The Fractures How To Counter the Attack on Democracy

In these days of terrorism, a coup attempt and deep polarization in the world, it is time to take stock and find the right response. Intellectual and moral arrogance will get us nowhere.
Bullet holes on the truck used in the Nice terrorist attack on July 14.

Bullet holes on the truck used in the Nice terrorist attack on July 14.


There are times when it appears that the heat has been turned up on world history. Times in which an overheated atmosphere of pique and belligerence, or a penchant toward hysteria and confusion, prevail of the kind described by Thomas Mann in his novel "The Magic Mountain" on the eve of World War I, which heralded the decline of an old world order and the emergence of a new one. These are times of epochal change.

The last of these upheavals, a historic turning point, happened 25 years ago after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The end of the Cold War shifted ideological coordinates. Now, a good quarter century later, the atmosphere is once again growing alarmingly hot with Brexit, terrorism, Trump, a coup attempt  and purge in Turkey, the attacks in Paris, Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Ansbach and racial violence in the United States. Add to that the refugee flows  in Europe, the terror of the Islamic State , the simmering war in Ukraine  and the smoldering financial crisis.

In the beginning, it appeared that these fractures were taking place at the periphery of the Western world -- in Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East. At first we thought it was about a clash of cultures, Islam versus the West, freedom versus dictatorship.

But now these fractures are cutting right through the middle of our societies. Criticism of globalization and modern Western life has reached us and even democratically constituted states are losing their internal cohesion. What unites the events of the past weeks is the fragility of civic peace. There are polarized, divided societies everywhere, rife with failed integration. The Brexit vote exposed a divide running through British society. America is divided between partisans supporting either Trump or Clinton, and between black and white. In Europe, the right-wing populists stand in opposition to the champions of democracy. In France, the integration of North African immigrants has failed. And in Turkey, Erdogan is driving the wedge ever further between supporters of a secular democracy and backers of his Islamic dictatorship.

Who is to blame for the situation? In part, it lies with us. The West today is paying the price for earlier mistakes and failures in foreign policy. It failed to integrate Russia into a security architecture or to negotiate a way for Turkey to become a part of the EU. It destabilized the Middle East with its interventions there. It is also paying the price for the illusions of the 1990s. At the time, it was inconceivable that the fundamental superiority of democracy and freedom could actually be questioned once again, particularly from the inside. We had prevailed and we considered it to be the end of history.

What the West Must Do

So what can we do? The West's strength has always been in its ability to accept criticism directed at it and to change. The Western economic order -- capitalism -- has proven itself to be durable because it was flexible and capable of adapting. In the battle of systems against socialism, capitalism was also superior because it integrated social issues and transformed into a social market economy. The West will need to develop this force for integration again. That sounds provocative. How, after all, is democracy supposed to integrate its enemies -- the Islamists, the populists and the authoritarians?

Of course we cannot sacrifice the principles of democracy and rule of law, but our political system must address the fears and needs that are spawning a yearning for authoritarianism: the need for order and reliability, the longing for identity, clarity, a sense of place, the feeling of a loss of control in the era of globalization. Trying to talk people into believing that they are globalization's winners is of no help if that doesn't correspond with the way they perceive their lives to be. It discredits democracy when European integration is pushed forward even though a majority reject it. It subverts trust in politicians when they insist on open borders, while the people want to know who is in their country.

A 27-year-old Syrian killed himself and injured 15 others Sunday in an Islamist attack in Ansbach, Germany.

A 27-year-old Syrian killed himself and injured 15 others Sunday in an Islamist attack in Ansbach, Germany.


Whether or not this Western model of life will once again become more attractive is also a question of tenor. We cannot engage in polarization and we cannot accept an "Us or them" rhetoric or indulge in a militant verbal escalation, as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy did last week when he said, "We are in a war, a total war." We also need to disarm ourselves morally. It's unhelpful to confront criticism and attacks with intellectual and moral arrogance and to dismiss them as ignorance from those who have been left behind. Nor will it work for us to say that we are progressive and you are regressive. Democracy is going to have to engage with its opponents.

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