Democracy's Dropouts The Quixotic Rise of German Non-Voters
Part 4: Merely Helping Those One Means to Hurt
Non-voting evidently goes hand in hand with a period in history in which nothing is apparently more cumbersome than obligations and commitments. It matches a generation that is more freewheeling and -- in contrast to its predecessor -- doesn't feel attached to either a particular milieu or political trend.
What's more, there is the sneaking suspicion that key political decisions are no longer made in Berlin, but by bureaucrats in Brussels or directly by speculators on Wall Street. A favorite non-voter adage is that you are more likely to be killed by a speeding car on your way to the polling station than to influence politics by casting your vote. Traditional non-voters used to say: Those at the top do whatever they want anyway. The new non-voters say: Those at the top have no influence anyway.
This lethargy has transformed large segments of the German population into selfish navel-gazers. They would much rather invest their time in projects that promise direct benefits for them and their families: a spruced-up day care center, green traffic islands in the neighborhood or perhaps protests against noise from aircraft flying overhead. Their main concern is their own immediate environment and anything that works to their advantage -- not the common good. And they are certainly not concerned about the current state of democracy.
Over two centuries ago, German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that there are active citizens and wards of the state. According to Kant, active citizens have all their rights, in particular the right to vote. By contrast, he noted, wards of the state don't have this right. According to this logic, those who voluntarily don't vote are making themselves into wards of the state.
Contrary to what they would like us to believe, non-voters are not precipitating any long-awaited changes. Instead, they are merely bolstering the power of those who they complain about. They make the political parties even larger than they actually are. Eligible voters who stay home because they have had enough of Angela Merkel are, in effect, helping her to win a mandate for her third term in office. "It's not as if non-voting had no influence," says Bundestag President Lammert. "It has an influence -- though usually not the intended one."
Getting Back in the Voting Game
Klaus Fohrmann was also an upper-middle class non-voter. He heads a certified public accountant's office on the edge of Hamburg's trendy Hafencity district. The business has five rooms and four employees. Fohrmann leans back in his leather chair and delivers the usual non-voter rhetoric: "At a certain point, I thought to myself: This is all unbearable. No matter who is governing, it's always the same amateurs and ideologues at work. Expertise plays no role," he says. In the 1970s, Fohrmann briefly felt a close affinity for the Greens, but he was never in a political party.
Like all non-voters, Fohrmann has highly personal reasons for being disillusioned about politics. He was annoyed by the never-ending stream of new tax laws, the violation of professional secrecy when German tax authorities purchased data CDs listing details about tax cheats and, of course, the smoking ban!
Still, Fohrmann studiously ignores everything that politicians have accomplished during the same period of time.
For many years, Fohrmann spent his evenings venting his frustration about politics on Internet forums with fellow disgruntled voters. And he stopped voting in elections. This summer, though, it looks as if he's about to end his long-time voter abstinence and -- bucking the current trend -- return to the realm of the voters. He has recently found a solution that's just right for him: the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
"For me, it was such a relief that I could hardly believe it. Here were competent, disciplined people who finally wanted to change something," he says, referring to Germany's new conservative anti-euro party, which owes a great deal of its popularity to the message that professors and technocrats make better politicians, and that political parties are the root of all evil.
This Sunday, the populist AfD could benefit more than any other party from the anticipated low voter turnout. After all, when fewer people vote, this makes it that much easier for single-issue parties to clear the 5 percent hurdle for securing representation in the Bundestag.
Fohrmann now uses the word "we" when he talks about the AfD. He has joined the party and is handing out flyers in the Hamburg inner-city districts of Eimsbüttel and Barmbek. "I tell you, we're going to make it in (to parliament)," he says.
And, or course, whether he's right or not will also be decided by the non-voters.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen