In many democracies, a sobering picture is emerging in 2023: hardened fronts and fragmented societies with diverse, sometimes competing ideas of a good life that are bound to clash. Compromise has become more difficult, and the tone has become shriller, louder and more divisive. Some, in the best tradition of the cyclical ideas of an Oswald Spengler, suspect an inevitable decline of liberal ideas, while others see primarily their own mistakes, which have led to a creeping loss of competitiveness of democratic ideas. On the other hand, authoritarian social orders such as those in China occasionally appear more successful than their democratic counterparts, which after all should have ushered in the end of history.
There is no doubt that the world is on the verge of a change of era in which the global power structure is being reorganized. However, despite all the pessimists, the outcome is still open, even though initial tendencies cannot be overlooked.
Now the concepts of freedom, the rule of law and democracy, although there is a great deal of overlap, are not congruent. Freedom can be anarchic, a rule of law can enforce reprehensible laws, and even a democracy always allows only a certain group of people with defined characteristics to participate.
From now on, however, the focus will be on the latter. Is popular rule in inexorable decline? Or is there simply no longer enough struggle for it? What will tomorrow bring?
The future is undoubtedly an unknown that should only be met with appropriate preparedness. Why not derive it from past experience as well? How did democratic ideas make it to the breakthrough and can one still draw lessons for the present from their paths? Are there not enough success stories?
In this regard, there are great narratives, sometimes at this point it is worth looking at events that were not quite so much in focus, because often it is the details, the small steps that can serve as a blueprint for the implementation of great ideals. Those that could have started just about anywhere and increase the power that everyone’s voice counts?
One such can be found in Germany, for example. Armin Grein, born in 1939, is considered a democratic pioneer in Germany. He is the founding father of the “Freie Wähler (FW)” (Free Voters), a once loose political association of people who, after the terrible experiences of the Nazi era, no longer wanted to put their trust in parties, but who, thanks to Grein’s commitment, have developed so much over the decades that the “Freie Wähler” are now part of the government in Bavaria and are represented in the European Parliament, and in the future may also have a chance to play a greater role in federal politics.
Armin Grein himself was and is always closely connected to Israel. He not only visited the country several times, but was already a volunteer on a kibbutz in the 1960s, well before the 6-Day War, and was thus able to gain deep insights into life and culture. In his offices, Grein also repeatedly championed the exchange between Germany and Israel that promoted understanding between peoples, which he also partly accompanied himself.
This political story begins in Bavaria in the early 1970s. In the villages, small towns and districts, where in many cases people were elected to office without belonging to a party, because they rejected a corresponding bond and wanted to be politically active only for their direct homeland. This had the advantage of independence and also that of focusing on factual politics, but also led to the fact that the “freelancers” did not know each other and so there was naturally no influence that went beyond the immediate environment. At that time, the Internet did not yet exist, and thus neither did today’s self-evident ability to communicate and obtain information. The village border was often the political one. The influence on state or federal politics, even on the county or district administration, was severely limited. Armin Grein then set out with others to convince these people to join forces and thus to further spread the grassroots democratic idea of a non-partisan factual politics. That was often a laborious struggle, which lasted many years, but a successful one, because with the time the organization and the idea developed further and resulted, even if the today’s political structure, surely differs from its initial condition, even in a government participation in Bavaria. In between, however, there were decades of hard work that began on a small scale, experienced setbacks again and again, and yet was successful in the end.
Now this is undoubtedly a retroperspective. But would such success still be possible at a time when democracy itself is being questioned, when society is fragmented into many different ways of thinking and when individualization is taking on unprecedented dominance through new, often digital influences? Do people still want to have a say at all, or has it not long been enough for some of them to have algorithms work out their needs and, depending on the economic situation, satisfy them? Has democracy perhaps already lost entire milieus?
There is no doubt that these are unpleasant questions, which are often avoided even within democratic societies and dismissed with reference to some extremes. And yet it is impossible to avoid them. But just as in the past people had to be understood in order to inspire them with enthusiasm for the democratic cause, so it must be done in the present and in the future. Understanding – this is the greatest challenge of a new era and the further steps towards democratic processes will then be as always: Tough, struggling, but in the end rewarding and hopefully successful.