Democracy requires trust between people

Crisis year 2009

Heike Walk

To person

PD Dr. phil, born 1966; Deputy Managing Director at the Center for Technology and Society at the Technical University of Berlin, Hardenbergstrasse 36A, 10623 Berlin.
Email: [email protected]

The current crisis of democracy requires reflections on the theory of democracy, an analysis of the new systems of governance and a critical discussion of the role of political science.


Since the mid-1990s, developments have been observed in Germany that are alarming in terms of democratic theory and are increasingly being discussed as a crisis of democracy. Specifically, these are processes of social differentiation, increasing individualization and the erosion of social cohesion. Associated with this are a change in living conditions and attitudes as well as a loss of confidence in the functioning of our democracy. The current global financial crisis does the rest.

The structural causes of these changed attitudes are not easy to decipher: Many people are afraid of the future, are afraid of social decline and blame the democratic system for it. Confidence in the problem-solving abilities of politics is waning, and the mass media are fueling suspicion with news that primarily sells well. This is not a good development, because the democratic system is "the only form of rule (...) that has to be learned through constant renewed effort". [1] And this effort is not only to be provided by politics, but requires the commitment of as many social forces as possible and the special commitment of science.

Political science should take the restrained to hostile attitudes towards democratic institutions and rituals very seriously. So far, the opposite has been observed: Political science - this is the thesis of this article - is too hesitant to face the challenge of developing democracy. In doing so, they gambled away one of their most important tasks, namely taking responsibility for the future and promoting the revitalization of democracy. It was precisely these challenges that the founding fathers regarded as central tasks of political science in Germany in the 1950s. The provision of orientation knowledge with regard to justice, equality, the public as well as social and rule-of-law issues still shaped the public debate in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is worth taking a closer look at the history of political science. Before that, however, I would like to ask about the causes of the current crisis: How is a "crisis of democracy" measured? In science, "crisis" describes a difficult situation, an escalation of problems. A crisis is often associated with an indication that control has been lost. With regard to a "crisis of democracy" we are faced with several factors that can be divided into internal and external crisis phenomena. In the following I would like to concentrate largely on the internal findings, even if in most cases there are complex interactions and internal and external factors are interwoven.

A first internal finding reads: "More and more people are losing confidence in democracy". According to a study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in spring 2008, every third German citizen believes that democracy can no longer solve any problems - in East Germany as many as 53 percent of citizens are of this opinion. The falling voter turnout is only one of several phenomena. The majority of German citizens (57%) are skeptical of reform, and "Hartz" and pension reforms are also rated negatively. The second finding is that neoliberalism, through its focus on individualism and market mechanisms, is also responsible for the destruction of social relationships. [3] In coping with everyday life, questions of democracy are subordinated to performance and consumption requirements. Ideas of solidarity and justice take a back seat, while individual values ​​gain in importance. A third finding reads: "The fair opportunity that every citizen has to help shape their own social environment and to determine themselves and their own life is curtailed by the transfer of responsibility to the transnational level." To the extent that national sovereignty rights are transferred to supranational organizations, the citizens' direct and guaranteed rights of participation are lost. At the same time, citizen participation is increasingly taking place in technocratic expert groups.

The discussions about a crisis of democracy imply not only a growing awareness of the political and social consequences of neoliberal modernization policies but also a growing interest in more active involvement of citizens in political decision-making processes. Participation in shaping society is emphasized by democracy theorists as a central element for the development of democracy. Accordingly, I will firstly present some considerations from the theory of democracy, secondly, I will examine the problems of the new governance systems and their democratic deficits, and thirdly, I will critically discuss the role of political science.