More direct democracy in Germany (Part 6)

Political empathy

by Christian Fischer, Cologne

In the previously presented parts of this series, structural, institutional issues were presented in parts 1–4, and in part 5 we introduced the example of an active citizen and upright democrat. Finally, in this sixth part, we will take a look at the political personnel in the institutions. A modern state cannot exist, at least at the central or federal level of government, without full-time staff; and neither can direct democracy. But democracy can only become more direct if there is better cooperation both within the “class of politicians” and between citizens and politicians.

Many citizens almost consider it a law of nature that politicians are more or less unprincipled beings, who like to trim their sails to the wind of presumed chances of success and see election promises as a means to an end of their own choosing, but not as a serious mandate. It does not take scientific studies to know that there are enough good reasons for this view of things and bad examples to underpin it. Nearly every citizen will have something to contribute to this subject. So, counter-examples are considered exceptions that confirm the rule.

The problem of the professional politician

Does this say all about professional politicians? Are they nothing but corrupt careerists in a chaotic stage play without a guiding director? Or are they even controlled agents of a “deep state”, character masks in a “facade democracy”, as the neo-Marxist jargon says? Arguments can be found for this belief, too. For it can hardly be explained by unscrupulousness alone that, for example, a social-democratic, peace-ecological federal government was responsible for the first war of aggression starting from German territory after a long time of peace, or for a programme of social cuts that made the German economy a model for neoliberal “reforms”. In fact, certain influential think tanks, starting with the Council on Foreign Relations and extending to its countless branches and cooperation partners in the political and media (!) areas1, give political directions in the interest of large corporations and large banks as well as position staff for important political posts. No one needs to become a conspiracy theorist to be able to point out these obvious connections. Rather, we must be careful not to become practitioners of concealment.

Nevertheless, the implementation of centrally controlled political goals at various political levels is not a one-way street in the sense of a military chain of command – it is always people with their own characteristics who implement or partially implement political goals from a higher level (or from the “deeper state”) or try to circumvent them, or are not even affected by them. The implementation does not (only) take place through crude corruption with well-filled black suitcases; there is probably less of that here than on other continents, where using political offices for the full-time wealth-grab of one’s own clan is the order of the day. Here things work in a more “civilised” way: those who pursue the path of becoming a professional politician often give up their profession, if they had one in the first place, or put it on hold for an indefinite period of time, and then behave more or less like employees towards their boss – perhaps so as to become the boss or department head themselves one day, or at least to ensure a secure income. The political office becomes a job description with all the hierarchical regularities or, at best, the small freedoms that do exist in a profession.2 The electorate’s mandate thus runs the risk of taking a back seat; the floodgates are open to political dependence on superior or supposedly more competent authorities, regardless of whether these come from a financially powerful or an ideological source.

Politicians as the citizens’ educators?

Often this attitude is further encouraged by the arrogant belief of politicians in their having a sort of educational mandate in respect of their countries’ citizens. Ideologies in the leftist tradition in particular like to make use of the undoubtedly existing effect of political propaganda, which they believe to function so artfully as to almost overwhelm even intellectuals.3 This view of the citizen paves the way for politicians who inflict various kinds of paternalism on their voters and do not even hide this fact, as is for example shown by the New German label “nudging”. According to this way of thinking, others have to be “surreptitiously pushed”, i.e. to be led without their noticing, so that they will move in the right direction. It is less “ideologically grounded” that after election defeats, one often hears the – only seemingly – self-critical assertion: “We have not been able to make our goals sufficiently clear …” This of course means in plain language: the citizen has not understood our programme, although it is so sensible. Of course politicians are supposed to make suggestions, but the word is precisely: suggestions, and not lectures or even educational programmes, which would mean a loss of democracy as deeply rooted as in our minds.

It is also interesting to watch politicians’ behaviour towards each other: the various party factions and their protagonists behave – at least outwardly – like competing companies bidding for the same contract (the citizen’s vote). After the elections, the winner is then happy that he no longer needs to consider the loser, unless he has to form coalitions due to the lack of the necessary majority. Forming coalitions is the rule in the German party landscape, which has become extensive. So “unfortunately” one still has to consider the will of coalition partners – but after all, this is a welcome excuse for breaking election promises. The fact that the parliamentary opposition also represents a legitimate voters’ will is often forgotten by the incumbent, the “owner” of the executive.

Image battles instead of objective debate

In fact, parliamentary image battles often have little to do with objective debate, if it is true that important decisions are prepared behind the scenes, regardless of political majorities. Outside the public arena, parliamentarians often work together cooperatively. Often they agree across party lines to take far-reaching decisions the content of which they (can) all have barely taken note of, such as the ESM Treaty4, to name just one example of many.

Nevertheless, it is people who work here, and in many cases they have probably decided to “go into politics” out of a sense of responsibility and not always just for career reasons. Sense of responsibility can and may come in many forms and shapes; thematic focuses can be set and evaluated differently. If it were all only about that, democracy would be in no danger, quite the contrary. And as long as a member of parliament has not submitted unconditionally to factional discipline or external lobbies, he or she is still responsive to reflections on substantive issues and will decide accordingly. We citizens must find and call for such representatives. That is yet another way of achieving more direct democracy.

And there are also many citizens’ initiatives and campaigns which have more or less influence on political decisions, but which often do not directly try for institutional work. Many of these see themselves as democratic movements outside the democratic institutions, increasingly also on a purely digital level. With this is often associated an ignorance of democratic institutions which shows a dangerous oblivion of historical processes and events.

A number of angles and prospects

It is certainly not enough to appeal to every member of parliament’s commitment to public welfare. Yet it is necessary. First of all, there must be what used to be called an extra-parliamentary opposition, and this now exists in many different forms. Politicians sometimes react positively to it, and if only out of self-interest alone. But today we should go much further than such movements, and have regular referendums take place instead. The preparatory work for this, the gathering of approval for certain goals, always in connection with objective discussions among the citizens, serves to objectify the political debate and leads to the general education of the people. The opportunities to hold referenda must of course be extended (Part 1 of this series), and this can in the end be done with the help of referenda themselves, or even with only the help of members of parliament.

It is a second prerequisite that upright and strong-willed citizens also engage in political office themselves. A change in the right to vote (Part 2) might serve to create structures and realities that are closer to the people and less party-political. Even our current electoral law relatively easily allows candidacies without party affiliation for state and federal parliaments; a correct way would be to limit state support for parties and to increase it for independent candidates without a party base. A more direct federal representation through a direct, less party-dominated election of members of the Federal Council (Part 3) can also make for elected representatives who are closer to the people. It is equally important that greater municipal autonomy be enforced (Part 4), which would generally promote the personal commitment of citizens.

Members of parliament are representatives of the entire population

But in whatever way fellow citizens become members of parliament and decision-makers: What can, and what must we expect from the “real life” members of parliament? Answer: They should adequately reflect the opinions and wishes of the citizens with all their contradictions and lead the way to solutions. We cannot be reminded often enough that all our delegates are representatives of the entire people and are not bound by orders and instructions (Article 38 GG); they are not the representatives of only their parties! At this point, a critical word must be said about the term “people’s party”, which is in some cases still widely used today. This term is a contradiction in itself. A party (lat.: pars = part) basically does not stand for the whole. It may stand for the interests of certain social groups or for special political priorities, but alongside it there always exist other, basically equally entitled, parts (parties). It is a matter of finding a compromise between these parts, not about identifying party goals with the whole. There can be no “people’s party”, at least not in a democracy.

The duty of every “party” to find compromises even concerns the relationship between government and opposition. After all, electoral success does not equal permission to set up a majority dictatorship until the next election. Of course, election winners have the duty and legitimacy to pay special attention to their support base; nevertheless, it is always about the common good, which includes the interests also of the losing party. In fact, in our now diverse party landscape, most decisions are taken quite unanimously. However, this is hardly due to a struggle for compromise, but often to the influence of powerful think tanks, to which many members of parliament submit for the reasons mentioned above. Political debates today tend to be staged as sideshows to demonstrate a “culture of debate” and/or to avoid unpopular decisions in other areas.

And yet, the model of compromise between different interest groups, be they parties or independent MPs, is by all means the right approach for democratic legislation. This may also include lobbying, as after all a party is nothing less than a lobby group. Lobbyists only become a problem when they operate behind the scenes. This problem can only be tackled by ruthless transparency: disclosure of the income of members of parliament, ministers, parties as a matter of course and accessible to everyone; restriction of this income; disclosure of appointment books: Whoever holds public office does not have to follow anyone but his conscience, but the public has a right to know what he is doing in their name.

Consociational democracy in Switzerland

The concordance at government level developed in Switzerland 60 years ago is interesting: a grand coalition of the four strongest parties with a fixed allocation of seats; this is only changed if long-term trends (not already after an election!) show that the allocation clearly no longer represents the will of the voters.5 At first glance this may be called undemocratic: Where is the opposition, which incidentally still exists in Switzerland in the form of smaller parties?

Answer: Firstly, in Switzerland the people themselves function as the opposition thanks to their possibilities of direct influence (referendum and initiative); their elected representatives know this and are prepared for it. Secondly, the parties that are not part of the government also have a certain amount of influence; otherwise they would have ceased to exist long ago. Here, elected officials in the executive and legislative branches afford themselves much less the “luxury” of open show fights, in which the people are degraded to spectators; they see themselves more as executive organs of what the people want articulated through elections and votes. Disturbances, which today exist also in this system, will not be discussed here.

Professional political personnel, without whom no modern democracy can function, always run the danger of putting off contact with the citizen and orienting themselves to the internal “laws” of the political process. For this reason, while there must be structural opportunities for control by the citizens, members of parliament and government personnel must always set an example of honesty and incorruptibility and practice an ethical attitude that is geared to the common good. Do not laugh, dear reader, but contradict me if you can: Even control instruments are only as good as the people who use them, and those who do not want to be controlled will find ways out in any structure. Democratic structures for opinion-forming, decision-making and control are therefore indispensable, but no guarantee as long as the people at work are not responsible people.

Ethics for the common good as the basis of democracy

Democracy therefore needs citizens, members of parliament, and governments for whom the common good is an ethical concern, people who, in addition to their professional skills, are trained above all in history and knowledge of human nature and who are vigilant in monitoring their present. This is the indispensable basis for democratic life, regardless of the details of the political system. Patient commitment towards comprehensive education and ethics oriented towards the common good are therefore a permanent task alongside any day-to-day politics.6 We can only live and improve our democracy in the course of our daily work. We must not want to ignore what has been achieved or even to destroy it. Only ivory-tower revolutionaries time and again go down this dead-end road, as they consider it a shortcut. Empathic interaction between democratic officials and citizens is on the agenda. Only in this way can what is probably the most important democratic task be solved: The will of the people as political primacy over private large-scale lobbyists and warmongers. •

1  e.g.: Ploppa, Hermann. Die Macher hinter den Kulissen (The makers behind the scenes), Frankfurt 2014;
Rügemer, Werner. The Capitalists of the 21st Century, September 2019;
Mies, Ulrich. Der tiefe Staat schlägt zu (The deep state strikes), Rottenburg 2019; Swiss Propaganda Research: swprs.org/die-propaganda-matrix/

2  A tentative counterexample is shown by: www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundestag-diese-abgeordneten-stimmen-oft-gegen-die-eigene-fraktion-a-1279893.html (An article about delegates who often vote against their own parliamentary group)

3  e.g. Rainer Mausfeld: https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Wir-leben-in-einer-Zeit-der-Gegenaufklaerung-4178715.html?seite=all (We live in a time of Counter-Enlightenment)

4  Despite compelling arguments on unconstitutionality, without waiting for the relevant decision, without knowing the exact content, MPs voted in favour of the European Stability Mechanism by more than two thirds: www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article107264390/Der-ESM-ist-ein-erneuter-Verfassungsbruch.html; www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article107298975/Deutliches-Ja-vom-Bundestag-zu-ESM-und-Fiskalpakt.html

Trimborn, Marc. Ohne Kompromisse keine -Schweiz (No, Switzerland without compromise), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung International, 2 August 2019, p. 15

Liessmann, Konrad Paul. What is education? in: Current Concerns No 20 from 19 September 2019; www.zeit-fragen.ch/en/archives/2019/no-20-19-september-2019/what-is-education.html

(Translation Current Concerns)

  

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