A comment from a Swiss point of view

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

The moralising style of politics, as described by Ms Gabriele Krone-Schmalz and well explained by Werner Voss in his review, also occurs in Switzerland. People are quick to judge something good or evil, and they are indignant and outraged when confronted with a different opinion. What is astonishing, is the lack of compromise in this. Anyone who expresses a critical opinion on the climate debate, for example, is quickly labelled a “global coolist” or “flat-earther” and thus ostracised. This prevents or hinders objective debates. Ms Krone-Schmalz describes numerous such situations. In her opinion, Germany is a “divided country”. 
  In addition, an unpleasant sharpness and barbarisation is increasingly to be observed in the culture of debate at all political levels. This tendency has been increasing in recent years. However, both of these developments are less pronounced in Switzerland than in Germany, as German citizens living here confirm. One reason is probably direct democracy, which cannot do without factual and substantive debate. Political debates have probably reached a low point in the last few months in the USA, where substantive and factual disputes have been practically non-existent, but instead personal attacks and denigration have dominated debates – an unsavoury power struggle. Some media, including some in Switzerland, have known no bounds. So, the former US president, who had, after all, received the vote of 70 million Americans, was dubbed an “ill-tongued and boorish buffoon” and “the most despicable tyrant of modern times”, for example by the “Standard”, the leading newspaper in Austria (quoted in the Swiss “Tages-Anzeiger” of 20 January 2020). The debates are escalating, and the impression is created that some journalists and politicians are competing in the art of belittling the political opponent. One gets the feeling of being in the Middle Ages with witch hunts and exorcisms. Is human dignity, considered inviolable in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and in many national constitutions, to become a punching bag?

Respect does not work this way

The moralising style of politics often impedes or deliberately prevents disputes about content, programmes or factual issues, as Gabriele Krone-Schmalz repeatedly points out with reference to Germany. Historical and cultural explanations are usually of no interest. But the fact is that there is no substitute for what is exciting and sparkling in factual and respectful debates. Gabriele Krone-Schmalz calls this “decent contention”. What are the consequences if things go differently? It does not take much for people to drift apart and for society to split, which is particularly noticeable in the USA today. Citizens rightly feel frustrated, often offended, and lose the joy of political discussion because the common ground has been lost. Gabriele Krone-Schmalz analyses with a great deal of psychological sensitivity – but not only that: she also gives concrete examples of how things could be done differently. – For this purpose, here is a historical comparison made by the author of this article:

Why did democracy perish in classical Greece?

About 2,500 years ago, the Greeks in Athens summoned up the courage to take the first big steps towards direct democracy. Free citizens met for forty days every year for the Ecclesia, first in the Agora, then in the Dionysus Theatre and finally on the Pnyx, a small hill to the west of the Acropolis. The voice of the rich had the same weight as that of the poor. The citizens’ assembly decided not only on laws, but also on war and peace, special treaties and urgently pending decisions. This developed into a special period – a real golden age for human history – in almost all areas of life: the art of building, the art of sculpting, architecture, literature, historiography, the theatre, personal education, science, law, philosophy. Today, Greek culture is part of our heritage, and Christian occidental culture is built on it. The Greeks also agreed on matters concerning the economic and military spheres and achieved much in a short time. They settled on numerous shores of the Mediterranean and on the Black Sea as far as the Crimea. Everywhere they built their unique buildings and works of art, which tourists visit today. They also had military success. They succeeded in repelling the attack of the numerically far superior Persian army at Marathon and at sea at Salamis. – Of course, democracy 2,500 years ago did not correspond to democracy today. At that time, slavery was common, and there was also no separation of powers. As a developmental step, however, Greek democracy was ground-breaking in human history.
  However, this great period lasted for no more than about two generations. Quarrels, strife and senseless fratricidal warfare arose. Decline set in, and the liberal and unifying spirit and the democratic achievements with it were largely lost. Added to this there was a long inner-Greek war of Athenians against the rising power of Sparta. In Athens, opinions were monitored and censorship was exercised. Socrates, for example, was sentenced to death in 399 BC, on a charge of exerting a corrupting influence on youth and of not respecting the gods. “Political correctness” already existed at the time. Today, Socrates and his pupil Plato are considered to belong among the most important figures in the history of philosophy. Once so proud and powerful, Greece was later conquered by the Romans without much resistance and integrated into their empire.

Why has democracy survived to this day in the canton of Glarus?

The men, and today also the women, of the canton of Glarus in Switzerland have been meeting since 1387 for the “Landsgemeinde” (the cantonal assembly), where they decide on all important issues and laws on an equal footing. (I refer here to my article “Die Landsgemeinde als direktdemokratische Basis für den Ordnungsrahmen im Wirtschaftskanton Glarus” (The Landsgemeinde as a direct democratic basis for the regulatory framework in the economic canton of Glarus) in Zeit-Fragen of 17 November 2020). The Landammann (chief magistrate) introduces each item on the agenda that the Landrat (parliament) has discussed in advance. He then opens the discussion: “Ds Wort isch frii! (The word is free!)”. Even amendments are possible during the meeting. Then the Landsgemeinde decides by a simple majority. This fascinating event has taken place every year – for over 600 years. There have only been two brief interruptions: once for four years when Napoleon ruled Switzerland, and in 2020 when the Landsgemeinde had to be cancelled because of Corona. (Today, the canton of Glarus has about 40,000 inhabitants and about 30,000 voters).
  However, is that possible? – The reason is that the people of Glarus have cultivated a respectful manner at the Landsgemeinde for centuries and avoid insults and expressions of displeasure such as whistling. If this happens (which is rare), the Landammann comments immediately and invites the person in question to take a seat in the gallery and speak on the matter. This principle also applies in the numerous municipal assemblies in Switzerland, which still take place in about three quarters of the 2200 municipalities – even in larger ones. 
  The respectful interaction at the Landsgemeinde has become second nature to the people of Glarus, which I feel has an effect on everyday life and also shapes the local media such as the “Fridolin”. – This is the only way that this unique institution has been able to survive even in difficult times (for example, when the Reformation divided the population). Landammann Andrea Bettiga put it in a nutshell in his opening speech at the last Landsgemeinde 2019: “Here in this place, the people of Glarus come together to decide on their own future. The ring, a symbol of togetherness and solidarity since time immemorial, unites us. The Landsgemeinde forms part of the Glarus identity, regardless of social origin, religion and political convictions. We listen to each other, fight for solutions. We accept the views of others and, in the end, bow to the majority. Everyone who is entitled to vote can contribute and has an audible voice. [...] That is Landsgemeinde. That is us. We are Landsgemeinde.” 
  Respectful interaction is the be-all and end-all of any lively and vibrant democracy. The people of Glarus have been cultivating this relationship for centuries, and they still cultivate it today. – How do you achieve respectful interaction? Here is an example from the long history of Glarus:

Jakob Heer – the Glarus “Pestalozzi”

Jakob Heer was a pastor in the mountain community of Matt at the beginning of the 19th century. One of his main concerns was the school, which he ran entirely in the spirit of Pestalozzi. He founded a private institute with a vicar and an additional teacher, so that a large number of pupils soon brought life to his house. Civic education was important to him: every year he took his pupils to the Landsgemeinde. During the proceedings, the boys sat directly in front of the tribune where the government and the speakers were seated. In this way, they received direct visual instruction. The people of Glarus still adhere to this custom today. All the schoolchildren are invited to take their seats in this privileged place - very close to representatives of the national and cantonal governments, foreign guests and senior military officers. They are thus directly involved in political events. 
  Jakob Heer is one of the greats in the canton of Glarus, and like Pestalozzi, he lived his conviction: “Political freedom is an absurdity for a spiritually immature people. Inevitably, it either falls under the tutelage of a caste that often knows how to direct it for its own special purposes, or it will perform quite a lot of monkeyshine. Only a people who have matured to autonomy through education and upbringing will preserve their freedom and use it wisely to promote their true happiness.” (Thürer 1986, pp. 115-128)
  Under Jakob Heer’s guidance a “pupils’ state” with a Landsgemeinde was established in the vicarage from 1823 to 1826. Four 15-year-old pupils, including a girl as well as his own son Oswald Heer, enacted numerous laws and ordinances. Father Heer mostly let them have their way. They regulated the numerous duties and offices in the large household – but not only that. They also dealt with questions of decency and teaching. The pupils were careful to treat each other with respect: for example, one law regulated reading aloud: “When a student begins a chapter or a book, the others may not laugh at him scornfully or insult him in other ways.” (Brunner, p. 67) Central was the provision: “Whoever demands the abolition of the Landsgemeinde shall pay a shilling.” (p. 27) – To date, such a motion has only been made once (2002) at the real Landsgemeinde in Glarus and was rejected without even a request to speak. (The institution of the Landsgemeinde had been abolished in the cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden and Appenzell-Ausserrhoden in the years before).

Democracy as a model

How is that to be achieved? Well – read the book by Gabriele Krone-Schmalz. Her message of respectful interaction deserves to be heard far beyond Germany. Or ask the people of Glarus. Without a minimum of respect for those who think differently and also for political opponents, democracy degenerates to a farce. Undignified treatment repels people. Perhaps something is happening similar to what happened in ancient Greece, when much was lost that had been valuable. 
In today’s world politics, it seems strange for a country to put forward the ideals of democracy and also build an intellectual wall (and probably soon a military one as well) against countries like Russia or China. What is the point of this? – It would certainly be the better way if we in the West acted as a role model by cultivating and renewing our own democratic culture and cultivating human contacts with these countries. This will serve humanity far better than the questionable policy of forcing “more democracy” through economic war or even military means – a policy that usually fails and has dire consequences for the civilian population.  •

Literature: 

  • Brunner, Christoph. Die Landsgemeinde kann niemals abschafft werden. Der Schülerstaat von Oswald Heer in Matt 1823–1826 (The Landsgemeinde can never be abolished. The pupil state of Oswald Heer in Matt 1823-1826), Schwanden 1987
  • Thürer, Georg et al. Grosse Glarner (Important people of Glarus), Glarus 1986
  • Wüthrich, Werner. “Die Landsgemeinde als direktdemokratische Basis für den Ordnungsrahmen im Wirtschaftskanton Glarus” (The Landsgemeinde as a direct democratic basis for the regulatory framework in the economic canton of Glarus), in: Current Concerns No. 25/26 of 17 November 2020.

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