Protecting Democracy and Countering Far-Right Demagogy


There is currently much debate in many European countries about the best way to deal with public expressions of ethnonationalism, racism and antisemitism. Only a few years ago, democratic societies would publicly discuss racism, but refuse a platform for racists. However, this has been changing for some time now. In Germany, radical right rhetoric can once again be openly expressed in public life. In particular, TV talk shows—an important forum for German debates—have been giving a great deal of space to radical right themes for months now, for example in the biggest TV talk shows like “Anne Will” or “Sandra Maischberger” It is about time for us to understand that a basic cornerstone of democracy involves shutting out such extreme views.[1]

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, democracies have seen an acceleration of everyday life, largely driven by digitalization. This has caused political actors to feel pressured into publicly reacting to every event both quickly and forcefully—a pressure affecting politicians from every party. In this regard, the important thing is not the form of the message’s vehicle (i.e. populist marches, refined television interviews, and so on), but the content that is thereby conveyed; the question is about what goals are being pursued, and whether these are democratic or not.[2]

Moreover, the understanding of democracy should not be reduced to a purely formal dimension, in which a system is considered democratic solely because it holds elections. In judging whether a political message’s content is anti-democratic, it is important to consider the essential core of democracy. The minimum constitutional consensus is based on an understanding of the relationship between demos (“the people”) and kratein (“to rule”). In reconciling these two elements, most European democracies reject a völkisch (or “ethnonationalist”) conception of the people, and provide governance through a representative system. But this also means that a democracy—which Germans today describe as “wehrhaft”, or “defensive”—cannot be so naive as to believe that populist demands, simply because they exist, should be given a hearing not matter how inflammatory the content.[3] It cannot be that whoever shouts the loudest is allowed to prevail. Instead, it can only be whoever achieves majorities through the representative democratic system. This is precisely why any defensive democracy must shut out anti-democratic intolerance: In following Karl Popper’s ‘paradox of tolerance’, they violate the essential core of democracy and actually are fundamentally opponents of an ‘open society’.

Connected to this is the key question of whether the rise of populism reveals faultlines in contemporary democracies, be they in terms of form or content. With respect to affective deficits, for example in regards to content, it must be said that if people are uninterested or unskilled in participating in democratic structures, this alone does not necessarily indicate a procedural flaw. Instead, it simply shows that among those who do not know how to effectively participate insufficient knowledge or engagement is evident. However, if procedural flaws do exist in western democracies (which may very well be the case), then it should be possible to delineate them clearly and rationally. Yet the radical right never does this. Although radical right parties are again achieving electoral successes, their core concern is not about building majorities through constructive efforts. Instead, it seeks ways to impose their narrow, often exclusionary, interests.[4] It is not about any ‘will of the people’; nor is it anything that is empirically provable and truly existing, but about what radical right activists allege is ‘common sense’; namely their own völkisch worldview, which understands “the folk” as an ethnically homogeneous monolith. At the core of this extra-parliamentary stance is something that Carl Schmitt also demanded during the Weimar Republic: a guided democracy based on a perceived “people’s will” (meaning one dictated by the radical right), defined by an ethnic homogeneity and a militarised dichotomy of friend versus foe.[5]

In contrast, a representative democracy argues over deficits in the political agenda through a pluralistic framework, one marked by regularly shifting majorities. Moreover, a basic consensus on pluralism exists, one that is intrinsically contested by the far right, In turn, this is precisely why their demands are anti-democratic, in terms of both form and content. As liberal democrats who support the constitution as a basic consensus – as well as the principle of pluralism with its rejection of völkisch thinking and every form of essentialism – it is therefore important to clearly state that radical right populists are not really concerned with deficits in the political system.

Instead, in Germany and other countries with powerful radical right parties, the latter want to destroy this basic democratic consensus itself. Political disagreement is based upon the principle of political and social pluralism. Whoever does not accept this has abandoned the very foundation of freedom and equality. This is why the demands of radical right populists are unacceptable, in terms of both form and content, as a way to delineate democracy’s actual deficits, let alone solve them; democracy must, for its own sake, rigorously shut out these demands, and what’s more, it must fight against radical right populists for what they truly are: not simply political opponents, but actually enemies of democracy. Here, elevating radical right positions to public fora like TV talk shows does not in fact contribute to pluralism, but instead directly helps those who want to destroy it.

Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin . See his profile here.

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).



[1] Cf. Jürgen Habermas: Für eine demokratische Polarisierung. Interview in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 61 (2016), No. 11, pp. 35–42.

[2] Cf. Samuel Salzborn: Renaissance of the New Right in Germany? A Discussion of New Right Elements in German Right-wing Extremism Today, in: German Politics and Society 34 (2016), No. 119, pp. 36–63.

[3] Cf. Karl Loewenstein: Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights, in: The American Political Science Review 31 (1937), No. 3 & 4, pp. 417–432 & 638–658.

[4] Cf. Tjitske Akkerman/Sarah L. de Lange/Matthijs Rooduijn (eds.): Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe. Into the mainstream?, London/New York 2016; Andrea L. P. Pirro: The Populist Radical Right in Central and Eastern Europe: Ideology, Impact, and Electoral Performance, London 2015.

[5] Cf. Samuel Salzborn: The Will of the People? Schmitt and Rousseau on a Key Question of Democracy Theory,, in: Democratic Theory 4/1 (2017), pp. 11–34.