Democracy on the edge

, by Simon Bauer, Translated by Chiara Cettolin

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Democracy on the edge
Illustration by Lena Konz

It is the most important thing a society can have. Thanks to it, a country can be governed by the people and their representatives. It ensures the fundamental rights of the citizens, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly. Democracy is the cornerstone of modern countries, a gem of peaceful coexistence that has been refined through millennia. Nowadays, however, democracy is pushed over the edge in many places, and its foundations appear to be undermined.

“Democracy means that if the doorbell rings in the early hours, it is likely to be the milkman.” (Winston Churchill)

The idea of democracy (a word that comes from the Greek “demos kratos”, meaning “people’s power”) already existed in ancient Greece. In the polis, the Greek city-state, male full citizens had the right to participate in decision-making from the age of 30. Even if society yet did not know concepts such as gender equality or protection of minorities, that was the beginning of the first democratic structures.

Since then, democracy has evolved to become the most effective form of government in offering power to the people and involving them in decision-making. In France, in 1789, the principle “Freedom, equality, fraternity!” brought an entire nation demonstrating in the streets, which resulted in political change to democratic structures in the whole of Europe. The monarchy fell and the French approved the first democratic constitution in Europe. As sovereign people, they didn’t want to leave their country under the illegitimate control of the aristocracy and the clergy. Modern democracy was born. Yet, what was achieved in thousands of years through a difficult and sometimes bloody process, is nowadays too often alienated, deformed and overturned by voices from all over the world.

Behind the facade of democracy

In Turkey, democracy is being attacked by President Erdogan. The country, that would clearly like to join the EU, often boasts with having exemplary democratic attitude and allegedly the most free media in the world. At the same time, however, citizens are subject to double standards, because only wealthy people enjoy all the rights of a democratic constitution. Part of the population is oppressed by the state itself and it is simply prohibited to criticize the government in the media – all in the name of democracy. However, in order to avoid losing its partnership with Turkey, the EU keeps turning a blind eye to what is happening.

There is a similar situation in Poland. Newspaper editors and TV stations are acquired by the government, public opinion is arbitrarily manipulated to prevent any demonstration, and the universal right to press freedom is neglected. And again, France: since the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2016, the country is in a state of emergency. Freedom of movement and association is being restricted and, for a short time, even the country’s borders were closed. In addition, arbitrary detention of Arabic-looking French people - just because of their origins - are now an everyday occurrence.

Alarming developments can currently be observed in the US too, although they have not been implemented yet and the elections are yet to come. Donald Trump’s motto is: by simply building a wall and preventing all Muslims from entering the country, the US would ensure that no more terrorists can enter the land of unlimited opportunities – of course, all for the benefit of US citizens and under the veneer of democracy. In order to avoid becoming victims of a cruel war, hundreds of thousands of people are forced to leave their home. And since Trump identifies all Muslims with terrorists, they will be confronted with a difficult future.

The right-wing “we”

Germany: on the night of the 18th of October 2015, Günther Jauch’s political talk show hosted a very special guest. The man in the blue suit, Björn Höcke, is a member and party whip of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) – a rhetorical firebug of the worst kind. Calmly, Höcke places a small German flag on the backrest of his chair, then he starts talking about his strong patriotism and how he fears for the future of his Germany. A fear that too many people share with him and that has encouraged them to take action.

Höcke says “we”. He harps on it, he uses it to provoke and praise. “If we lose our Germany, we won’t have a home anymore!”, he screams in one of his many speeches, in front of a furious and involved crowd. And the “we” roars with him out of his throat: “We are the people”. It certainly sounds good - like a community sharing the same ideas about what the country needs. Peace, joy, pancakes? No! At the moment, this topic is completely tainted with xenophobia and violence.But, why is it? Why this “we”, that represents with hearth and soul the principles of what we call our democracy? Popular participation, same rights for everyone, the possibility to gather at any time as sovereign citizens and give our contribution to improve the country. “We”, together.

So: when is democracy pushed over the edge? “People are scared, this nation is scared”– this is how Höcke justifies his approach. Another in-studio guest, NDR-journalist Anja Reschke, replies to him indignantly: “No! No, not these people, you always say these people! [...] You cannot say ‘we are the people!’.” Mr. Höcke represents a minority, in Germany, that purports to speak in the name of all people. They claim their view is the only right one, but they actually represent just a small, radical part of the population. These people think that, in order to protect the nation, they have to take initiative. However, instead of doing it in a sensible and solidary way, they deliberately attack refugees with brutal violence. They set their shelters and houses on fire. They endanger the lives of people who are running away from death and seeking a better future in our land. As regards the current situation in Germany, it is clear to me that we have crossed the line. There is something wrong here!

Unfortunately, in every democracy, there will always be people like Björn Höcke. You can call them rhetorical firebugs, neo-Nazis or megalomaniacs. They skilfully and brutally steer their course along the border between democracy and right-wing xenophobic radicalism. They justify their misanthropic ideas with the pillars of democracy (you know, after all we have freedom of thought) and drag with them many people who share the same opinions. That is what makes them so dangerous, although they don’t wear uniforms and have no weapons. With their extremist beliefs, they attack the peaceful order of our country. And this is why everyone has a responsibility to impede their progress, so that these radical and manipulative people will have no chance. We have to become loud and speak up against these people who are threatening the rights and values of our community. Be active! Demonstrate against xenophobic hatred! Show humanity and solidarity!

The most important thing we have

Something must happen in Germany. The “worried citizen” who sits inside their safe house, nodding in front of the TV while watching the news, the citizen who shouts in the streets during PEGIDA demonstrations with their like-minded citizens, must not be the symbol of our society. We have to stop welcoming refugees with new waves of hate and violence, hoping it will help to push them away from the country as soon as possible. We should never forget that democracy is the most important thing we have. As Germans, we should know it. Guaranteeing the right to life, freedom and integrity to every person, regardless of his/her origin, are too important to fall under the influence of some xenophobic minds.

Note: This article first appeared in “Blickkontakt”, the school newspaper of the Von-Müller-Gymnasiums in Regensburg.

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