Creating meaning through democracy?

Requirements for successful coexistence

Gerhard Wegner

6th Conference of Scientific Cooperation between Lower Saxony and Israel, March 18-19, 2024

Find out more about the conference

Ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you here this evening and to share with you a topic that is currently extremely important: the future of democracy as the constitutive framework for our coexistence in Germany – and no less so in Israel.

Meaningless rules

The title may be irritating: Creating meaning through democracy? Is that what democracy is supposed to strive for? Many liberal protagonists would immediately and indignantly reject such an expectation. The creation of meaning is a matter for social actors – not the state. And that is not wrong. A democracy as a form of state will create a peaceful coexistence of many different, perhaps even contradictory, creators of meaning. It must keep itself out of this conflict-ridden structure and is therefore limited to formal procedures and rules of all kinds that are, so to speak, “meaningless” in themselves. This repeatedly makes democracy difficult to access, time-consuming and even boring and often leads to weariness among citizens who are concerned about concrete problems, especially in times of primarily ego- and benefit-oriented attitudes.

Citizens expect leadership, decisions, inspiring speeches, perhaps also charisma and not a process with resubmission in 6 months and a third reading after the relevant committee deliberations and a lazy compromise at the end. This is another reason why politicians, despite their great importance for the country, are not very popular and rank lower and lower in the professional prestige rankings (just behind bankers). In addition, the principle of majority voting is not always plausible, just as the classic differences between right and left, which once contributed significantly to the clarity of democracy, hardly exist any more. Everything can be politicized today – everything can be moralized accordingly. In the background, an ever-increasing differentiation of systemic logics is driving the complexity of social life – as Veith Selk has recently pointed out.1 Right-wing populism and right-wing radicalism are surfing on all of this with growing success – not only in Germany – and serving resentment. Can democracy solve the key central problems?

New interest in democracy.

1 Veith Selk: “The dawn of democracy A critique of democratic theory. Berlin 2023.

You can already see what I am talking about: the declining interest in democracy in Germany in recent years and decades – which has long been reflected in lower voter turnout. However, this trend has now changed since a new, now clearly radical right-wing party entered the field with growing success. It is making democracy exciting again because it is obviously flirting with its abolition. More and more people agree with this – especially in eastern Germany, where this party could take over government power in the next state elections. And it has – with considerable delay – led to a huge democratic counter-mobilization since the beginning of this year, in which democracy is associated with far more than just rules and procedures. The original impulse of German democracy, which articulated a very clear “Never again!” after the liberation from National Socialism and was reflected in the anti-fascist German Basic Law, has been reawakened here. “Never again is now” – this is how it has sounded everywhere in Germany in recent weeks.

Democracy thus gains meaning through its questioning. One realizes what one could lose – precisely because others, enemies of democracy, are now using it to eliminate it. For that is its fundamental problem, at least as long as it is understood primarily as a formal procedure: if the majority conditions make it possible, it can abolish itself. A new regime could even be quickly established by means of a targeted attack by opponents of the constitution. And ultimately, a democracy cannot assert itself against the will of the majority anyway.

That was one of the key lessons learned from the first German democracy in the years between the world wars, the “Weimar Republic”. This should never be possible again – but it remains so, because this possibility can never be completely eliminated in democracies. In other state constitutions, the risk of turning into a reign of terror is of course even higher. But just that: If the opinion of up to a fifth of Germans currently prevails, it is apparently legitimate to vote for a party that is largely recognized as right-wing extremist and to give it access to state power. Is that still democracy? In the sense of adherence to procedures and rules, it is. But democracy is much more than that.

Dignity: Freedom from heteronomy

What is currently driving people onto the streets en masse in Germany – and probably also in Israel ahead of October 7 – is not a love of formal procedures and rules, but of the freedoms (but also social rights) that are to be guaranteed by these procedures and rules and which are set out at the very beginning of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany: “Human dignity is inviolable. It is the duty of all state authorities to respect and protect it.” Reference is then made to the “inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every human community”. And then follows the catalog of fundamental rights that bind legislation, executive power and jurisdiction as “directly applicable law”? This article is subject to a “guarantee of eternity” and therefore cannot be changed by any majority. But of course it can be interpreted in different ways. This is the core content of democracy – it is the foundation of its meaning. A system of procedures – including elections and participation rules – that no longer had this focus – regardless of whether it was said or acted upon – would therefore no longer be a democracy. Its core interest is to enable a life in freedom from heteronomy, behind which, as Judith Shklar puts it, is the “universal human interest in being protected from cruelty.” 2 There can be no doubt that, despite the current threat, the vast majority of Germans fully support this fundamental goal of their political order.

It remains clear, however, that this sense of democracy, despite the pathos of human dignity or perhaps precisely because of it, is neither fixed once and for all, nor can it be fixed in any way. It remains contested and is constantly evolving. What was not yet compatible with human dignity in this respect at the time the Basic Law was written! Unequal rights for men and women certainly – and of course much more, for example, in terms of tolerance of violence. Social inequality in general: its abolition is not the focus of liberal democracy – on the contrary, it can be justified by it! But what is crucial is that the reference to human dignity is ultimately a stable guiding framework in all developments, just like fundamental rights. In a certain sense, these formulations are “empty formulas” that have to be filled by different interests: They are lines of truce in the constant battle of interests. And they also guarantee democracy, which appears just as “empty” and thus enables peaceful coexistence. To put it metaphorically: the coronation ceremonies of democracy can only be celebrated as long as no one sits on the throne. As soon as that happens, democracy is finished.

Nevertheless, a divided basis is needed. Thomas Steinfeld has aptly pointed out that democracy can only survive if a clear majority agrees on key issues. It cannot survive purely as a mathematical ratio: “Democracy, understood in the traditional sense, cannot defend itself if the long-standing ‘common sense’ is called into question or even opposed by a large group of voters.” 3 Such a common sense lives from meaningful, meaningful content, from fictions, narratives and imaginations. In other words, democracy does not primarily thrive on consensus about rules, but on emotional energy.

Resilient democracy

Democracy, when it is alive, is therefore highly flexible – but also highly fragile. And we are currently experiencing this in Germany and even more so in the USA. However, democracy is not defenceless. Anyone who wants to eliminate it as a person, organization or party can be sanctioned. This is also regulated by the Basic Law. Anyone who abuses fundamental rights to fight against the democratic order forfeits these fundamental rights” (Art. 18). Consequently, such persons can be deprived of their eligibility to stand for election. The essence of a fundamental right may not be infringed (Art. 19). All Germans have the right to resist anyone who wants to eliminate the basic order (Art. 20). Parties that want to eliminate the democratic order can be declared unconstitutional and consequently banned (Art. 21). Incitement of the people – in particular anything that refers to National Socialism – is prohibited (StGB 84 ff, StGB 130). The spirit of these regulations does not refer to abstract possibilities, but has an impact in practice. For example, demonstrations that do not have to be approved can nevertheless be subject to conditions in order to prevent openly anti-democratic behavior, and this is what happens here in Hanover, for example, with regard to anti-Semitic behavior towards Israel.

2 Quote from Elif Özmen: What is Liberalism? Berlin, 2023, 105.
3 Thomas Steinfeld in the SZ of 12.6.2019.

Democracy as a way of life

Consequently, democracy is much more than just following rules. It represents a way of life – a meta way of life, if you will – that develops above – or perhaps better: below – the many, colorful ways of life of the citizens of the state. One could also speak of a “culture of democracy” that overarches everything else and embeds it in something common. This common ground is the subject of constant debate. A “German Leitkultur” has been rejected by many citizens, but large majorities would agree to certain cultural and other minimum conditions, such as the rules of the Basic Law. However, this presupposes that the citizens’ ways of life are “accommodating” (Jürgen Habermas) or at least overlapping (John Rawls) in one way or another. No: democracy is not a home where you can make yourself comfortable and spend the evening. It does not need a value system fundamentalism – it would even be dangerous.

But it must be asked with Martha Nussbaum: “How can the public culture of a nation, that repudiates all religious and ideological establishments, have enough substance and texture to be capable of the type of poetry, oratory, and art that moves real people?”4 At the end of her book, she quotes Walt Whitman: “America is only you and me. We should aspire to nothing less.”5 That is the core of the whole thing! The substance of democracy. And America in general. When they sail up the Potomac from Georgetown in Washington – a popular tourist tour – they pass behind the Lincoln Memorial. At that moment, the loudspeaker on the boat switches on and you hear a voice: “I have a dream…” Martin Luther King’s famous speech from August 28, 1963. You get goose bumps and are right in the middle of what happened back then. That’s how emotional energy works.

It is our country

It takes enthusiasm for a life in freedom, equality, justice and solidarity, which can only exist in a democracy. We should never forget how long and sacrificial the road to it was. Germany has deviated from this path in a way that is uniquely terrible worldwide and today needs all its strength to avoid a renewed relapse into barbarism.

To sum it up with Susanne Baer and Nina Alizadeh Marandi: “The Basic Law promises freedom, but not reckless self-fulfilment; protection, but not privileges; equality, but not egalitarianism; dignity, but truly for all. We must continue to fight for such a constitution today. “6 It is our country.

4 Martha Nussbaum: Political Emotions. Why Love matters or Justice. Harvard University Press, 2013, 387.
5 Ibid, 397
6 Susanne Baer / Nina Alizadeh Marandi: Verfassungskultur statt Leitkultur. Utilized and unutilized potentials of the Basic Law. In: APUZ 9-11/2024, 11-17.

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