Archive for January 21st, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Democracy: The Insecure Sovereign

“It takes a stick to govern Poland,” I heard an old lady say to her husband some time ago. “That may be so,” replied her husband. “But then, it would take a stick to govern Germany, too.”

Their frank exchange of views reminded me of how unlikely a democracy my country is. Germany only became one in 1919, after losing world war one. Until then, it had been a constitutional monarchy by name, but with only limited parliamentary government. Parliament – the Reichstag – had the right to pass, amend or reject bills, but different to the German Bundestag today, it was in no position to initiate legislation. The chancellor was, and he stood and fell with the confidence of the emperor.

rule #1: don't mention the budget

rule #1: don't mention the budget

The European concept of democracy is different from America’s, at least originally, Martin Mosebach, an author, wrote in Germany’s weekly Die Zeit, earlier this month. His issue was the welfare state, and that rather generous dole-money today could be compared to the apanage once paid to members of royal families. It looked like a somewhat precipitous assumption to me first, and I’m almost sure that experts in constitutional law would have their objections in detail, but Mosebach’s idea  started looking logical to me as a layperson.

If our Kaiser and quite a number of regional German kings and dukes were the sovereigns until 1918, and if our grand- and great-grandparents were the sovereigns from 1919 to 1933, the latter were pretty reluctant sovereigns. It took them only a decade-and-a-half to have their sovereignty transferred to a gang of mass murderers, partly by their own vote, partly by the dealings of their political class. They went through thick and thin with their supreme killers, until they were thoroughly defeated in 1945. After all, the Nazis had created jobs.

“Whoever voted  to get rid of democracy? Or preferred secret police to freedom of speech?”

That’s what Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair asked in an essay for The Economist in 2007, and it was probably meant to be rhetorical. But many of our ancestors here in Germany did vote for the first, and preferred the second, in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, they didn’t only run away from democracy. Until less than seventy years ago, they put up a huge fight to remain oppressed, and to oppress and loot others.

Why the reluctance of a people to be the sovereign? Most Germans probably never saw themselves as the masters of their own nation, but as its servants. Only the more recent, rather favorable experience of the past six decades made us supportive of the democratic concept. Distrust of powers that be, after 1945, probably helped to convince Germans  that we can’t transfer political power to some kind of an “elite” and leave it there. But we aren’t easy with the responsibility that sovereignty demands.

There is a legend which may live in every country: the idea of an innocent but wise sovereign who is always right (if not in detail, so still in general), and a political class which is over-theoretical, corrupt, ivory-tower, and inefficient. Louis Quatorze is said to have encouraged theorizers and politicians such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert – but one can be pretty sure that he frequently distrusted them, too. Get me the money for building the Palace of Versailles, or get lost. Bring me solutions, not problems.

Give a nation the opportunity of divided government, and they will leap at it. Germany’s chancellor Gerhard Schröder governed from 1998 to 2005. Six out of seven of those years, he had to govern without a majority in Germany’s upper house of parliament. He may count as the only post-war chancellor in Germany who dared to expect sacrifices from the public, when he tackled reform of the welfare state. It was badly needed, it helped to bring the economy back, and it probably helped to secure the welfare state, even if at a somewhat more basic level. But the grumpy sovereigns, fearing for their apanages, fired him anyway, and continued to fume afterwards when their  ex-public-servant became a businessman instead, looking after his only own well-being in the first place.

France has seen cohabitation, an uneasy coexistence of a president and a prime minister of different political colors for much of the past twenty years. America’s presidents usually had to govern with a Congress of oppositional political colors. An American president’s party usually fares badly in mid-term elections, two years after a president has been voted in. Barack Obama lost the “by-election” in Massachusetts only one year after he had been sworn in.

Why is that? I believe it is because the people want someone to check, contain, and supervise their government. They don’t feel up to that task  themselves – it would take the preparedness to inform themselves regularly, and to be involved. It’s not that they would lack the ability to be informed people. Most of them are no idiots, and successful in their daily jobs. But still, they entrust supervision of their government to people whom they actually despise. President Obama’s approval ratings dropped during his first year in office, but compared to the public’s disdain for Congress people, the president is still looking fairly good.

In an ideal world, the Republicans would try to control the costs and increase the efficiency of projects like healthcare reform. But constructive opposition is an unlikely scenario. Most voters in Massachusetts were probably aware that entrusting the Republican Party (in its current shape) with keeping a check on the administration was about as clever as entrusting Hezb’allah with the same job. But they still took a big step towards divided government.

Divided government usually results from an insecure and inconsistent citizenship. A good policy is no wiki page. A good policy doesn’t always need overall consensus. Frequently, decisions made with narrow, but legitimate majorities, have proven to be the best decisions. But they need dependable support, during a realistic timespan. Voters who supported something initially should continue doing so for quite a while.

But then, the sovereign is only wise in general, and not right in detail. That’s how many voters seems to view themselves.

The political class certainly reciprocates for the sovereign’s disdain as much as it can. Politicians aren’t usually inclined to cede more powers to the people than they absolutely have to, not even in a democratic society. There is no great preparedness to introduce plebiscites in Germany, and given samples like the recent ban on new minarets, voted in by the people of Switzerland, one might wonder if the political class doesn’t actually have a point here.

All that said, it isn’t the concept of democracy that is bad. The problems we are facing don’t usually stem from our form of government. No political system and no law can work without some individual virtue. Any sovereign, be it the people, a monarch, or an “elite”, needs to keep himself informed, and a political class needs to know and respect the basics of loyalty.

Maybe no informed society ever voted  to get rid of democracy, or preferred secret police to freedom of speech.


From Depression to Rage, The Atlantic, January 18, 2010
Democracy can’t Buy People, January 5, 2010

%d bloggers like this: