Wrong Majorities What Extremist Success Means for Democracy

Democracy reflects the will of the people. But what if the will of the people threatens democracy? With the right wing on the rise, there is only one appropriate approach.

Germany's "Basic Law" serves as its constitution.

Germany's "Basic Law" serves as its constitution.

A Commentary by

There's more to a democracy than just the holy scripture of the constitution -- there are also sacred numbers: election results. Together, words and numbers mold a country's politics. In this process, the constitution is the constant while election represent a dynamic element. In the near future, this could also present a problem in several places: Election results are expected to deliver the wrong numbers. In Austria, a right-wing populist might get elected president. This could also happen in the United States. Germany's AfD and France's Front National have also attracted strong minority followings. A right-wing populist brush fire has become conceivable.

But is there such a thing as an incorrect election result? Are they not simply unpleasant or unpopular, depending on one's subjective perception. In objective terms, the numbers are always right. They express the will of the people and grant the majority the power to govern. That is the intention.

"Is it okay to question democracy?" journalist Jakob Augstein recently asked in his SPIEGEL column. He went on to quote the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who only wanted to accept election results if they suited him. Is that the right path? Abolishing democracy before it delivers unwanted numbers? Unwanted, in this instance, from the leftist perspective, but the right-wing populists are also feared by the Greens, the liberals and the conservatives.

One could, in other words, consider killing off democracy out of fear for the death of democracy. Well-meaning elites would assume power and tell the people what is good for them. That might even be what some people are dreaming of.


But is the death of democracy even up for debate? Is that not grossly exaggerated? On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, there are signs that are disquieting. During Donald Trump's election events, journalists have been intimidated, and the same happened at the recent AfD party conference in Berlin. The term "lying press" used by AfD and other populists in Germany, likewise seeks to undermine freedom of opinion and, with it, the foundation of democracy.

In its purest form, democracy has a built-in mechanism for self-dissolution. Where the majority rules, the majority can also decide to do away with majority rule. That's why constitutions are often ambivalent. They are both trusting and distrusting of the electorate. The people are to act as the sovereign, but not entirely. Germany's constitution, for example, protects against "wrong" majorities. Unconstitutional parties can be banned, and both the fundamental state order and the first 20 articles of the constitution, including the right to freedom of opinion, are subject to an eternity clause. They cannot be eliminated.

But what does eternity mean? Other holy scriptures have also lost their binding power over the years. The world today looks very different than it did in 1949, when a few hundred people in Bonn ratified the Basic Law, Germany's constitution. They had no clue about the coming digital age, which will deeply transform politics and raise the question as to whether new constitutions are needed.

True Democrats

Nor do bans on parties provide protection. Only the dumbest of anti-constitutional movements are dumb enough to make their true intentions known as the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) has done. The rest keep silent. Nobody, for example, knows what the AfD would do if granted a majority.

We are far away from such a scenario. This is just a mental exercise. But it is rooted in reality, because prevention, by its very nature, must begin long before the feared occurrence. If right-wing populist Norbert Hofer is elected president of Austria, the failures that made his election possible will be found deep in the past. The same is true in the event of a Trump victory.

It will then be claimed that the established parties and the media turned their backs on the people -- that they arrogantly behaved as the lords of democracy. And that's not entirely untrue. The greatest arrogance, though, would be telling the voters that they voted for the wrong candidate because they don't know what is good for them. The defining characteristic of true champions of democracy is that they accept election results as they are because they take voters seriously. Anything else leads to a revolution.

This does not mean that true democrats sit back and do nothing until unwanted results start coming in. They are neither despondent nor dogmatic; they are both active and sanguine. They don't give up on democracy, they fight for it. They differentiate between the functionaries of a right-wing populist party and that party's voters. They challenge the former with constant disagreement and court the latter by offering better alternatives. It is far from being too late for Germany to take that path.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 05/18/2016
1. The real danger comes from CDU, SPD, Links and Greens.
Right wing parties are not a danger to democracy, they are the sign that democracy does not exist. Were the so-called democratic parties to do their job, which is representing the electorate, instead of stuffing their pockets full with taxpayers taxpayers money, placing their members in overpaid positions and giving ridiculously high pensions to retired politicians which have no relationship to the work they have done, few people would turn to radical right-wing lines of thought. The denial of truth when the facts do not fit in with policies, the selfishness and arrogance, which is to be found in all established parties in Germany and also to a great extent all across Europe plus the wide spread corruption in co-operation with lobbyists, all help to open the doors to tyrants.
lewis_batch 05/18/2016
Grundgesetz's very nature is that of Streitbare Demokratie (militant democracy) based on preserving a social democratic form of democracy based on the idea of preserving human dignity. Because of this, liberal democracy as we know it in the USA-UK is impossible and a movement that prioritised liberty and natural order over social justice would be declared, verfassungswidrig. Because of this lack of pluralism and forced centering/restraint of libertarian/conservative movements, the German system for me, is democratically void
Wetoldyouso 05/18/2016
3. Missint the point - again
As always, the inference is that rightwing extremism arose in a vacuum and is threatening poor old democracy. It is the failure of the political establishment to listen to its people that created the challenge to democracy. Who are "true democrats"? People who agree with Der Spiegel's agenda? Who don't have the same right to cultural self-determination that the left would laud for any Amazon rainforest tribe? The "true democrats" should have listened to their voters over the last two decades. Had they done so, rather than merrily doing what they pleased once in office and ignoring the warnings on the wall, "extremism" would not have had an opportunity. Remember in 2008 when Merkel said, in a speech intended to soothe the alarms rising in the CSU, that "multiculturalism has been a complete failure"? Clearly, she did not mean a word of it. Fast forward, and now it is "Islam belongs to Germany" . . . Politicians mean whatever they think will serve the moment. If "true democrats" want to fight for something, why don't they, too, begin demanding that elected officials mean what they say?
normanandlilo 05/18/2016
In the artical he writs the democracy , not only the holy scripture of the constitution , there are also sacred numbers: election results. None of the EU Commission are elected , so is the EU not a democratic union?
Loucleve 05/18/2016
5. The other side is WRONG. Period. End of story.
I notice the author doesn't suggest maybe LISTENING to the Right wing. No. They are WRONG. Period. End of story. They must be fought. well, with an attitude like that pal, you are in for a rough future.
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