“55 Voices for Democracy” is inspired by the 55 BBC radio addresses Thomas Mann delivered from his home in California to thousands of listeners in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the occupied Netherlands and Czechoslovakia between October 1940 and November 1945. In his monthly addresses Mann spoke out strongly against fascism, becoming the most significant German defender of democracy in exile. Building on that legacy, “55 Voices” brings together internationally esteemed intellectuals, scientists, and artists to present ideas for the renewal of democracy in our own troubled times. The series is presented by the Thomas Mann House in partnership with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Deutschlandfunk.
The video of Jan Philipp Reemtsma’s speech can be viewed below.
What does it mean to speak about — and for — democracy in an emphatic sense? Is there a common project we — we democrats — stand for, and even would fight for in difficult and dangerous times? Hopefully we would do so. But we should not conjure up such times when they are not at stake just to dress up our democratic habits. Of course, democracy always was and is an endangered political concept: endangered by its overt enemies, endangered by the misuse of power that a badly constructed constitution allows. And we hear quite often that the most dangerous enemies of democracy are lethargic and indolent democrats. That may be, but what does it mean to be an emphatic and stubborn democrat? Am I a stubborn and emphatic democrat? Should I be one? What does it mean to be a democrat not only because one reasons that democracy is at least “the less bad constitution I’ve heard of” but because of some deep emotions?
The passionate democrats of the 18th century (whether they fought on the streets in front the Bastille or on their writing tables in front of a sheet of paper) wrote or said or shouted that they were the expression or personification of the people’s will. This was a consensus made by emphasis of style or voice. After the occurrences of the 20th century many people (or at least the thoughtful ones) became skeptical. Karl Popper wrote that democracy has nothing to do with the “people’s will” but rather the opportunities to get rid of a government without bloodshed. Or, in a milder version, democracy is a system in which parties lose elections, as Adam Przeworski has put it (Müller, 2019). I have to confess that I like the definition and like to think further in that direction.
The great philosopher Judith Shklar demonstrated the idea of democracy the other way round: democracy is not what we are not forced to do (to implement a regime change), but what it allows us not to be afraid of. Shklar referred to a “liberalism of fear”. The idea of democracy that is derived from this way of looking at the world is that we have won a lot when we are successful in defending ourselves against the worst. “Cruelty,” Judith Shklar wrote, “is the worst thing we can do.” And she is right. To protect ourselves against cruelty means to protect ourselves against excessive power and everything that allows people to attain a position in society in which they can gain and execute excessive power.
Democracy in this sense is a means of political self-protection. It is, first of all, about the protection of minorities, and, second about how the will of the majority can be articulated and transformed in political action in the process of voting. Democracy in this sense means: a constitutional state with guaranteed basic or fundamental rights for everyone (without any exception whatsoever), a legal system that guarantees protection and transparency; the separation of powers; an independent judicial system and jurisprudence; and freedom of speech, including independent free and pluralistic media, that are controlled by law but not by the state or private monopoly. Political institutions, no matter how they are constructed in detail, should be regulated by what has been called “checks and balances.”
The idea of democracy can include much more but it must be based on this minimum. If we say that democracy has to be defended then we must mean defending this. We can think (and hope) that democracy is the best environment for developing a pluralistic and colorful society, or the best environment for developing the potentials of individuals. Maybe — and I would like to add, hopefully — it is. Maybe some democratic societies only produce a cultural environment that is grey and dull and full of average stuff because there’s a lack of interesting eccentrics who are protected and promoted by the people who can do so. In any case — that is not the question we debate when we debate the future of democracy.
When we debate the future of democracy we are not discussing a specific background culture, whether we call it Occidental, Asian, African — you name it, and I’ll say: no, that’s not what it’s about. And if someone tries to interrupt me now and say that this idea is a camouflage for a kind of light version of an Occidental supremacy, I would answer that I understand the suspicion and accept the right of my opponent to be suspicious. But I would insist that the best way of living together is not to emphasize the different political cultures as something fixed as cages that we cannot open, but to create societies were we all can develop a habit of looking at every cultural background as if it were a bit mine. It needs work and patience, I know. But learning is fun.
Let’s return to the idea of democracy as a minimum of self-protection against the potential for cruelty that lies in the use of excessive or even insufficiently controlled power — cruelty that ranges from harming people in jails or elsewhere to discriminating them because of the way they look, speak, think or believe. I agree, we tend to express our emphatic convictions in heartwarming speeches about this idea only in such moments in which its realization is really endangered. At some places in our world it is indeed threatened, some places are far from being places where it has mere a chance of being realized. But a lot of places, a lot of countries are stable democracies in this sense, whether you like the parties or people in government or not. And I think that the majority of people who will listen to this speech (or read it afterwards) are from to those countries.
They may find the way I talk in a way too defensive. Well, the idea of democracy I would like to promote is indeed in a sense defensive. Not because this idea is weak. For everyone who is afraid of a society in which the most strong and brutal and indecent people are in power — look around in history and in parts of our contemporary world and you will see the monuments to cruelty — it is self-evident. Of course, it is difficult and in a way unsatisfying to advocate what is self-evident. If you are disappointed by what I’ve said so far please consider: what you would like me to emphasize beyond this rather meager idea — we all only have the chance to debate it on this safe ground. Such debates are what we live for. Whoever wants to promote her or his ideas but doesn’t like the idea that they are being, will be or should be debated isn’t fond of democracy to say the least.
But isn’t the idea of political equality (and that is what the idea of democracy is based on) somehow pointless or futile without economic equality and isn’t it corrupted by any form of privilege and social discrimination? Let’s be honest: it is not only affected but often damaged and sometimes demolished by privilege and social discrimination. Let’s be careful: let’s not throw away the idea of democracy in the sense I’ve sketched above because admitting that this is true. The only way we know of fighting inequality and discrimination or at least minimizing their occurrence and their consequences — and this is a knowledge derived from historical experience — is to work within the framework of democracy. No authoritarian regime ever helped to reach these ends. Every authoritarian regime has improved the standard of living of the privileged (or sometimes the newly privileged) and stabilized the power of those who came to power through the regime.
You want a more emphatic talk? If you understand that the very best you can get is this meager idea, then you understand that all the emphasis you need is based on this lack of pathos.
Photo by Thomas Mann House / Nikolai Blaumer.