The critics of representative democracy suspect it of disenfranchising voters because they are prevented from voting directly on legislative proposals. This accusation ignores social reality, which has changed fundamentally since ancient Greece and the Germanic Thing, where free men (women were still excluded) decided on war and peace and many other basic concerns. Modern society has become so complex that most decisions require technical expertise that can only be provided by specialists. We need only think of climate change. Almost every enlightened citizen realizes that the further poisoning of the atmosphere with CO2 is a great evil that we should stop as soon as possible, but only a few people are aware of the far-reaching consequences of ill-considered measures. If we really want to save the climate, our economy and our current way of life will have to undergo drastic changes – changes that in ways quite unimaginable to most people, would interfere with production, transportation, the energy industry, and most importantly, jobs and incomes.
Direct democracy is an ideal
that can only be realized if all citizens are equally well informed about all issues at stake. But that was no longer the case even in the days of Athenian democracy – and has been less and less so ever since. After the industrial revolution, man has lived in a knowledge society of exponentially growing expertise and professional competence. Even seemingly simple problems, such as whether and to what extent a state may incur debt, presuppose comprehensive knowledge, which the popular providers of knowledge, that is, the media, only convey in a fragmented or populistically distorted manner, because citizens usually stressed by everyday work are understandably not inclined or even able to deal personally with problems that have become unmanageable in their range and ramifications. To put it bluntly: the rejection of direct democracy in favor of a representative one was forced upon modern states by their transition toward knowledge societies. Anyone who still propagates the former as the solution to our actual problems is a dangerous populist because he wants laymen to decide on technical problems only understood by specialists.
But doesn’t this statement imply the suspicion
that democracy is no longer functioning, precisely because most of the issues at hand are no longer accessible to the average voter and the media – as the fourth authority alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches – hardly offer any real clarification?
No, this conclusion would be quite misleading, because in a deeper and therefore essential respect, citizens remain the authority of last resort: in their value judgments. Whether a majority approves of further immigration or whether it lets itself be determined by pity to open the borders; whether people want material equality rather than a special promotion of talents, i.e. greater inequality; whether the inner cities should be kept free of traffic or the car should be given right of way everywhere; whether marriage should be limited to men and women or apply to all; whether religious minorities should have the same rights as the traditionally dominant religion; whether politicians should be allowed to enrich themselves personally through their office – these and similar questions depend on value judgments on which every citizen can express his preference – value judgments do not require expert knowledge.
Exactly the opposite is true: Values are at the root of all expert knowledge. After all, the Industrial Revolution and the exponential expansion of our scientific and technical knowledge caused by it were themselves the result of a new value orientation. Since that time, man has hoped to find happiness in the improvement of earthly conditions instead of a future career in heaven.
The dichotomy of decision-making
in modern Western democracies is therefore tailored to modern society in its historically developed shape. The citizen is to remain the final authority in matters of moral value judgments. The majority within a territory are entitled to decide how they want to live together and design their own future and that of their children. The technical questions of how and whether these ideas can be realized in concrete terms are then decided by parliamentary committees and ministerial bureaucracies, which – ideally – dispose of the required knowledge. The division of democratic decision-making into fundamental value decisions expressed by all citizens and technical competence, which they delegate to technical committees and technically competent bureaucracies, is the direct and unavoidable consequence of social complexity.
Since every citizen has the right to vote and to stand for election,
representative democracy cannot avoid certain dangers. It may enable people without any knowledge to become politicians or even heads of state. It also allows demagogues who want to abolish democracy to rally a large following behind them. This danger can be mitigated but not abolished by an educational system that provides the broadest possible general education up to the beginning of professional training at universities. The greater the proportion of citizens who have at least the basic ability to distinguish specialized knowledge from charlatanry, the better the conditions for the functioning of democracy.
But education alone is not enough to prevent a legal transition to dictatorship (as has already been accomplished in Russia and is in the offing in Poland and Hungary). It may always happen that a majority of citizens is convinced that only a strong man with unlimited powers can solve pending problems. This is where the judiciary comes into play as the third pillar of a functioning democracy. It exercises the indispensable task of defending the constitution against those who try to subvert freedom by legal means.
Value judgments are subject to a wide range of fluctuation
not infrequently they are even opposed to each other. For this reason, coalitions are a suitable democratic means of giving minorities a say. When the two strongest parties have roughly equal numbers of votes, as is the case with the SPD and the Christian Democrats after this year’s federal election, then under normal circumstances both have the possibility and the right to seek coalitions that would secure government responsibility for either of them. This does not distort the voters’ mandate – on the contrary, the latter is reflected in possible coalition variants.
I dwell on these basic considerations of representative democracy before pointing out that they seem to have been forgotten in today’s Germany. Some politicians are paving the way toward a bananarepublic.
For the basic democratic competence
is taken away from citizens if his or her value decision is called into question. Whatever one may think of the two candidates for chancellor, Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet – is of no importance in the present context. The only thing to keep in mind is the fact that one of them recorded an enormous increase in votes, while the other caused his party to lose votes like never before since its founding in 1945. In this case, the voter has made a clear value decision. He does not want Armin Laschet as German chancellor. Against such a background, it is quite insignificant that the two leading parties were able to garner roughly the same number of votes. This fact does not reflect the preference of voters, which is expressed by the enormous increase in votes for one candidate and the huge loss of votes for the other.
From some sides we hear,
that such objections do not count because politics has little to do with morals. So, you can’t blame Armin Laschet for pulling out all the stops to save his political future. Anyone who speaks in this way is a cynic who despises democracy. He wants to deprive voters of the only real competence they are not only allowed but required to exercise if representative democracy is to have any meaning. Fortunately, there are high-ranking politicians like Michael Kretschmer, the prime minister of Saxony, who refuses to howl with the wolves. And Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder at least concedes, “No claim to form a government arises from second place.” These are the voices Democrats should listen to. Politician of whatever party should not be allowed to make a mockery of the will of voters and of democratic decency out of a personal obsession with power.
Let us not delude ourselves
The next step in the direction that leads us away from democracy and toward a banana republic would be to challenge the election itself – as has been done by Donald Trump in one of the world’s oldest democracies. It is regrettable that Angela Merkel, who achieved such a sovereign, such an admirable exit from politics, stood by the clear loser Armin Laschet, at least not contradicting him when he put himself in play as a candidate for chancellor. As for the Greens and the FDP, it is understandable that they see the unpleasant, undemocratic move of Arnim Laschet as an opportunity to squeeze out a maximum of demands for themselves, but this is no excuse in terms of democratic policy.
However, these breaches of democratic decency
should not make us forget that democracy faces even greater challenges. Citizens are supposed to have the right to decide on values and thus give direction to politics, while ministerial bureaucracies and parliamentary committees are then supposed to technically implement this direction and these values. But how is this to be done when the technical apparatus of modern economies has become so autonomous that the freedom of citizens is inevitably increasingly restricted?
Highways, high-voltage power lines and sprawling wind farms
certainly do not make the landscape more beautiful – that is no secret, but it is an inevitable development if our hunger for energy is to be satisfied. Likewise, small-scale agriculture once beautified nature, while large-scale plantations and endless fields are turning it into an agricultural desert – another inevitable consequence of the planet’s overpopulation, which is also responsible for our need to further increase harvests through the use of genetically modified, pesticide-dependent crops that meet the world’s growing demand. These are developments that nobody wanted – nor are they the effects of any particular economic system such as capitalism or neoliberalism. Rather, they result from the eightfold increase of population within the past two centuries and from the fact that all these people strive for the highest standard of living.
The techno-economic apparatus has taken on a life of its own
that increasingly restricts our freedom. The same applies, of course, to the people who operate its levers and ensure that we do not starve, have our jobs, and draw our incomes and pensions. The picture of democracy sketched above is an ideal abstraction that does not account for actual power. In addition to the executive, legislative and judicial branches, there is also the “privative” – the private sector – which, through lobbyists and the media, wields more power than all parliamentary committees and ministerial bureaucracies combined. In the US, the power of the private sector is obvious. Presidential candidates must run the gauntlet of an election campaign that gets more expensive every year and can only be won with substantial donations from big corporations. No American president can govern against big business, but he can certainly govern against the people.
In Germany, this development toward plutocracy has gone less far. However, the transition to a service society together with digital automation could decimate the workforce to such an extent that the unions, as a counterweight, lose as much power as they already did on the other side of the Atlantic. The greatest danger to democracy comes not from people like Armin Laschet who flout the rules of the game, but from the fourth power, the mighty private sector, which could abolish them altogether and use the government as the executor of its will.