1989 Generation Initiative


What is democracy and how far do we go to defend it in the face of populists and demagogues who would defile democracy for their own selfish ends? These questions are answered in the following essay.

By Dominik Kirchdorfer


Democracy is quite a simple concept. Yet the majority of citizens today do not seem interested in democracy at all. They speak of it, but they mean the opposite. They speak of safeguarding democracy and our values and yet trample both with the same breath. If we really care about democracy, we must be conscious of its requirements and stricter in their application and defence.


All the policies we discuss are economic policies. They all cost money and they all create value in one form or another, both directly, in the short term, and over long periods of time in ways we cannot accurately measure. Democracies are not dependent on an economic system; they can function no matter the preferences of the people in this regard. That is why we can argue about these policies in the first place and have a democratic contest.


But this is only possible, because we already agree on our foundations. Liberal democracies are built on three fundamental values we all agree on: freedom, equality and tolerance. Without adherence to these values, democracies cannot function and are inevitably ruined and replaced.


In democracies all citizens must be equally free to vote and tolerate the decision of the majority, whether they believe it to be right or not. Your level of education or achievement does not matter in the vote. But likewise the majority may not impede upon the freedoms of the few to satisfy the many. For all citizens are and always shall be equal before the law, guaranteeing all citizens the maximum amount of freedom. All citizens must tolerate the freedoms of all other citizens and not impede upon them arbitrarily. Only when a citizen harms another citizen and thus impedes upon the other’s freedom, shall his or her own freedom be constrained to preserve equality of freedoms. By following these basic principles a democracy persists. Any deviation from them inevitably leads to the system’s corruption and collapse.


So what do you do when someone steps up and attacks the fundamental principles of democracy? You challenge them. You point out their hypocrisy. You fight for our values. Only a vigilant people can preserve their democracy. When people stop caring for their democracy, it withers and dies from within. Empty promises and calls directed against the core values must be shown for what they are: a call to abolish democracy. And they shall be treated and dealt with as such.


This is where our democracies fail. We do not look out for undemocratic tendencies. We take democracy for granted and assume that it will persist no matter what we do. We mistake freedom of speech for freedom to act. Do not misunderstand; citizens must be free to speak their minds at all times. But if a private citizen talks against democracy, it is different than if someone in a democratically elected office speaks out against democracy and its values. The moment a citizen decides to run for a public office, that citizen becomes a servant of the public and must be scrutinised not by the standards applied to a private citizen, but by the fundamental values underlying our society.

Politicians are not celebrities. They are public servants. It doesn’t matter how they dress, what their hair looks like or how they eat their lunch. Their intentions in office matter. When elected their actions matter. What they say and write publicly matters. That is what our journalists should help focus public attention on. There are enough sensational headlines to be found in this process.

Let me again be clear: Democratic principles do not apply to undemocratic proposals. Any idea that goes against a democratic value is not a policy, but a shot fired. Citizens must ever watch out for and measure by our principles such ideas. Consequently, when they encounter them, they should reject such ideas. In the next instance, the judiciary must stop such proposals from ever becoming law. Finally, the executive may never execute such laws, should they be passed. A democracy cannot be undone by one undemocratic person, but only by the apathy of all those who choose not to stop them in the name of democracy.

Photo: Mitglieder und Delegiertenversammlung der FWG Rheinland-Pfalz, 25.6.2005, Claus Ableiter

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