A turning point of democracy?

By Wolfgang Merkel

To mark the International Day of Democracy, we present an op-ed by Wolfgang Merkel examining the state of democracy around the world.

On February 24th, 2022, Putin’s army attacked Ukraine. According to the basic standards of international law, a war crime. Only three days later, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz used the term Zeitenwende – turn of the times – to describe the monstrosity. Scholz’s speech was remarkable, even if the term was not new. What exactly was meant by it politically still needs to be spelled out and so do its implications for democracy here and elsewhere.

Historians already placed the turn of the century in 1979. Nineteen hundred and seventy-nine? Yes, 1979! That was the year in which the anti-democratic fundamentalist Islam entered the political world stage with the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Deng Xiaoping programmed China’s rise to superpower status with economic reforms. This indeed reads like the saddle period of a geopolitical transformation.

However, even then there was no talk of democratizing the world. This global utopia only began in the anno mirabile of 1989 when the “short 20th century” (E. Hobsbawm), which had begun with the October Revolution in 1917, ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Both years marked fundamental turning points in the history of modernity. So, it was not surprising that the hitherto little-known government official Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history in an essay that was overrated worldwide. Capitalism and democracy, so went the historical-philosophical speculation, had now finally won the race of systems. In both liberal orders, history had come into its own.

In terms of the unprecedented capitalization of the world that followed after 1989, Fukuyama was right. But can democracy show a similar triumph? Is the world more democratic today than it was at the end of the short 20th century? Or have we experienced not a real turning point, but only a democratic “interim period” that will now end in 2022 with Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine?

The post-89 world saw the rapid transformation of numerous autocratic states into democratic regimes during the last decade of the 20th century. Democracy researchers counted 120 democracies worldwide in 2005, albeit based on a minimal understanding of democracy. Equal and free elections, however unfair and corrupt, sufficed. What is indisputable, however, is that in many autocracies as well as democracies there was indeed a wave of democratization.

The wave was broken in 2008, however, as statistics clearly show. After a long rise of democracy, we are now in the 15th year of a continuous decline worldwide. This does not only concern the increasing autocratic hardening in dictatorships like China, Russia, the Central Asian “Stan countries”, Iran or Nicaragua. Even in developed liberal democracies based on the rule of law, from the USA to France and Germany, there are declines in the quality of democracy, albeit to varying degrees.

Illiberalization, polarization, (right-wing) populism, and the rise of political violence are the spreading adult diseases of developed democracies today. While after 1989 we reflected on ways to democratize democracy, today there is more reflection on its “resilience” against the accelerating erosion of liberal democratic quality.

Quality of Democracy of 27 EU-member states plus UK, USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan (1950-2020)

Exogenous and endogenous causes are driving the current malaise of Western democracies. We are living through a decade of a dangerous accumulation of problems that we in the West helped to create and that are now hitting democracies from outside: migration, pandemic, climate, war, and the repercussions of economic sanctions which so far seem to be hitting our economies harder than Putin’s regime. Home-grown problems also include the return of distributional conflicts, which were frozen after the financial crisis and discursively took a back seat to small-scale identity issues.

The question now is how the consequential burdens of these multiple crises can be distributed in a fair and socially acceptable way. This is an endogenous challenge of democracy.

Crises require quick action. Quick decisions are shaped and taken less by parliaments and more often by the executive. Parliamentary deliberation is accused of consuming time unsuitable for the urgency of the moment. Moreover, parliamentary debates and judicial vetoes would entail the risk of watered-down decisions, inappropriate for dealing with crises. Quick executive decisions, however, show a typical lack of wise reflection and democratic deliberation. Not to speak of mistakes in craftsmanship. The Corona policy pursued by government and administration at the expense of parliament and individual freedoms reads in retrospect like a portent for the future crisis decisions of this decade. Nevertheless, a reappraisal from a democratic point of view has yet to take place.

Learning from mistakes is not a democratic end in itself, but a preparation for the crises to come.

Liberal democracies live from their normative superiority over autocratic coercive systems. At the same time, they must solve economic, social and political problems effectively and fairly. Even in times of crisis, this must not be done at the expense of their own normative foundations.

But crises invite technocratic solutions. They are the hour of the executive.

Moreover, if experts and science provide us with the most effective solutions beforehand, is it not a systemic flaw in democracy to have parliamentary amateurs still deliberate on them? Is it not morally compelling and politically wise in the climate issue or in pandemics to dispense with democratic “garlands” when the survival of civilization or the death of thousands of people is at stake?

Those who think this way misunderstand the essence of liberal democracy. Its institutions and procedures are a priori fixed by a constitution and laws, but the results of decisions are contingent due to pluralistic values, interests, and compromises involved in decision making. Those who do not understand this cannot stand the pluralism of democracy. It calls for systemic turnarounds and flexible institutions, dare more technocracy and authoritarianism would then be the slogan for the crisis-ridden twenties of the 21st century. Orbán in Hungary, the PiS in Poland, Bolsonaro in Brazil and, last but not least, Donald Trump in the US provided the script.

To be clear: the most dangerous attack on democracy today comes from the right. Popular applause for them grew louder on both sides of the Atlantic. Hungary, Poland, the US, but also Italy and even Sweden are examples. In response, the call for a “militant democracy” in Germany has also increased.

The constitutionally and sociologically enlightened concept of “militant democracy”, as developed by the constitutional theorist Karl Löwenstein (1937) and the sociologist Karl Mannheim (1940) under the impact of fascism, is now being trivialized in politics and public discourse in Germany.

It is being reduced to the expansion of the competences of the Internal Secret Service (“Verfassungsschutz”), the extended observation of right-wing groups, various wings of the AfD and even the Corona protest. Paradoxically, this call now often comes from the ranks of the Greens, whose founding generation were once themselves monitored as “dubious subjects” by the former Verfassungsschutz and kept out of the civil service.

However, an illiberal instrument does not become (left) liberal when it is applied to the right. State protection must not be done at the expense of the protection of fundamental rights. The battle cry “no freedom for the enemies of freedom” only strengthens the trend towards societal intransigence and polarization. Liberal democracies cannot protect themselves in the long run through illiberal measures.

Protection must come from within liberalism: through a strong civil society, a vibrant parliamentarianism, a vigilant yet restrained Federal Constitutional Court and pluralistic media that inform and do not try to educate the audience. But just as important, especially in times of crisis, seems to be a fair distribution of burdens.

The unavoidable impositions of the great transformation of energy policy, climate change, or the consequences of economic sanctions against Russia are pushing the question of distribution into the political foreground again. In the long run, no democracy based on legal and political equality can withstand systematically unequal distribution of life chances without deep fissures.

Democracy is also under pressure in the Federal Republic.

The crisis management during the twenties of the 21st century will determine whether the erosion of democracy that has been ongoing since 2008 will intensify into an existential crisis.

Germany and most states in Northern and Western Europe are better protected from this than Eastern Europe or the USA.  But they are not immune.

The liberal democratic state and civil society are quite capable of guaranteeing the preconditions for their future. Only the liberal and social interplay of both will allow us to see the crises as an opportunity. Then we will no longer worry about the resilience of democracy but work again on the democratization of democracy. It could become again a democratic turning point in time as September 15th, the International Day of Democracy established by the UN in 2007, reminds us.

Wolfgang Merkel is Director Emeritus at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, Professor Emeritus at Humboldt University and Senior Scholar at the Democracy Institute of the Central European University.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczó and Hannah Vos

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