that all needs to be done to create these preconditions – if they are missing.
But exactly the opposite is happening - starting from small children. What is happening today in families, in kindergartens, in schools and universities is not helping to make our children and youths mature citizens who can bring democracy to life. On the contrary!
Our invitation for democracy towards our adult citizens is not helping either. What we can read, hear or see in many of our media is hardly contributing to democratic life and thinking. Also our elites’ behaviour – while they like to speak about democracy – is pointing in a different direction.
So the question is if those who criticize democracy aren’t looking for something completely different – and why.
It depends, of course: If majority decisions are along their lines, they are highly welcome. This was obvious after the Dutch elections. The new SPD chancellor candidate even received 100% of the votes when he was elected as head of party. This result had never before been achieved. A day later, most commentaries were euphoric, not critical. It hadn’t been much different if Hillary Clinton had been elected, if the Greek had voted for the restrictions of their daily lives and the sovereignty of their country and if in 2005 a clear majority of the French and Dutch had voted for the EU Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.
It can be said: a “controlled” democracy along the lines of a national and international Change Management or a national and international “Future Workshop” would be in accordance with the wishes of those criticizing democracy. They mainly criticize if they do not like the results and if we speak about truly free decisions of independent citizens interested in the common good.
Summary: We all should keep an eye on critics of democracy. Everybody is called to help preserving, renewing or creating the preconditions for a living and successful democracy.
This includes mainly starting to discuss the real topics honestly and competently. There are enough of them: How can we end global wars? How can we help those in existential need, be it due to violence, the global system of finance and economy be put back on a solid basis? How can more people follow a meaningful occupation? How can we provide families with the appreciation and support congruous with their importance for our living together? How can we succeed in educating our children to joyful, courageous persons able to cope with life? How can we improve connectedness between people? How can we all obtain a solid ethical ground which can form our daily life? And there are many more …
Human dignity and democracy
In a 1983 commentary to the German Constitution we can read: “Personal dignity means that man as a spiritual and ethical being is meant to control his life and influence his sphere in freedom and self-consciousness. […] For the sake of his dignity, man has to be secured as comprehensive a development of his personality as possible. For the political and social realm this means: individuals should participate as much as possible in the collective decisions.” This is another reason why fighting for democracy is existential. •
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