Friday 5th of June 2020

democracy in tatters...


Democracy (rule by the people), and specifically liberal democracy (democracy with individual rights and freedoms protected), is a central and precious part of our heritage. But now, in Britain and around the world, it is in danger. Political philosophers, social scientists and psychologists are considering how and why, and whether they can and should do more.

The first danger to democracy, evident for decades, is that it is at risk of withering as voter turnout at general elections in many countries declines, from 84 per cent in Britain in 1950 to 66 per cent in 2015. Secondly, and probably partly responsible for this, there has been a 30-year decline in trust in government (Jennings et al., 2016). An Ipsos MORI poll published in January 2016 found that only 21 per cent of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, far behind doctors (89 per cent) and teachers (86 per cent). A recent European survey, reported in David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections: The Case for Democracy found similar results.

A third threat is growing political ignorance. Effective democracy requires that people know what they are voting for, but increasingly news is obtained from social media, where personalised newsfeeds reinforce the reader’s worldview. Extensive (American) survey data (Achen & Bartels, 2016) show that political ignorance is widespread, and voters are generally swayed by the last six months, typically rewarding or punishing politicians for events over which they have probably had little or no control. The quality of political discourse is increasingly detached from both reason (logical coherence) and reasonableness (avoiding accusations, tolerating irreconcilable differences and crediting opponents with good faith (Rawls, 2005). Around the world reasonable discussion is being replaced by post-truth politics and populism, where truth and consistency are unimportant, debate is increasingly personal, and a simplified world is portrayed, with a virtuous and homogeneous ‘us’ against an elite or alien ‘other’ (see Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason). Pluralism – accepting and respecting other perspectives – is a casualty.

Other kinds of behaviour, especially, but not only, in America, are breaking ‘the guardrails of democracy’ (Frum, 2016). These are conventions previously accepted by politicians of all parties but now increasingly abandoned: the pursuit of some vision of a common good, trustworthiness, knowledge of public affairs, adherence to some principles, accepting the primacy of national security, tolerance, and respect for political opponents. In Britain and America the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the democratic process have recently been directly challenged by news media and senior politicians. And there are widening political divisions: in Britain during the Brexit debate, and even more so in America where the breadth of the cross-party divisions has in recent years led to repeated government paralysis.

The final threat is external: growing global insecurity. Political sluggishness and sometimes paralysis through widening divisions in parliaments means that democratic governments lose both popular legitimacy and efficiency. While Western democracies disagree within and between their parliaments, Russia and China are efficiently decisive, claiming new status and territory, and challenging the current world order. Alongside this there are external and internal threats posed by radical Islamist groups and the rise of the far right in many countries.

In summary, democracy faces dangers that are passive and active, internal and external, and together they place its future in danger. How has this situation arisen?

To begin with detachment from politics, surveys (Jennings et al., 2016) show that the strongest underlying factor is the perceived flawed character of politicians, and in particular their fixation with headlines and protecting their own interests and those of the rich and powerful. Detachment in turn is a likely main cause of voter ignorance. Changes in the style of political behaviour – the rise of post-truth politics and populism – seem part of a wider retreat from reason, illustrated during the Brexit campaign by Michael Gove announcing that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. The changes in political discourse also reveal the weakening of a shared moral basis for politics. This is surely the significance of the breaking of the guardrails of democracy, and reflects what American political philosopher Michael Sandel calls ‘the moral vacancy of contemporary politics’. Sandel links this to ‘market triumphalism’; the extension of the market mechanism and market values into more and more spheres – moving from having a market economy to being a market society. Everything must be ncreased prosperity for one group or another.

Widening political divisions have frequently been linked to growing economic inequality. In Capital in the Twenty First Century, Thomas Piketty presents a vast amount of evidence in support of his account of the economic processes fuelling inequality, and argues that social and economic instability is likely to worsen further, eventually threatening the democratic order. Internationally, as austerity remains the chief remedy for government budget deficits, the poorest are most affected, so inequality increases further. Piketty’s warnings are supported by extensive international data presented in books such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, showing a strong relationship between inequality and various measures of mental and physical health, personal and social wellbeing, and (most relevant here) trust, social cohesion and political stability. More widely, economic hardship has historically been thought to prompt the rise of the far right; and the effective humiliation of Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 is surely a major reason for the actions and popularity of a nationalist president now bestriding the world and claiming influence and territory.

We turn next to the mechanisms through which these social changes result in dangers to democracy.


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threatening peace, truth and equality...

By abruptly revoking the special, constitutionally protected status of Jammu and Kashmir, India has become the latest major democracy to act against a minority community for short-term political popularity. Kashmir will henceforth be ruled more directly from the government in New Delhi, and Hindu nationalists are thrilled. Carefully maintained constitutional arrangements are in tatters.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to leaving the European Union with or without a ‘backstop’ protecting the border arrangements between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. His hardline position ignores the concerns of Northern Irish constituents entirely. It is geared toward rallying his pro-Brexit English base, even if that means threatening the fragile peace and prosperity in Ireland.

In another of the world’s great democracies, President Donald Trump has upendedAmerica’s relationship with Mexico and other Central American neighbours and rallied his base by repeatedly demonising Hispanics. The US Hispanic community is now paying a harsh price for such rhetoric, as evidenced by the massacre in El Paso, Texas, this month.

The shredding of longstanding protections for minority communities is part of a wider trend in democracies around the world. Three worrying features stand out. First, politicians are imperilling the ‘public square’, and the ability of citizens to argue, demonstrate and debate without the threat of violence. Political leaders are deepening social divisions by pitting an ‘us’ against a ‘them’ that includes foreigners, neighbours, immigrants, minorities, the press, ‘experts’, and ‘the elite’.

In India, rights groups have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of creating a ‘climate of impunity’ for angry mobs. In America, many believe Trump is doing the same, pointing, for example, to his racist tweets targeting four Democratic congresswomen of colour. During the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK, Facebook users were targeted with posts suggesting that staying in the EU would leave Britain vulnerable to receiving 76 million Turkish immigrants. One leave campaign ad showed a surly foreign man elbowing a tearful elderly white woman out of a hospital queue. A recent survey suggests that there has been a disturbing increase in racially motivated abuse, discrimination and attacks against ethnic-minority Britons.

Second, having won power through democratic elections, these leaders are seeking to weaken independent institutions and checks on executive power. For example, Trump invoked national-emergency powers to secure funding for his wall on the US border with Mexico. Johnson refuses to rule out suspending parliament in order to deliver Brexit, while his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, describes Britain’s permanent civil service as an ‘idea for the history books’. In India, a fellow BJP member has accused Modi’s government of ‘decimating’ India’s constitutional institutions, including the supreme court, the national investigative agency, the central bank and the electoral commission.

Abusing emergency powers or executive orders, sidelining parliament and government agencies, and weakening judicial independence and the ‘referees’ that ensure political leaders play by the rules make it more likely that government decisions will not balance the interests of all citizens. These attacks on the independence of institutions leave minorities particularly vulnerable.

Finally, there is a risk that political power in the world’s democracies is becoming more personalised. Patronage, personal influence and favours are being used to create loyalty to the leader, and those who fall out of favour are being bullied from office or arbitrarily fired. Political leaders are also making ever-bolder attempts to cow the media and business community into silence, or to co-opt them by offering special privileges.


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... "into silence, or to co-opt them by offering special privileges." — OR BLACKMAIL through SEX



the united states of niccolò machiavelli: sub realismi cuiusdam politici…



Toon at top by David Rowe, the best amongst the best cartoonists...


Australia has become the complacent country. Complacent about its future economic competitiveness. Complacent about climate change. Complacent about how to navigate our future in the region given China’s rise, America’s response and a neighbourhood increasingly torn between the two. Complacent too about the gradual erosion of our democracy itself through a growing “pay for play” culture from financial donations to political parties, an increasing assault on the independence of the public service and the abuse of monopolistic media power.


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democracy in germany...

What remains: thinking independently, acting humanely, laying the foundations for more direct democracy

A commentary after the state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony

by Karl Müller


On 1 September of this year the two Eastern German Federal States Saxony and Brandenburg elected a new Landtag. As it had been expected and was predicted in the surveys, the party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) was able to chalk up very high gains. They won more than 20 per cent of the electoral votes. In both federal states the party is now the second strongest with respect to their seats in the Landtag. The two ruling parties SPD (Social Democratic Party) and CDU (Christian Democratic Union) had to put up with marked losses of votes and they stayed the strongest parties merely in those states, where they had supplied the governor – i.e. the SPD in Brandenburg and the CDU in Saxony – with merely a very small lead. The party “Die Linke” (The Left) also suffered heavy losses of votes. “Bündnis 90/ die Grünen” (Alliance 90/The Greens) had increased in votes less than they had expected.

No indication of stability and interior peace

During the days after the elections there were many analyses and commentaries. In this article only one aspect is to be commented on, i.e. the fact that these German elections did again not send any signal of stability and interior peace. Quite the contrary: Germany entangles itself more and more in a political dilemma. There are very solid reasons for the fact that less and less citizens have confidence in those parties who to date have guided the government affairs. These reasons are quite comprehensible. The loss of confidence is by no means due to varying moods and cheap propaganda. In contrast to those reproaches the author of this article has had the experience that many Germans in the Eastern states are wide-awake politically. They act and think independently and react in an allergic manner to totalitarian aspirations. Therefore it doesn’t come as a surprise that they cold-shoulder the governing parties more than the people in the West. It is rather the question why people in the West are ready to acquiesce in the policies of the governing parties. And it is as well comprehensible that there are citizens in Eastern Germany who have hoped for a change in policies by electing the AfD and expressing their protest this way. It is a debatable point, however, whether the AfD can be a genuine alternative for Germany or can at least open the door to such an alternative.

What parties might become more significant for Germany?

There are indications1  that in the Federal Republic of Germany no party has been or will be allowed to achieve any significance contrary to the wishes of the USA.2  Or putting it another way: What spectacle is being enacted at present in which the citizens are not merely the audience but part of the ensemble?

In Current Concerns No 19 from 19 September the author of these lines drew attention to a book by two Scottish authors dealing with the pre-history of the First World War; in particular they pointed out the machinations of a “Secret Elite” and its influence on the foreign policy of Great Britain and other allied states.

In no minor degree has been and still is such an influence from the exterior being exerted on the states’ home politics in former times as well as today – not only with the aid of intelligence agencies. It is well-known that certain media steered from outside as well as certain NGOs play a major part in this game. This is no less true with respect to political parties – in particular for a country like Germany, which has not been allowed to be politically sovereign for more than a hundred years.

Powerful interests against Germany?

It is therefore necessary that while contemplating the election results in contemporary Germany we should as well consider world politics and the role that certain powers have meant for Germany therein. When doing so we might indeed come to the conclusion that there are powerful foreign interests who do not wish for a Germany that is stable, prosperous and pacified in the interior. Let’s consider the following aspects:

  • An economically prosperous Germany that is not willing to redistribute its wealth among EU-Europe may not be favoured by all EU states, even less a sovereign Germany. Instead images from history have been re-evoked … and there is even a new “German enemy stereotype”. By putting on airs and pursuing affectations of a great power German politicians have contributed to such an enemy stereotype as for instance the  former parliamentary CDU party leader Volker Kauder’s statement that from now on German would be the prevailing language in Europe, as well as the former finance minister Peer Steinbrück’s cavalry threat against Switzerland and last not least the immense pressure put on EU-countries by Angela Merkel’s migration policies.

  • Not everyone in the USA favours a prosperous and politically stable Germany. Even today, there are influential US circles that still adhere to the theory of the Englishman Halford Mackinder after the First World War and believe that in order to secure the Anglo-Saxon sea power’s hegemony  they have to prevent a great Eurasian land power – actually meaning an alliance between an economically strong Germany (and/or China) with a resource-rich Russia. It was not merely a passing fad what George Friedman said in his speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2015: It had been the USA’s endeavour since 1871 to prevent an alliance bewtween Germany and Russia, he said, and that Germany had been an instability factor for US world policy. For these circles it would be best if Germany continued to stay the USA’s vassal and could be brought into position against Russia. That way Germany’s affiliating with Russia could be prevented and both countries could be weakened. In case Germany opposed to playing such a part, it could be put under pressure. 

  • Russia’s relationship with Germany might be ambivalent. Russia surely wishes for a politically stable and economically prosperous Germany as a partner. However, Russia can have no interest in a strong enemy Germany.

Yet no reason for giving up

Does all that give rise to resignation? No! It might be unlikely that political conditions in Germany will be improved by elections in the foreseeable future. The power and influence structures created in the past and the networks accompanying them will not vanish into thin air overnight, however, when  contemplating the situation with some realism, we may find ways for genuine progress.

Above all it is important to building up a genuine control of power step by step by the responsible citizens; that means steps directed towards more direct democracy.3 However, direct democracy can only control the power if the citizens are capable of living their lives in dignity, which requires a sense of equality, a certain degree of identification with and sense of responsibility for their community. To convey such qualities is the essence of the state’s educational mandate. The significance of education and schooling for life in a democracy can never be overestimated. It follows, however, that the school reforms of the past decades as well as the recent economisation of schools and universities have to be put under high scrutiny and that the prevailing cultural hegemony of false theories and erroneous concepts of human nature (Menschenbilder) have to be overcome. 

Direct Democracy and education to nobleness of the heart

Part of education is to cultivate the nobleness of the heart. Knowledge without humaneness leads to an oblique track of striving for power all too often. What does the antidote consist of? All the great world religions speak of charity and the resulting imperatives of togetherness and cooperation. Nothing of these commandments has been diminished in significance. The humanities have only supplied a scientific basis for these messages of faith.

Last not least: It is as well important not to get caught in the manipulation trap. Supplying truthful information that is founded on and aims at humaneness is another antidote. That is why citizens require media which are independent. Media which are the mouthpiece of the power circles with the greatest say are no remedy.

It is unlikely that the German citizens will be able to attain anything constructive with their vote for a party or a party candidate in the foreseeable future, and this fact is a memorial for the desolate state of German democracy. Wouldn’t it lead to success  more likely, if more citizens, who do not depend on a party,  would offer themselves as candidates of their constituencies? This might work well, but only if they obtained a greater support by their fellow citizens. Such an approach could also be an important contribution to more direct democracy.     


1     Immediately after the Second World War this was obvious. Each and every party had to be admitted by the respective occupying power. But also for later foundations of parties there are hints at a dependency from the USA. Jutta Ditfurth described this with respect to the German Greens in her book “Krieg, Atom, Armut. Was sie reden, was sie tun: Die Grünen”. Willy Wimmer did so with respect to the new “right-winged” parties in his books “Deutschland im Umbruch. Vom Diskurs zum Konkurs – eine Republik wird abgewickelt.” und “Immer wieder Versailles. Ein Jahrhundert im Brennglas.”

2    Speaking of the “USA” the author does not denounce the citizens of the country, neither the ruling administration at the time. Instead he speaks about those forces and circles in the country, which are often named “The Deep State”.  In the long term they have a greater influence on the policies of their country in many realms than the administrations which are ever and again newly compounded. Among them we may count for instance the intelligence agencies, the transatlantic networks and the military-industrial complex.

3    One example of a functioning power control by direct democracy is the possibility to initiate a referendum against an act that was passed by the parliament in order to achieve a plebiscite on the respective law. Just the possibility of a successful referendum with resulting plebiscite constitutes a preventive against a legislative which diverges more and more from the will of the People.


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back in 2016...

Two weeks ago—when the election of Donald Trump was still, to many people, an almost comedic idea—Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, visited the Social Science Research Council, in Brooklyn, to talk about the fate of democracy with some graduate students. He had just won the Berggruen Prize, which is awarded, along with a million dollars, to a philosopher “whose ideas are intellectually profound but also able to inform practical and public life.” Taylor’s books tell the story of how some sources of value (love, art, individuality) have grown in relevance, while others (God, king, tradition) have declined. When we met, Taylor’s newest work was a lecture called “Some Crises of Democracy.” Citizens in Western democracies, he argued, used to find personal fulfillment in political participation; now, they were coming to feel that the democratic process was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and that democratic politicians were con artists. Their desperation and cynicism seemed capable of turning these beliefs into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Taylor, who is eighty-five, is tall and handsome, with athletic shoulders and a thinker’s high, domed forehead. He radiates kindliness and thoughtful equanimity. Leaning back in his chair, he spoke softly, pausing frequently to cough—he had a cold—or to chuckle, in self-deprecation, at his own philosophical eloquence. (A typical laugh line: “How people understand democracy is different from epoch to epoch—that’s what the term ‘social imaginary’ is meant to capture!") Economists, psychologists, political theorists, and some philosophers share a view of personhood: they think of people as “rational actors” who make decisions by “maximizing utility”—in other words, by looking out for themselves. Taylor, by contrast, understands human behavior in terms of the search for meaning. His work has been to make a farcically vague concept—“the meaning of life”—historical and concrete. In more than a dozen books, including “Sources of the Self,” from 1989, and the monumental “A Secular Age,” from 2007, he has explored the secret histories of our individual, religious, and political ideals, and mapped the inner tensions that cause those ideals to blossom or to break apart.

Taylor speaks like he writes—patiently, at length—and, at the S.S.R.C., he explained, step by step, how we find democracy meaningful. “Democracy is teleological,” Taylor said. “It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: inclusion.” As democratic citizens, we enjoy taking pride in democracy’s achievements: suffrage, immigration, civil rights. But, just as often, we feel anger and shame about rising inequality, insufficient representation, corruption. Democracies, often ruled by a revolving cast of élites, rarely live up to their utopian promises of inclusivity. Shame prevents us from being complacent; it urges us toward self-critique. Pride provides us with a sense of direction. The balance makes democracy a struggle we can believe in. “In some ways, democracy is a fiction that we’re trying to realize,” Taylor said.

This October, in the Washington Post, a Stanford political scientist reported that forty per cent of Americans had “lost faith in democracy”; a few weeks later, eight in ten voters told the Times that they felt “disgusted” by politics. Around the seminar table in Brooklyn, the graduate students—a chic, polyglot group from the U.S., Russia, France, and elsewhere—name-checked, in the course of their discussion, the issues that had raised feelings of shame to toxic levels: the suspicion that elections are “rigged” by lobbyists, donors, or establishment politicians (Donna Brazile’s leaking of debate questions had not yet come to light); the conviction that policy decisions are shaped by financiers (some of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches had recently been leaked); a widespread lack of accountability (for the bankers of 2008, the officials of Flint, Michigan, police officers, and others); the knowledge that Americans talk almost entirely to people who already share their political views. As each of these democratic failures was mentioned, Taylor, dressed in a down vest and hiking sneakers, nodded in recognition.

We’re used to thinking about political life as a series of battles in which different groups jockey for influence; we worry that these battles are too divisive. But in this election, divisiveness was rendered even more troubling by a creeping nihilism that made our collective behavior both more lackadaisical and more unhinged. Many people who voted for Clinton did so while “holding their noses”; others pitched in for Trump even though they didn’t really believe in him. (Sixty per cent of voters surveyed as they left the polls said that Trump was “not qualified” to be President.) As Taylor explained, during a crisis of democratic faith, we may still go to the polls. But we’ll participate in a spirit of anger, spite, irony, or despair. Some of us, Taylor concluded, will cast votes that are, essentially, “declarations of disbelief.” He laughed, softly, at this well-turned phrase, while the students took notes.

Taylor was born in 1931, near Montreal. He grew up in a household defined by religious and political commitments. His father was an Anglophone Anglican, his mother a Francophone Catholic. The household had a skeptical wing: his paternal grandfather attended Mass, but was a “Voltaireian anti-clerical” at home, he told me, in a conference room after the end of his seminar. The Second World War was the defining fact of Taylor’s childhood. “I remember every major event after the middle of the nineteen-thirties. The start of the war, the bombing of Madrid. The climax—a day I’ll never forget—was when France sued for the armistice,” he said, referring to the French surrender, on June 22, 1940. “In my family, that was the end of civilization.”

Taylor’s father was a veteran of the First World War, an avid reader of military history, and a Canadian senator. “He always had big projects going about strengthening the relationship between Canada and France,” Taylor recalled. In the sixties, Taylor helped found Canada’s New Democratic Party, serving as its vice-president and the president of its Quebec branch. He ran for Parliament four times, losing, in one instance, to Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s future Prime Minister. (Trudeau’s son, Justin, is the country’s current P.M.) Taylor is a devout Catholic—perhaps the only one to have written an eight-hundred-page history of secularism. He has raised five daughters. He loves nature and, whenever he can, works from a remote farmhouse about a hundred miles from Montreal, “in a wild area with wolves and bears.” He is the opposite of a nihilist—he believes in many things, very strongly.

Taylor often thinks that he is stating the obvious: “In moments of discouragement, I feel it’s all entirely self-evident, like two and two is four.” But some ideas, though true, are rarely stated, or need to be stated again and again. Real belief, Taylor reminded me—the kind of belief that offers some form of spiritual fulfillment—can be dangerous. Around the time of the Second World War, he said, many thinkers grew wary of such beliefs. “Joseph Schumpeter and others thought it would be better to care less,” Taylor told me. “The idea was to go to the polls every four years and elect an élite team. Don’t get excited and have mass movements of Communism and Fascism. It’s an idea that says, ‘Avoid the worst—avoid the terrible things that arise.’ ” He paused, then shrugged. “I have another ethic. I’m with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hannah Arendt, Rousseau, Montesquieu. I believe it’s a higher mode of being to participate in your own self-government.” In Taylor's view, cool disengagement is a fiction; an ardent search for goodness is the human reality. “We all seek a sense of what it would be like to be fully connected to something. We all have a sense of what really living, and not just existing, would be. We know that there’s a level of life that’s rare to attain. And whether we attain that or not can be a source of deep satisfaction or shame to us.” It’s possible, Taylor said, to live as a “resident alien” in a democracy, going to work and raising your family without “getting a charge” out of the democratic story. But something might happen to change that. “The feeling that I’m really happy to be living in this society or that I’m really upset; that I’m either living fully or being deprived of that experience—those feelings are signs that the ethic of democracy has seized you.”


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