What Are the Sources of Democratic Legitimacy? Till van Rahden on Democracy as a Way of Life

Elias Buchetmann talks to Till van Rahden about his latest book Democracy: A Fragile Way of Life, which focuses on the history of democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany and raises fundamental questions about the nature of democracy around the world. You can listen to the podcast and read the transcript below.

Elias Buchetmann: Your latest book Democracy: A Fragile Way of Life is a highly topical one that engages both an academic audience and the wider public. The book focuses on the history of democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany and raises fundamental questions about the nature of democracy everywhere. May I ask you to begin with what prompted you to write this book?

Till van Rahden: The question that prompted me to write the book concerns the tension between the elusive promises of equality, the idea that we are all equal, and the recurrent presence of differences and moral conflicts, the fact that we realize in everyday encounters and in political struggles that we are all different. This tension is useful to keep in mind as we start exploring how best to think about democracy and its history. 

If the focus is on the tension between equality and difference, the question of gender is central. This led me to begin a study on the history of fatherhood, and the history of paternal authority in twentieth-century Germany. As I was reading a wide range of sources from the late 19th century to the 1980s, I came to realize that the figure of the father and the question of paternal authority are central to how democratic culture is conceived. 

These themes resonate in some of the classic works of democratic theory, whether it is Alexis de Tocqueville, whether it is Walt Whitman or, in the American context, Jane Addams and John Dewey. The shorthand for this has always been the formula that democracy is not simply a system of government, but it is also a way of life. I was using democratic theory and the interest in questions of how best to think about democratic culture and the history of democracy to contextualize my work on the history of the father, the family, the dismantling of patriarchy, etc. 

Elias Buchetmann: My next question is directly related to what you have just said. I think a good way into the book, especially for those who may have not had the chance to read it yet, is provided by its subtitle and I would like to explore it with you in two steps. First, you employ the notion of democracy as a way of life rather than just a form of government. I found it fascinating how you demonstrate, in your book, the importance of the private sphere, of gender relations, and of education to democracy. In the penultimate chapter, you also paraphrase a journalist who wrote in 1968 that democracy starts on the playground. I wanted to ask you to explain in a little more detail what exactly democracy as a way of life means. You add an adjective to qualify this form of life, so the German subtitle contains the word gefährdet. In your previous engagements, you have emphasized that this should not be translated as “endangered” but rather as “fragile.” Could you explain that distinction and why you refer to democracy as an improbable choice?

Till van Rahden: To me those are two separate questions. The first is whether and in what way the metaphor of democracy as a way of life is useful. The second, if I understand your question, is about the distinction between the democracy as endangered and as fragile. Let me start with the phrase “democracy as a way of life.” 

Democracy as a system of government is about parliaments, elections, party politics, constitutional framework, and democratic constitutionalism. At the same time, the question is how does democratic legitimacy come about? What are the cultural and social preconditions of democracy? These are questions that have intrigued political thinkers, theorists, and philosophers for a long time. 

I see two distinct roots for that formula, the first, which is well known, comes from the American pragmatist tradition. Walt Whitman is an interesting point of departure here. He argued that just as feudalism was not just a system of government, but something that shaped every aspect of culture and society and so democracy would have to be more than a system of government. It has to inform, shape and color the everyday life of citizens in a democracy. This was then taken up by pragmatists who emphasized questions of the family, child-rearing, and education as well as the making of a specifically democratic public space, the necessity of developing the idea of a democratic commons and defending the idea of public goods. All of these were ways of identifying the elusive nature of these cultural and social preconditions. 

The idea also has roots in classical philosophy where there is a close nexus between ways of life and moral issues. In both Greek and Roman philosophy, the idea of a way of life was used in the singular to denote the only morally legitimate way to live. Now, this dissipates in the late Middle Ages and the early modern era. Suddenly, it is more plausible to use the term in the plural because several ways of life are considered morally legitimate. The formula then highlights the elective affinity between a political order, a political regime and specific ways we conduct our lives in everyday encounters.

The point of departure for my discussion of democracy as a fragile way of life was the ever-growing number of articles and books that study how democracies degenerate and die. This is obviously driven by a pervasive sense that liberal democracy and representative government is in a profound crisis. I do not mean to challenge the empirical data and I do not want to challenge specific arguments either, but I want to highlight that constant repetition of these themes that democracies are dying and are degenerating is in fact producing a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We need stories and analyses that highlight problems in which the overall sense is not one of naive optimism but of well-tempered and bounded optimism.

My questions are more about how democracies live, and less about how they die. Fragility comes into play because what is often lost in contemporary conversations about the crisis of representative government and liberal democracy is that – unlike a monarchy, an aristocracy, a tyranny, or a dictatorship – a democracy is inherently fragile. The source of legitimacy in a liberal democracy, that is the voluntary consent of mature citizens who are willing to accept legitimate democratic authority, is something that is unlikely. 

That legitimacy does not emerge out of thin air, but it is something that is bound to a thick, robust democratic ethos. That ethos is difficult to cultivate, yet inherent to the democratic project. There is a sort of unavoidable instability and fragility to the democratic project that we need to not just accept, but to embrace and then think through its implications.

Elias Buchetmann: That is a fascinating addition to the debate, asking what keeps democracy alive rather than only engaging with its decay. Your book is also different in another sense and that is because you emphasize the role emotions play in democracy as a way of life and thereby challenge more rationalistic accounts. However, developments in recent years have led many to conclude that emotional politics can be very dangerous. Could you clarify your historically informed view on the matter and how you relate to those who would perhaps prefer a democracy without much emotion?

Till van Rahden: The starting point for this question is a certain understanding of fascist politics that pervades post-war political theory. Fascism is interpreted as the triumph of passions over reason. The return to liberal democracy must therefore highlight reason and rationality over passions and sentiments. This is a plausible and understandable argument that leads to subtle conceptions of deliberative democracy and a sort of specifically democratic form of rationality and reason. I do not think there is anything wrong with that per se, but it misses something inherent to much of the Enlightenment project of republicanism that is then transformed into a democratic project of republicanism. 

Some of the key moral and ethical concepts that underlie the idea of democracy – equality, freedom, particularly justice, but also categories like solidarity – are grounded in sentiments. We experience ourselves as equal. We feel that something is just or unjust. We feel that we are obligated to act based on solidarity with others. 

So, in a sense, I do not have a problem with deliberative democracy if we take into account the post-colonial and feminist critiques of deliberative democracy. But I think that all of our reasonable exchanges of arguments in the public sphere, in parliaments, in the press, in the media, whether old fashioned media or social media, these reasonable exchanges are grounded in passions, and sentiments. I do not think that is problematic at all. It only becomes problematic if we aim to bracket and ignore the fact that our conceptions of justice, quality, freedom, and solidarity are grounded in sentiments.

This leads me to a simple question. I think one of the ways of trying to better understand the social and cultural preconditions of democracy is to ask what democracy feels like as we explore everyday encounters amongst citizens. Democratic experiences become constitutive of a democratic culture. Democratic experiences are, of course, by necessity sensorial. That is where the sentiments and the passions, I think, have a fundamental place that those who emphasize reason and rationality tend to either minimize or overlook.

Elias Buchetmann: Your book shows that very well indeed. You also emphasize the importance of the private world to democracy, but some readers may still wonder about the active role played in your account by the centralized state and its institutions. For instance, in your third chapter, the Constitutional Court features very prominently. Could I ask you to delineate your view of public-private relations?

Till van Rahden: The starting point for me would be to highlight the entangled nature of the public and the private in a modern state. We live in welfare states and have compulsory universal education. There is almost no aspect of private life that is not touched by laws, by welfare agencies and other public authorities. The second aspect is more subtle. When we think about the challenges that a democratic state faces today, such as climate change, globalization, securing international order, an international global regime of security, all these are big questions and major challenges and I do not want to distract from these big questions. 

However, the question is, where do democratic sentiments, where does the democratic ethos, where does a specifically democratic form of liberal subjectivity come from that allows us to respond to these challenges and address them in a genuinely democratic fashion. Here the small things become central. 

These small things include the private in the narrow sense, such as family, gender relations and sexuality, and the question of how we recognize one another as equal in these intimate settings. It is also a question of these transitional spaces; the playground is one of the first examples, but schools, parks and swimming pools, urban spaces of all kinds are all central here. Transitional spaces are places where we encounter strangers and where we interact with them, and where we cultivate a certain democratic subjectivity that allows us to recognize one another as equals. Take the example of acknowledging one another by saying “hello” and “goodbye”, “how are you” and “have a nice weekend.” These little gestures of mutual recognition can play out in hierarchical ways, but they can also play out in a context of genuine equality and thereby contribute to a cultivation of a democratic subjectivity and individuality.

You cannot defend liberal democracy against the temptations of authoritarianism simply by building a nice playground. You cannot defend liberal democracy by being a nice person and saying “hello”, and “have a nice day” to everyone, but, taken as a whole, all these small gestures that are potentially infinitely small create an atmosphere in which we experience ourselves as equal and free and that we see as a world that we, broadly speaking, regard as just. That is the context out of which we develop the skills and, most importantly, the ethos that allows us to then deal with climate change, globalization, security threats and similar global challenges.

Elias Buchetmann: As we have mentioned, your focus is on the history of democracy in post-war Germany, while raising also fundamental questions about democracy everywhere. May I ask what you see as specific to the Federal Republic in the areas you have investigated and how conclusions drawn from the West German experiences may be transferred or how they perhaps also differ from those of other places?

Till van Rahden: Allow me to begin by saying that I do not think a democratic way of life exists in the singular. Even as a normative project we should not think of a democratic way of life in the singular. It only exists in the plural. This means that the specific form a democratic way of life or democratic ways of life take on in a specific culture and specific context can vary greatly. Let us take something like acknowledging one another by saying “hello” and “thank you”. Another example would be queueing, which looks different in London than it does in Lima or Hyderabad. These gestures vary across time and place and there is nothing wrong with that. The important thing is that these rituals of recognition create, cultivate, and contribute to a democratic ethos based on equality, that as we gather our experiences of queueing up for scarce resources, such as the vaccine these days, we feel that the overall atmosphere is one of equality and fairness. I am stating these as a kind of preface.

I do not think that the post-war German story is any more important or interesting than let’s say the post-war French story, the post-war American or Brazilian story. But what is specific to the post-war German story is that there is a widespread sense that moral certainties have been lost, that something has happened – whether we call it a rupture in civilization or unspeakable crimes – that puts into the question almost every tradition of German political thoughts, moral philosophy, etc.

The elusive search for a new ground upon which a better society can be built is omnipresent in post-war German political and philosophical controversies, however problematic some of the assumptions behind it  are. It seems to me that the big difference is that all other European countries, no matter what their relationship with fascism in the interwar years might have been, have the option of emphasizing a culture of resistance to salvage a sense of continuity with national traditions upon which a post-war liberal democratic order could be built. There was a culture of resistance led by some resistance groups in Nazi Germany but taken as a whole, this was, so to speak, not enough to salvage the national tradition. The allied occupying forces also left no question that they expected post-war Germans to invent the world anew. 

There is this deep sense of rupture and a loss of moral certainties that drives the conversations through much of the post-war period. I think that is something that continues to shape and sometimes haunt public controversies about democracy in Germany until today. 

To go back to your earlier question about the passions and the sentiments, one example of this is precisely the fact that many German political philosophers, most importantly Jürgen Habermas, get nervous when sentiments and passions come into play and they immediately think of irrational, anti-liberal politics. They ignore the fact that beginning with David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill there is a rich tradition of liberal thought that emphasizes the centrality of passions and emotions. There are post-war German peculiarities that are interesting and important, but similar stories, not the same stories obviously, but similar stories could be told about post-war Italy or Canada. They will just look different in specific ways.

Elias Buchetmann: That powerfully makes the case for a historical approach. I also think what you referred to as your preface rendered these challenges to a democratic way of life very tangible and I would like to return to that with my last question. You end the book with an appeal to safeguard public spaces, which you also describe as a stage for social and political participation. As you have described already, they enable us to experience and live democracy and they confront us with diversity on an everyday basis. Since you already mentioned vaccines, I was wondering whether I could ask you if you the pandemic has had any impact on your long-term view of the development or decline of public spaces.

Till van Rahden:  At the height of the pandemic, many of the public spaces that I see as central to the making and cultivation of a democratic ethos were either completely or partly closed. I think that we should be happy that this moment in the history of the public sphere and of public spaces is coming to an end. I think that at the height of the pandemic we missed an opportunity to distinguish between physical distancing which was an epidemiological necessity and social distancing, which is a completely different thing. I think we could have spent more time, and maybe we will do in the next pandemic, to leave as many of these public spaces open during a pandemic as long as we establish clear guidelines for physical distancing which is not the same as social distancing.

The next aspect is the question of public goods and whether, among other things, vaccines should be considered one. I think the case people are making for that is,  if I may use an analogy, our defense against floods and storms is also not something that we leave to the market, but it is something that we as a polity prepare for. The dike may be built by a private company, but the whole system of dikes and the system of protection against storms and flooding is something we provide as a public good.

I think the pandemic has led to more meaningful conversations about the centrality of public goods. Maybe this is too hopeful but perhaps some of the more tempting aspects of populism now look less tempting. 

To put it simply, perhaps we have to thank the virus for Joe Biden. Perhaps Bolsonaro will prove less popular at the next election than at the last, perhaps people like Viktor Orban will look more vulnerable than they looked two or three years ago. But it remains to be seen how this plays out.

The pandemic may also reflect a larger shift that forces us to rethink the necessity of the democratic commons, of this ensemble of public spaces in which we encounter one another as democratic citizens and can cultivate democratic sentiments. I do not know whether that is going to happen, but I am fairly certain that the vision that was pervasive in the post-1989 moment, namely that liberal democracy is the default mode of modern government and liberal government works perpetually once set in motion has lost a lot of its appeal. There is now a greater sense among many people, ordinary citizens, intellectuals, and journalists that democracy needs defending. It needs defending not just by publishing fancy pamphlets about how wonderful democracy is, but it needs defending in quotidian encounters in everyday life.

The transcript has been slightly modified.

In collaboration with Arshad Arshad, Karen Culver and Ferenc Laczó.

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