A Liberal Democracy Doesn’t Just Fall from the Sky

by Alexander Görlach [translated from the German original published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, December 17th, 2017]
 
The West appears to face its end. After seventy years of liberal hegemony, the opposition carries the day in countless places. This opposition stands in stark denial of the core principles of citizenship and social liberties which the West brought: tolerance of religious minorities, equality of men and women, free speech, and openness to the variance of life-paths. Regarding the relations between peoples and nations, it’s “us first” again – from the US to Catalonia. Cosmopolitan thinking, which thinks of politics as a solution to global quests, is ridiculed. 
 
Narcissism returns to the grand stage of international politics: the appraisal of the self at the peril of the other. The Western model – secular liberal democracy – functioned in the exact opposite way: a democracy that derives the general well being from the liberties of its minorities. It is a community that strives to enable participation and welfare the broadest possible group. This order ultimately realizes the utopia of equality, liberty and brotherhood by combining the political with both economic and welfare metrics. 
 
A liberal democracy can only exist where schools and universities are open to everyone. It can only exist where social pathologies are countered with unemployment welfare, statutory accident insurance, health care, and pensions – for all. Liberal democracy doesn’t just fall from the sky; it is the result of equal living conditions for all those participating in it. The middle-class societies of the West are its perfect breeding ground. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: where there’s enough to eat, there’s time to think about morality. 
 
Civil liberties only enter conscious thought where education welfare and affluence offer it a breeding ground. That’s why the United States, in its rebuilding strategy after World War II ,prioritized economic projects that overcame the differences of the past – both in Europe and the Pacific Rim. The susceptibility to demagogic rhetoric decreases with affluence. This also explains why The People’s Republic of China strengthens its grip on society at the very moment a well-situated middle class establishes itself. Beijing learned its lessons from the West’s success story. 
 
In the countries of Europe and the United States, which make up the West as we know it, the liberal model isn’t yet fighting one-party systems and autocrats. Instead, it’s battling with a perceived unlinking of economic and political participation. If the middle class isn’t growing anymore, if savings pay no interest anymore, and if the access to education is increasingly hard, then this middle-class loses faith in liberal democracy. 
 
That’s why calls for a strong leader are audible in almost every country of the western world. And it’s the reason, too, why minorities and Muslims are demonized and declared to be the root of all evil – past, present, and future. In Germany, for example, supporters of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Pegida claim in surveys that while they’re content with their present situation, they fear a bleak future of mass immigration. 
 
In the internet age, the facilities for political participation have substantially increased in number. That doesn’t apply to the possibilities of profiting economically from these new developments. The criticism aims at the political system but means the financial-economic sector. During the summer of 2011, Thatcher biographer Charles Moore and German intellectual Frank Schirrmacher began a public discussion on the question of whether the Left might have been right with its criticism of financial capitalism. 
 
The conservatives, argued Schirrmacher, had entrusted the financial liberals with their values and ever since waited for the dividend – without success, as Schirrmacher concludes. That’s how both the conservatives, which understood themselves as patriotic cosmopolitans, and the social-democrats, who considered themselves an international alliance, stumbled into a crisis created by what is now labelled neoliberalism. 
 
The world, globalized by the West, holds both blessing and curse. Blessing, because it realized the cosmopolitan vision of classical antiquity by enforcing free movement of persons and ideas. Curse, because free-flowing capital doesn’t benefit the many, but the few – contrary to knowledge. 
 
The result is a divide between expectations and unfulfilled hopes. This dialectic of the liberal world is a re-issue of the dialectic of enlightenment. Curse and blessing are still intertwined in political consciousness. That explains why citizens are willing to protest against refugees with a smartphone, but not when the Panama or Paradise Papers reveal how the most affluent abuse financial globalization to avoid their duties to the welfare state. 
 
European modernity, with its pursuit of enlightenment and development, got the ball rolling. It alone can reconcile the quarreling spirits that it conjured up. To do so, the West has to reappraise its origin: Christian humanism with its emphasis on humankind as an end in itself. As the Christian theologian argues, man is the axis of salvation. The world, in which man finds himself has to befit his proportions and remain intelligible and comprehensible to him in relation to the self.    
 
In the classical sense, this certainly does not imply that human beings of foreign origin, language or religions are perceived as beyond the bounds of his proportions. Instead, cosmopolitanism argues that the rulebook of the world applies equally to all because all are equal. The first cosmopolitans, by name and conviction, were philosophers of Athens (and later Rome). To them, it meant an empathetic basis for thinking and acting that would reveal the whole world in us and our actions. Only in this way can the gaze, in a next step of abstraction, direct itself to the world beyond the city walls. 
 
When, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 crew first transmitted a photograph of the Earth from outer space, the dream of the ancient European cosmopolitans was about to be fulfilled. Doesn’t this planet look too vulnerable, from up there – sub specie aeternitatis – for its inhabitants to be divided over trivialities such as race, gender and language? The photograph, titled “Earthrise” inspired the peace and environmental movement alike. 
 
Today, the isolationist movements in all parts of the world point to the opposite direction, into an age of nationalism and totalitarianism that could be termed ‘second middle age’. To the European, accustomed to vicissitudes of life, the relapse into barbarism seems undeniable and fatal. But it isn’t. He ought, instead, to go into battle and missionary mode and offer to humankind what has always been in its nature: a political and social system that builds on the connection lines of the human family, embedded in a shared sense of compassion. Above all, doing so will require a global social contract that puts an end to the rule of capital, which has enslaved man and disfigured his soul for far too long. 
 
Professor Alexander Görlach is an affiliate of the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy program and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a fellow to the Center for the Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK. He holds PhDs in linguistics and comparative religion and is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com. This article represents his views alone, not those of the FDR Foundation or other institutions.

How the New Right-wing Party AfD Dominates German Politics

Now Germany…
 
After all other European countries, the Federal Republic will also have a right wing party in the midst of its national parliament. The 13 percent, which the party achieved on Election Day, September 24, can be called a landslide victory. Beyond strongholds in the East of the country where they gained nearly thirty percent of their followers, their voter base now also extends to wide parts of the West of the country, where they numbered, in many places, in the double digits. 


The country, however, even 26 years after its reunification, still shows regional electoral preferences. In the nineties and the early ‘aughts the far left party Die Linke attained power in all states in the former East. They have now lost plenty of voters to the new right. In the West, on the other hand, right wing parties have sparked every ten years or so, only to disappear after a short while. Usually, they had a try-out period in state parliaments where they did not convince the electorate. They were not voted for again.


Until now Germans in the West, so it seems, had had enough of this extremism, for it led the country into the catastrophe of the Second World War and the Shoa. Nazism should never return to the country. The notion of a strong leader with claims to have the capacity to solve all the country’s problems was frowned upon. Moreover, today’s right wing extremists, the so called Alternative for Germany, did not fall in with one chairman but with a whole array of front row politicians, some of them using extreme right wing vocabulary. That included praise for the German Wehrmacht and revisionist utterances when it comes to German’s commemoration of the Holocaust. The new right wing populism is a pan-German phenomenon. And that was the real news in the results of this year’s election in Europe’s largest country.


Since the election, both German and international media are trying to wrap their head around the success the AfD had in this years voting. Undoubtedly the refugee crisis of 2015; where up to one million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia made it into Europe and further on to Germany; has played a role. The Alternative for Germany before the crisis had plummeted in the polls. Created in 2013 as a party mostly opposing the European Union and the European currency, they had initially lost momentum. When the refugees entered into Germany, one of their AfD chairs, Alexander Gauland, cheered: the refugees were a godsend to his party.  With their xenophobic, anti-Muslim voice they indeed quickly re-gathered followers: in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt they gained 24 percent of the votes in the state election, in Baden-Württemberg 15 percent. Mr. Gauland is the one who recently claimed that Germans ought to be proud of the Wehrmacht, the German army, and their doings in both two world wars; this outrageous statement only surpassed in egregiousness by Björn Höcke, who claimed that the Holocaust Memorial Site in Berlin should be considered a monument of shame for the Germans, urging the country to move on and leave any narrative commemorating the Shoa behind. The pundits disagree on whether the AfD receives their support for this sort of rhetoric. They are now in 13 of the countries 16 state parliaments and in the national parliament, the Bundestag.


The Bundestag in the Reichstags-Building is now the international stage for the party. They are in their view on equal terms with other similar movements all across Europe. But, more importantly, they are also on the radar of the international media that usually does not report about the ongoings in state-level German politics. That’s why the former right-wing movements disappeared rather unnoticed. Focusing on a single topic, they fail to govern once confronted in parliament with actual legislative work (“what is your stance on the pension funds, the retirement age or environmental protection?”). As a matter of fact, AfD made it into the Bundestag without having a concise pension model. And this in an aging society such as Germany! 


In the weeks before the Election Day, the AfD had sunk to seven percent in the polls, as one could expect given the prior experience of right-wingers. But all of a sudden – and there is lots of guesswork why this has happened – it went up again to 12, 13 percent, a figure very close to their final result. As a result of the success of the right wing populists the political spectrum in Germany has shifted to the right. It is a dangerous approach: the hope that people will return to traditional parties simply because they may use sharper rhetoric against the AfD is delusional. In Bavaria the conservative CSU (Christian Social Union), sister party to the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) that governed the country for almost seventy years, lost 11 percent in the federal election. They tried to mimic the new appeal and rhetoric of the AfD. But when people have the choice between an original and the copy, they go for the original. Very sadly so in this case.


Alexander Görlach is an affiliate professor with the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy Program. He is also a fellow to the Center for Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Alex holds a PhD in linguistics and a PhD in comparative religion. He is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com and an op-ed contributor to the New York Times. This article represents his views alone, rather than those of the FDR Foundation.