A poisoned democracy

Written on 2019-11-05

It's time to talk. I've been thinking about this for months, and it's time to – well, not stop thinking, but start talking. What's bugging me? That Americans have stopped talking. Or at least, that they no longer seem to talk with each other, but only about each other – that the concept of political debate has been given up in favour of self-reinforcing bubble building and the creation of an all-pervading enemy mentality.

Why does this bother me, sitting safely on the other side of the Big Pond? Because I can see it affecting my friends, and because the same societal patterns are beginning to manifest themselves here in Germany, too. America was the first modern democracy and we have learnt much from its experience and example. But right now, I find myself praying: “God, don't let us become like the United States.” The Land of the Free and the Brave has become a poisoned democracy.

* * *

In Rick Riordan's “Percy Jackson” fantasy series (some of my favourite books, by the way), there is a summer camp for halfbloods. It's the only place where these children, demigods born from the union of a Greek god with a mortal, are are truly safe. To keep out the ever-present monsters, a magic pine tree guards the camp, protecting its borders.

One day, a traitor poisons the tree. As it turns yellow, shedding its needles in a slow death from the inside out, the camp boundary becomes permeable. Monsters start to come through, round-the-clock border patrols must be organised, and of course a quest is dispatched to find a cure for the tree.

In a way, democracy is similar to Camp Halfblood: a safe haven in a world that tends much more towards corruption, oppression, and dictatorships than it does towards freedom and the rights of citizens. And like Camp Halfblood, democracy has a good spirit protecting it: the willingness to solve problems by talking.

A common misconception is that democracy is all about the right to vote. It's not. It's about the right to talk, or more specifically, the right of every citizen to have a say in the attempt to overcome society's challenges. Voting is simply a necessary abstraction for this in a country too large to give everybody a physical seat at the table. Democracy is not about voting for who gets to be the Big Boss, its about discussing what kind of country we want to live in and how we plan to get there. In ancient Athens, a core concept of their democracy was parrhesia, the right of the free man to speak up in the assembly of the city. That is what they meant when they coined the term demokratia, “the rule of the people”.

That, incidentally, is also why the Parliament ought to be more important than the President. A president without parliament is simply an elected dictator. (And believe me, plenty of dictators started out that way.) “Parliament” comes from parler, meaning “to talk”, and that's what parliament is for. This is the institution where the great debates of the age ought to take place, where a group of citizens gets together to talk through the challenges facing our society.

Of course, the debates in parliament are merely an extension of the discourse going on in society at large. And it is a hallmark of a healthy democracy that there is a lively culture of political discussion. The first thing dictators do is to get rid of this, suppressing communal problem-solving and exchanging it for The One True Way (their's, obviously). They know that when the people start talking again, openly discussing the situation, they're in trouble. That's precisely what happened thirty years ago in East Germany. The people started talking, and eventually a wall fell and a despotic government crumbled.

What happens when people stop talking voluntarily?

* * *

Now it may seem strange to accuse Americans of not talking enough. After all, few countries have such a strict interpretation of “free speech” as the USA. But the real question is not whether you talk, it's how you talk.

As I said above, the idea of democracy is that we want to solve our problems together. The difficulty is, of course, that you and I may have very different ideas about what the best solution is, or even what the problems are. So we need to talk.

If you've ever sat down with a group of people with diverging opinions and tried to find a common solution (even if it was just about what game to play with your siblings), you'll know how challenging this can be. Some people, after all, are quite attached to their opinions. (I certainly am…) But if you want to find a solution that works for as many people as possible, you need to get off your high horse for a moment and actually listen to what the other person is saying. You have to try to understand him, his situation, and his motives. What is he proposing? Why is this important to him? Could this work for you too, or can you think of an alternative approach that addresses both his and your concerns?

Ideally, you'll come up with a solution that everybody is happy with, or can at least live with. Of course, sometimes you won't. But while it's not such a big deal not to reach a deal on which game to play tonight, there are some issues where a No Deal would be catastrophic. (And no, I'm definitely not looking at you, UK…)

Obviously, the attitude with which you go into the negotiations has a huge impact on their likelihood of success. If you want to play chess and your brother doesn't, he isn't likely to change his mind if you insult him as “too stupid for a thinking game”. The best way to sink a negotiation before it begins is to a) question the other person's motives, or b) insult him personally.

And now we‘re at the crux of the matter. Because almost all Stateside political comments I have read recently neatly fall into one or both of these categories. Somehow, it's not enough to disagree, you have to do so disagreeably. Instead of simply sticking to the facts, you have question your opponents’ intelligence for not coming to the same conclusions as you. Instead of trying to understand what's important to them, you come out with blanket accusations of dishonesty and corruption.

And so you entrench yourself in your cocoon of like-minded partisans, assuring each other that you are right and that the other side is not only wrong, they are evil. You are no longer citizens working towards a common solution, or even parties with differing ideas, you are enemies – and because you're obviously on the side of the Goodies, the others have to be the Baddies.

* * *

Thus, democracy is poisoned. With every Facebook post condemning the “Left” and every tweet blasting the “Right”, every article degrading a group of people for holding the wrong opinion, every campaign speech criminalising the opposition. Our German president recently said: “It is through their sum, the daily cannonade of attacks, that many small injuries turn into the gaping wounds afflicting and eroding our culture of discourse today.” It matters how we phrase our disagreement, what words we choose to criticise those of differing opinion; for the words you choose today will affect how you see each other tomorrow. Death comes by a thousand paper cuts. And as the tree withers, the monsters invade.

Because a society that has forgotten how to come to an agreement still needs to make decisions, the feuding parties resort to subterfuge and tactical maneuvering. Instead of a round table of common discussion, politics becomes a battlefield where every achievement for the enemy is necessarily a loss for oneself. Consequently, all means are legitimate if they only serve to frustrate the opposition. Parliamentary procedures meant to expedite the decision-making process are used to prevent a real debate. Constitutional constructs drawn up to manage emergencies are fired indiscriminately until they become daily occurrences.

But democracy was not designed for this. A German constitutional scholar famously said: “Democracy lives on prerequisites it cannot itself guarantee.” Although our constitutions make allowance for dealing with individual misbehaviour, they cannot indefinitely sustain a wholesale attack on the trust underlying the system. Democracy only works when people are willing to talk, and when they trust each other enough to actually do so. And so every attack on the fundamental credibility of a party or an institution ultimately becomes an attack on democracy. Because where people stop talking, they start fighting. Suddenly, democracy has become anarchy.

It's happened before. It happened at the end of the Roman Republic, where an increasingly corrupt Senate took to settling political scores using gangs of thugs on the streets. It happened in the run up to the American Civil War, when tempers became so heated over the question of slavery that war seemed like the only way out. It happened in the Weimar Republic of Germany, when communists and fascists resorted to pitched battles at campaign events, and public trust in the democratic institutions was so far eroded that the people voted the openly anti-democratic Nazis into power. When the tree is poisoned, the monsters invade.

* * *

We have to keep talking. It sure isn't easy, but who ever said democracy was supposed to be easy? Talking doesn't mean pretending there are no problems, or that there are no differences in opinion. Talking does mean respecting those differences in opinion and not disqualifying somebody from the debate just because you don't agree. After all, the very concept of a debate presupposes a diversity of opinions. That's something we've just got to live with – it's the price of freedom.

I'm not some big politician or journalist, I don't have the kind of influence it would take to change a culture. I cannot go questing for the Golden Fleece to magically heal the tree. But I can watch what I think and what I say. I can remind myself to see others as fellow citizens with their own ideas about things. I can try to understand where they are coming from – if only to help me persuade them with arguments that are actually relevant to them. And who knows? I might even learn something from them. Perhaps they do have a point. I'll never find out if we don't keep talking.

Tagged as society, politics, democracy, essay


Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Daniel Vedder.
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