Jean-Paul Gagnon (Australian Catholic University) interviews Wolfgang Merkel on the state of democratic theory, democratic quality and crises. The interview will soon be published in the forthcoming book by Jean-Paul Gagnon, Democracies Across Dialogues: Presents, Pasts and Futures.
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Merkel: In my definition I try to find a middle way between minimalist and maximalist definitions of democracy. Minimalism, as we know it, from Joseph Schumpeter (2013), Anthony Downs (1957), but also Adam Przeworski (2010) emphasizes elections and voting in a democracy – what are often called ‘input procedures’. Maximalism, which we see coming from the works of John Dewey (2004), Seyla Benhabib (1996) and Benjamin Barber (2003), thinks outcomes like a strong democratic ethos, functional political rights and participation in governance should be integrated into definitions of democracy.
As a result, I end up with a mid-range definition of democracy. This means that my definition isn’t limited by a reductive focus on, for example, elections nor is it encumbered with what democracy ‘ought’ to look like which sometimes – empirically speaking – makes definitions of democracy less operable. (Maximalist concepts of democracy do not travel very far across continents and cultures.) This mid-range democracy is concerned with the rule of law, controlling those who are in power, and recognizing that those who are elected are the only ones entitled to make democratic and authoritatively binding decisions.
I call my mid-range definition “embedded democracy” (Merkel 2004). I’d like to emphasize that embedded democracy is more than what’s usually seen in minimalist concepts because it looks not only at input; it looks very much at institutional procedures as well. In system-theoretical terminology we would call this a focus on throughput (see David Easton 1957 for more on input/output and Vivien Schmidt 2013 for throughput).
That said, I don’t think the output (i.e. outcome) of a democracy should be integrated into a definition of it. It’s not that I think output isn’t important. It’s naturally important to know what kind of output governance can produce especially in terms of economic welfare, the physical integrity of the citizen, social welfare, and so forth. However, I consider these outputs as independent variables which influence the quality of democracy. And there’s an additional, pragmatic, reason for why I wouldn’t like to integrate outputs into the definition of democracy: it’s because the moment you do you will not be accepted into the empirical political science of the United States whose journals and book publishers are widely considered to be among the world leaders in our discipline.
A definition of democracy laden with outputs comes across as too complex, too overloaded, and thus analytically unfeasible. For some empirical research methods, such as those that depend on Arend Lijphart’s (2012) variables for measuring democracy, this is true. Whilst for others, like Michael Coppedge, Staffan Lindberg, John Gerring and Jan Toerell who are developing the Varieties of Democracy Index (or V-Dem, 2015, for short) it probably isn’t. That’s because they pride themselves on using, compared to other major democracy indices, the most variables for measuring democracy. In short, and as I stated earlier, maximalist concepts can’t travel across the cultures of our discipline.
Gagnon: I’m reminded of something you said during a presentation of yours given at the 2013 Sydney Festival of Democracy. You mentioned that the recent work being done at your research centre in Berlin, the Wissenschaftszentrum für Sozialforschung (or WZB), is focused on dispelling the hysteria involved in the crisis of democracy.
This aligns with a recent argument that Stephen Levitsky and Lucan Way (2015) made about how much of the empirical work measuring democracy across the last 25 years has been misguided. It’s not as we’ve so often heard in the media or read in scholarly research that democracy is in decline, or at risk of extinction, but rather simply that we placed too many great expectations on democracy during the heady years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Levitsky and Way, I think rightly, argue that we got the 1990s wrong. The stable and functional institutions of liberal representative democracy as they existed in the 1990s weren’t up to meeting the demands placed on them by the analysts of democracy. If we look at what the institutions of democracy can do in a more conservative respect, and not generalize about the state of democracy in the world today but look at each democracy on a case-by-case basis, then we start to pin-point which democracies are experiencing which crises (see Ercan and Gagnon 2014 for more).
To me this feels similar to what you’re arguing. It’s trying to dispel the false hysteria, the spectre if you like, of democracy in its deathbed.
Merkel: It’s not that I want to prove that there is no crisis of democracy. What I criticize is that this ubiquitous talk about the crisis of democracy isn’t based on theoretically sound and analytically useful concepts. In other words, it’s not evidence-backed.
The crisis of democracy is used and repeated so much that it becomes a diffuse term. It’s as if anything to do with democracy is in crisis which means that the crisis of democracy, as a concept, becomes meaningless because everything democratic is permanently in crisis. And I would argue that if a phenomenon, a person, a system, an institution, or a regime is permanently in crisis that this then is its normal state – not a state of crisis.
The term crisis implies, especially if we look at its etymology (Merkel 2014a), that there are different periods that are, so to say, free of crisis. I’ll borrow a metaphor from the medical sciences to explain what I mean. Doctors talk about a crisis if a patient’s situation is one of life or death. This would be something that I call an acute crisis. An acute crisis is a question of mere existence: it’s either life or death. If there are no decisive decisions taken which cure this disease then the patient will die. The same applied to democracies in crisis would mean that if political parties or politicians don’t do something dramatically important to cure this crisis then democracy will die; meaning that it would transcend into authoritarian regimes such as 1933 Germany, 1936 Spain, 1967 Greece or 1973 Chile. But often those democratic regimes do not collapse but transform into what I call defective democracies. That is the case of Venezuela since Hugo Chavez came into power, or Ecuador under Raphael Corea, Bolivia under Evo Moralez or, even worse, Ukraine since its rebirth after the collapse of the Soviet empire (Levitsky and Way would call them hybrid regimes.)
As an aside, hybrid regimes don’t necessarily transcend back to democracy or further to authoritarian regimes. They are in themselves very stable. Russia, for example, is certainly not an open dictatorship or a democracy in the way democracies are conventionally defined. Venezuela is another very difficult case to describe as a democracy but you cannot also describe it as a dictatorship. There are many cases of hybrid regimes such as the defective democracies and electoral authoritarianisms in this world. Research done at the WZB for instance found that these ‘in-between’ cases, the political order hybrids, form the majority of political regimes globally. We have more hybrid regimes than open dictatorships or liberal rule of law based democracies. So it’s quite relevant to look to these regimes as well.
Gagnon: Would you describe defective democracies as being in a slow-burning state of crisis?
Merkel: Let’s talk for a moment about crisis. I said earlier that there’s this version of crisis as life and death, which I call an acute crisis. But there are also these crises where we see some worsening or we might only feel that democracy is in decline. This is what I call a latent crisis (e.g. Merkel 2014b, 2015); it is conceptually less precise than an acute crisis and often has no end in sight.
We should also recognize that there are different spheres of democracy, or parts of democratic regimes, which are in crisis but that this does not mean that the regime itself is in whole-sale crisis. There may be, for example, a decline in the quality of democracy in certain spheres but, simultaneously, there can also be democratic improvement in others. Think about the progressing exclusion of the lower classes from political participation and representation on the one side and the inclusion of women and gay people into politics and polity on the other side.
That said I do not want to disprove that there is no crisis of democracy. I think we are facing dramatic challenges but that democracy can react to these challenges because challenges do not necessarily mean crisis. They only transform into crisis if the institutional actors of a democracy are not able to cope with these challenges and respond to them with productive reforms. Crisis ensues in other words when institutions do not have the means to overcome the challenges they face. And I think there are some dramatic challenges underway where democracy has so far not found very effective means to cope with them. One is the challenge of globalization and the other is the challenge of inequality.
Gagnon: I’d like to ask you a bit more about your definition of crisis. In Sydney you looked at Jürgen Habermas, Claus Offe, Colin Crouch and Samuel Huntington and said that they differently explain the crisis of democracy. Could you separate these definitions?
Merkel: Let me start with the comment that the link of crisis to democracy is as old as democratic theory is. You find it with Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius. It runs through different situations in their works. Depending on how you interpret Thomas Hobbes or Max Weber you can find the crisis and democracy link there too.
In the 20th century there was an increase of this literature in the beginning of the 1970s. In the long wave of prosperity that came after 1945 until the beginning of the 1970s, there was an understanding that democracy was flourishing, that it was improving, and so forth. And then, due to consistent economic turbulences (namely the OPEC troubles), people were all of a sudden talking about the crisis of democracy. They were, in fact, talking about the crisis spawned by the crisis of democracy. This was normatively spoken from a leftist more than a right-conservative point of view. Jürgen Habermas (e.g. 1973) and Clause Offe (e.g. 1976) wrote about the “crisis of late-capitalism” and James O’Connor (1973) spoke about the crisis of the fiscal state which, of course, is still pertinent because we have today a crisis of the fiscal state which is largely created by a crisis of the tax state.
Habermas and the proponents of the leftist camp were arguing in the 1970s that there is an external cause for the crisis of democracy. It’s triggered by a crisis of late-capitalism. To put it very simply, they were arguing that the crisis of capitalism becomes a political crisis of democracy because the state is not able to cope with this economic challenge. The state’s political means are not up to the task. Highlighted in the way that Habermas et al are talking about the administrative political apparatus – this is a neo-Marxist terminology – which is not able to cope with a crisis, is what this failure to cope triggers: and that’s the withdrawal of the people and their support for core democratic institutions like political parties, parliaments and governments. This then causes a legitimacy crisis for the democracy in question. The moment the people drop off from politics, that they withdraw their support (which can happen through popular exit or protest), and that they don’t consider themselves represented by the core institutions of democracy, a legitimacy crisis can be said to exist.
Huntington and his colleagues Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki wrote a report for the Trilateral Commission (a multinational organization founded by bankers, entrepreneurs, and private citizens in 1973 to foster cooperation between international states – presumably to ease the economic pressure faced by industrialized capitalist states at the time) in 1975 on the crisis of democracy. In it they speak about an endogenously created crisis. This means that it is democracy itself that creates its own crisis because a desire for too much democracy leads to an overload of demands from the side of the citizens. Citizens in the 1970s, for example, demanded more participation, higher social security payment and a wider social security net, and better economic welfare. Citizens thought, and today (rightly) continue to think, that the state is responsible for delivering these goods.
But the state was not able to deliver these goods and couldn’t cope with these different demands. So this is why Huntington, Crozier and Watanuki spoke of an overload crisis of the state specifically regarding the United States, Western Europe and Japan.
What’s quite interesting is that, if you read this Trilateral Report anew, it seems like a script for what then started happening to OECD countries from the late 1970s onwards. You had a retreat of the state from taxes. These states retreated from providing social welfare, from regulating markets, and so on. The OECD states were following the Huntington et al script but this did not produce the liberation of the democratic state as foretold – and this is a paradox – because it led instead to a financial crisis and a fiscally totally overloaded state which triggered in some countries a deep crisis with their democracy.
Gagnon: A neo-liberal weakening of the democratic state?
Merkel: This is the irony of it. In response to the financial crisis in the 1970s, the state became bigger because the state took over the debts of banks. Many governments, especially in Europe, thought or pretended to think “these banks cannot fail because they are too big to fail”. Indeed, that was the battle cry of the big banks for some time. “If we fall then the other banks will fall as well and this will trigger a dramatic crisis”. And so it did at least for Spain, Portugal, and Greece.
Gagnon: I’m finding this comparison between the OPEC financial crisis and democracy in some countries during the 1970s and the GFC and democracy in some countries in recent times fruitful because it shows how weak democratic institutions were, and remain, when fronted with the risk of economic collapse.
Would I be right to say that Habermas and Offe favoured the growth of social democracy as a response to financial crisis and Huntington et al favoured neo-liberal democracy for the same end?
Merkel: I would say that in the 1970s Habermas and Offe were critical of what they came to call “late capitalism” which means, effectively, the latest stage of capitalism before its dramatic collapse. They weren’t supporters of the practiced political party version of social democracy. They would have, however, argued in support of more participatory rights, deliberation, thicker democracy, and greater social equality among citizens. Today, Jürgen Habermas is more optimistic concerning the prospects of democracy and less critical vis-à-vis social democracy than Claus Offe.
Gagnon: This brings to mind an argument that Pierre Rosanvallon (2014 with Gagnon) raised about when a democracy starts to see its legitimacy slip. If this happens due, for instance, to the state’s inability to respond to a financial crisis Rosanvallon sees this as potentially a good thing. And that’s because this presents a government with the ability to respond to the problem of its slipping legitimacy (which brings with it other deleterious effects such as the erosion of a government’s authority and the confidence the people have in it).
Merkel: Normatively I don’t have any problem with Rosanvallon’s point but it sounds to me to be too mechanistic. There’s a dramatic problem, the state has to take on this problem, and the state so to say rejuvenates or restrengthens itself in doing that. What we are seeing after the GFC triggered in 2008, for example, is that most of the governments are either not willing or not able to do what they should do to re-regulate markets and, as a result, rejuvenate their democracies. Not very much has been done in this respect. Why?
It’s Colin Crouch’s (2011) book that gives, perhaps, the best answer to my question. He argues in The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism about the unusual survival of neo-liberalism after the GFC. It should have died as a result of the economic crisis that it spawned due to its ideological over-reliance on the market’s capacity to self-regulate – only it didn’t. I don’t see the unusual survival of neoliberalism as strange because it was governments that chose what power relations there would be between the market and the state long before the GFC revealed its ghastly self. The last three decades have, in fact, been a story of governments consistently refiguring the state’s relations with the market and vice versa which makes it very difficult for states today to reorganize the markets (see Merkel 2014c for more on the relationship between capitalism, democracy, and neoliberalism).
And now globalization enters the mix. Even if one state were willing to regulate the market they are afraid that the other states will not do it. And that’s because it would put the regulating country in a loser’s position as investments will go to other unregulated countries. The threat of withdrawing investments by hedge funds, banks, and huge industries is something that blackmails democratic governments to follow the interests of these financial and industrial corporations rather than to follow the interests of their citizens.
Gagnon: The story of our times seems to be one of profit über alles (Gagnon and Chou, 2014) – the sacralisation of the golden dollar, pound, euro, and yen. It’s that idolatrous cow that is capital and material gain which trumps all.
Merkel: I see things from the position of government. Governments are, so to say, elected to fulfil their promised programs and the expectations of their voters or of all the citizens. One of these expectations is certainly about economic and social welfare. And if no one invests in capitalist economies you cannot create economic and social welfare. And if you cannot create this then you will not have jobs for your people. If you do not have jobs for your people the people will either not re-elect the government or will drop out of politics triggering a legitimation crisis as we talked about before.
Governments have an interest to attract investments on the one side but, in an open global economy, they also have to fear that if they put too many conditions like taxes and environmental protections and so forth in place then investors may go to different countries. This is one of the dramatic situations that democratically elected governments are in and this is especially true for those countries that are economically weaker or in economic crisis. They’ll have elections, and the people will vote, but whatever government comes to power will have no choice for it’s the same music that all governments must dance to. Greece, Portugal, and Spain are prime examples for it at present. This shows that the constraints on decision making about the common good has become very difficult to deal with.
What we know now about the 1960s and early 1970s is that it was the generally more closed economies – especially with regard to the financial sector – which allowed the government and the state to regulate and intervene in the economy. Now, in our times of neoliberal globalization, governments and states do not have this discretionary power because the investors can decide – to a larger extent than what was possible in the 1960s and 1970s – where they want to go. They’re not held accountable by national laws and territorial boundaries, they can globally invest where the conditions for accumulation promises the highest profits. It is not so much the democratic sovereign, but global investors, who ‘decide’ about national tax laws. In that regard I would say that democratic governments are less democratic today as they can’t democratically decide as they used to 40 years ago.
Let me say, while we’re on this topic of economic inequality and its transfer into political inequality which presents a challenge to democracy, that it’s not all bad. I also see improvements. This is something the crisis literature is fairly silent about. If you look to the role of women there’s a tremendous difference to the role of women in business, society and in politics now compared to the 1960s. There’s a tremendous difference when it comes to minority rights. Ethnic minorities are much better protected and represented than they were in the 1960s. Remember that in the early 1960s, in five US states, African Americans were not allowed to vote. This is what we today would immediately call a highly defective democracy – and it was. It was a defective democracy. Look at gay people. In most established democracies gay people were penalised by law. They went to prison for following their sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. So women, minorities, and some civic rights, are much more developed today than they were in the 1950s and 1960s.
This is significant because we’re talking about the improvement of intimate conditions, of the lifeworld of many citizens. Coming back to homosexuality, if the state determines what kind of sexuality adults are allowed to have then this is more traumatic for your life than your right to vote.
Gagnon: Examples of this today include Malaysia and Uganda where you can vote but if you’re gay that’s it. You go to prison or worse – especially in Uganda.
I recall from a number of your published works (e.g. Merkel 2014a, 2014b, 2015) that you use this idea of diseases and cures in reference to democracy. I see a distinction in your work between the crisis of democracy and diseased democracy. Could you explain how crisis and disease differ?
Merkel: I don’t see my concepts separated in that way. My problem is with the way crisis is used. We don’t have a theory or indicators to determine when a crisis begins and when it ends. And if we don’t have a theory for it and if we don’t have empirical indicators for this kind of determination then we shouldn’t talk about a crisis. Because if we don’t have an idea for when it begins and when it ends then we come back to the problem of permanent crisis which, as I said before, is nothing more than a semantic paradox.
When I talk about diseases I hint at very specific dimensions of democracy where I see quite a gap between the normative ideal I have tried to define with my embedded democracy and to the past.
When looking at this gap we have to make clear what our reference point will be. Is it a theoretical model or is it something that’s historically happened?
One thing that I don’t like from Colin Crouch’s book “Postdemocracy” (2004) is the argument that there was once a peak of democracy and that now we are on a steady decline. He’s very much hinting at the 1930s or 1940s in the United States or the 1950s and 1960s in Europe. This makes sense if you only look to industrial relations and, fair enough, this was his proper discipline before turning to democracy. Crouch is completely right about the sphere of corporate power in relation to democracy, the increasing inequality that we see in democratic societies, and the decline of trade union power. We certainly have these sectoral problems of democracy, sectoral diseases if you like, but this is not – as Crouch makes it out to be – a whole-sale crisis where we have to be afraid that the good days of democracy will be over and that we’ve already entered a stage of post-democracy.
Gagnon: What I especially like about the work that you and your colleagues are doing in Berlin is that you’re showing this isn’t a whole-sale crisis. Democracy itself is not doomed for destruction or on its way to wink-out in the face of eco-authoritarianism for example or a new despotism (e.g. Keane, 2015a). You are naming the spectre, shining a light on the bogey-man of doomed democracy, and showing that we’ve been catastrophizing particular diseases known to one or another part of democracy. In doing this we’ve the opportunity to analyse the disease, prescribe its medicine, and solve the sectoral crisis. This turn in thinking breaks the hysteria and gives us control.
Despite this different way of looking at democracy in crisis, there are those who have proposed a cure to the mistaken idea of an ill, whole-sale, democracy. And you’ve argued elsewhere that if we were to implement these false cures we would actually be accelerating the disease. Could you elaborate on this?
Merkel: I’ll give two examples. Although I wouldn’t generalize this statement, I think that there is a danger that some of the reforms proposed will not cure the illness but accelerate it.
The first example is about referenda. They are hotly discussed in many European democracies now. The argument is simply that the people are dissatisfied with the institutions of representative democracies and political parties in particular. Why shouldn’t the democratic sovereign decide itself about the main political question?
In theory I have no complaint about this point of view. In fact I share it. The more direct the people can decide the better. However, we’ve immediately got to ask, who are the people? If we look from an empirical point of view on referenda we see two phenomena. The first phenomenon concerns the turnout of voters in referenda. It is much lower than the turnout you’d see for general elections. This is especially true if referenda occur often and regularly such as once a year, every year. The electors would and do become tired of going to these referenda.
The stronghold of direct democracy, Switzerland, gives some warning of this trend. You’ve an average turnout of around 42% over the last three decades for referenda although in some cases you only have 28% to 30%. The threshold for making a binding decision in a Swiss referendum is low. If, for instance, 16% of the demos decide something with regard to taxes, to citizenship, to immigration, to religious freedom – that’s enough to make it binding and obviously that’s a problem of democratic legitimacy. I’m in this respect not very optimistic about the legitimacy of these referenda.
The second phenomenon relating to the problem of referenda is its high social selectivity. Lower classes do not participate in referenda. It’s the middle classes who go, participate, and vote in them. And therefore I’m talking about the acceleration of a disease because I think what I call the “two-thirds society” (Merkel 2000), the complete marginalization of one-third of the society (the poorest people), becomes more pronounced precisely due to running referenda. Referenda contribute to the further oligarchisation of our democracy. This is my warning.
A different minor warning is about the outcomes of referenda in for instance California and Switzerland where you have many referenda. If there’s a referendum on taxes, the trend is to continuously lower taxes. If it comes to government expenditures, it’s always about less expenditure. If it comes to minorities, then the majority tends to be illiberal. The last decision about the so called mosques in Switzerland, namely the right to build additional mosques, was stopped by referendum. In another case, immigrants who were condemned by courts on criminal matters were expelled from the country. Referenda also tend to be restrictive of immigration. Again, these were not parliamentary decisions. They were decided by referenda.
If we look at the local level on the issue of who can immigrate to Switzerland there is systematic empirical evidence which shows that the elected councils are much more liberal than the majority of electors in a referendum. If there’s a referendum in a canton, village or a town on immigration then the people are more restrictive and reluctant to accept immigration. In those cantons where immigration matters are decided by the parliament, immigration policy tends to be more liberal than in those cantons where these matters are decided by popular referenda.
We should not expect that the people are wiser than parliamentary representatives and I would call referenda an extreme anti-deliberative situation because you don’t deliberate. You’ve only the chance to say “yes” or “no”. There’s nothing that can lead to a compromise. There’s nothing that can lead to the inclusion of different points of view. It’s extremely majoritarian and not very consensual.
So I don’t think these referenda are great moments of deliberation. There is a campaign, there is a discussion, and this is positive – not everything is negative. But I think the negative aspects prevail to some extent.
The second example that I’d like to give here is about deliberative democracy. Its different forms should be considered as democratic innovations, especially when it comes to well-established democracies. I have, however, the suspicion that deliberative democracy is a very oligarchic instrument and even if you have a randomized collection of people in these assemblies nobody can tell me that there isn’t a supremacy of lawyers, professors, and people with rhetorical talents or those who are professionally trained to use arguments, against less educated people. Sometimes people are better represented by advocates than by themselves. And although there are positive aspects to deliberative mechanisms, like the opportunities for lower castes in Indian villages or the poor of Brazilian towns (Pogrebinschi and Samuels, 2014) to participate and be included in decision-making which John Dryzek (2005) talks about, these mechanisms are not an instrument for solving the great challenges such as globalization and inequality that democracy is confronted with in our times.
Gagnon: You once used the phrase “democracy losing its democratic content”. This of course touches on what you said about the two-thirds democracy – about the lower income-earners, or differently put, those people projected as a lower class in a society. They are not participating in democracy. But your phrase can also be used as a heuristic means to identify a type of democracy and its constitutive parts that are encountering disease – what, for comparison, Francis Fukuyama (2014) has recently been calling democratic decay.
“Democracy losing its democratic content” can identify a form of prolonged diffuse crisis and also instances of acute crisis. As a conceptual tool it’s tremendously valuable. I think this way because I have empirical reasons to assume that people are not very good at identifying when democratic institutions are in fact being hollowed out. And I have a volley of questions, ones it seems not yet asked by empiricists, that I’d like to throw in the air: how is someone ever certain that genuine democratization is happening instead of the growth of its dangerous look alike: phantom democracy (e.g. Keane 2015b)? In which ways, using which information, can a citizen know with certainty that a democratic institution has begun to lose its democratic content, to decay? How can we ever know, for sure, unquestionably like day is day and night is night, that we live in the embrace of actual democracy and not in the grip of a phantom or zombie democracy (Tormey and Feenstra 2014)?
Perhaps your concept can help. If a citizen knows exactly what her democracy is, and how it grows or decays, perhaps then she can “monitor its pulse” as John Keane (2009, 2013) might say. My concern rests with exactly how this happens today in real time and, indeed, whether this is common among citizens in any given democracy. I’m doubtful that it does because I don’t think any democracy has a citizenry worthy of such a name. Which citizen ever said that they would want to caress their parliament? Or that they would seek to nurse back into health an institution crippled by corruption, to give palliative care to a democratic institution whose time has come (e.g. simple electoral systems like first past the post), or as a parent guards a child to care for the rise of some new and better practice of democracy? Who is excited if not passionate about the prospect of participating in a mini-public? Who would ever dare to say that they loved, deeply and viscerally, the democracy in their midst?
These questions come across as strange to a lot of people. (They certainly raise the eyebrows of my students.) What I’m saying is that they shouldn’t. Because to caress, nurse, care, guard, be excited for, and love something means to understand that thing. And until we can understand democracy and to look after it as part of our daily lives (here Henrik Bang’s [1999, with Eva Sørensen] “everyday maker” voice is ringing in my ears) then we’ll never be the citizens that democracies require – the institutions of citizenry that form their beating hearts.
Looking at the Weimar Republic, which was at its height a working democracy, how can we in retrospect identify it as a democracy losing its democratic content?
Merkel: It’s often said that Weimar was a democracy in crisis when Hitler came to power at the end of the Republic. We can in hindsight argue that there was a dramatic crisis at the end 1932. Even without being very precise about the threshold of when a crisis starts or not, in Weimar you had dramatic indicators of a crisis after 1930. Weimar was quite a good democracy during the second half of the 1920s; certainly better working than the US or Swiss democracies of that time which discriminated against black (non)citizens, in the US case, or women, in the Swiss case. It gradually became a defective democracy by giving more and more emergency rights to the president, to the executive, which over time disempowered the parliament. And after 1930 you had an ideological polarisation of the political parties which was tremendous in so far as political polarisations go.
The centre of the party system was successively emptied. You had strong anti-system parties at the poles as Giovanni Sartori (1976) puts it. On the left was the communist-Stalinist party (KPD) and on the right there was of course the National Socialist Party (NSDAP). The dramatic economic crisis of 1929-1930, the increase of unemployment and especially the declassation of the middle classes – the fear so to say that they’d lose their status as a class to proletarianism – drove these people in large numbers to the National Socialists.
It came to be that by 1932 the Weimar Republic was a highly defective democracy on a slippery slope toward dictatorship as it had been undermined by the emergency powers afforded to the executive. This was due in large part to the previous economic crisis. It forced the Weimar Republic into a state of exception from which it could not recover. As the months rolled on in 1932 Weimar slipped from defective democracy into dictatorship.
Gagnon: Could, today, a series of small democratic crises be seen as a canary in the mines for democracy in decline? If, for example, we start to see democracies emptying out, losing their democratic content, mightn’t this threaten a shift to democide as happened in Weimar (e.g. Chou 2013)?
Merkel: No, not at all. In Weimar there was such a radicalisation of the main political actors, parties, and institutions that it doesn’t compare with the well-established democracies of today. Look at Spain, Portugal, and even Greece in recent years. Theirs is a totally different situation. The context, national and global, that the democracy finds itself in plays a tremendous role. At least for Europe and the economically developed world there is no alternative to the democratic regime. No one would for example consider the regimes in China or even Singapore as a serious alternative. Sometimes democratic politicians like Helmut Schmidt (a previous Social Democratic chancellor in Germany from 1974 to 1982) speak quite highly of Singapore and its rule of law despite that island-state’s lack of pluralism and democracy. It is Singapore’s economic success, legal state, and efficiency and cleanliness that output-oriented democrats like Schmidt mostly celebrate.
Comparatively, in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s you had at least two regime forms of government and governance competing with democracy. And these alternatives, the right-wing fascist and left-wing communist regimes, were very attractive to many people. Today these don’t exist as plausible alternatives for OECD democracies which helps explain why we aren’t really at risk of seeing our politicians radicalising in the West. The same however cannot be said for Belorussia, Russia, and Ukraine.
Gagnon: There is no alternative, at least for most Western countries, to democracy today?
Merkel: That’s what the people feel and even if they are protesting against democracy they want to reform and improve democracy, not do away with it – at least in the OECD-world, in the Americas, and parts of Asia. They don’t want to abolish democracy and this is a decisive difference to the protests in the 1920s and 1930s.
Gagnon: Do you think that the crisis of democracy is manufactured by scholars?
Merkel: No, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s important to make a distinction when it comes to the scholarship of democracy. On the one side there are empirically-inclined scholars and on the other the theoretically-inclined. The word ‘crisis’ is seldom used by empiricists studying democracy. Pippa Norris (e.g. 2011) is a great example. She simply says the crisis of democracy is non-sense. There are fluctuations in the indicators about democracy but these are trendless. Empiricists look also to the people to see if they support the core democratic institutions. It’s not easy to find this out. Surveys for instance carry their own problems and are certainly not the only way forward. Questions can yield tricky answers. You can ask “are you satisfied with democracy?” and you get rather good results. If you ask “do you trust parties?” you get very negative results. But if you ask “do you trust the party you have voted for?” you get much better results for effectively the same question.
There’s no doubt that we have to be careful about surveying people on their levels of support for democracy because it’s a complex affair. If we look at Eurobarometer, only 20% of respondents trust political parties. Yet 70% of respondents go to elections. We have to use these different indicators cautiously otherwise we risk painting people as cognitively dissonant.
The media, however, talks very often of a crisis of democracy. They are contributing to the negative image of politicians and political parties. The media does this successfully. They report very selectively about politics and corruption for example. For me there’s no doubt that corruption in the 1950s and 1960s was much higher than it is today. You had corrupt politicians in democracies. And we’re not talking about Latin America. We’re talking about Western Europe and Chicago in the USA for example. Frankly, there are many of these cases. Democracy is more transparent today than it ever was. Of course corruption remains but I’m completely sure that the level is less than it was 40 or 50 years ago. However the media are picking on this and they are selectively reporting about this and here they contribute to a kind of disenchantment or distrust among the people vis-à-vis politicians and political parties.
Gagnon: Is this selective reporting in some sense unjustified?
Merkel: I’m not saying this is unjustified reportage, rather that this is a problematic outcome of a role the media have to play. They are guardians and watchdogs. They form part of John Keane’s (2009, 2013) monitory democracy. They have to play this role selectively because they have to sell their products. If, for example, a media producer spoke about the details of health reform or tax reform their product would be less likely to sell. However, you’ll sell if you say that David Cameron or Barack Obama is corrupt.
Gagnon: This leads to our final question: where to from here?
Merkel: That’s the million dollar question. I think democracy has the potential to reform itself. It’s less in a deep crisis than the media and some of my colleagues are thinking or writing about. I think there’s no real alternative to representative democracy. It can be complemented by direct forms of democracy but we’ve got to be careful (remembering the dangers of referenda). Direct forms of democracy can be useful on the local and region level but I’m rather sceptical of its application on the nation-state level and on matters which touch minority questions.
There can even be some forms of deliberation that compliment representative institutions of democracy. Here, I rely on one of the great thinkers of our time, Jürgen Habermas, who is very sensitive to these societal initiatives through NGOs who have and should have a positive influence on the political agenda. But he argues that for all of these decisions to be really legitimate they have to go through the general approval of the parliament. So here I read Habermas differently to what he was like in the 1970s. He insists very much on the rule of law, he insists on representative institutions (which, he does say, are insufficient and in need of improvement), because we don’t have a decision-making procedure which can rely on the same thick source of legitimacy that we get with general elections with a high voter turnout.
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