Democracy has a core meaning but it needs to be defined from a vantage point, given that is is a contested concept subject to dynamic framing and reframing processes. According to Habermas’ deliberative democracy theory, deliberation is central to democratic decision making. Hence, language development is an essential part of democracy and democratic discourse: autocrats and dictators can be eloquent actors, but – in contrast to democrats – they are not able and willing to put up their issues for negotiation, i.e. they communicate at the cost of reflexivity of communicative processes. To put it simply: Language is the language of democracy, or democracy is the rule of language.
Against the backdrop of Germany’s Nazi past it was common sense among politicians and civil society to keep up a (sometimes more, sometimes less) stable cordon sanitaire against far right actors, as for example the NPD in the 1960s, the DVU and REP in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and again the NPD in East Germany in the 2000s, in order to defend democracy. But since the early 2010s, at least since the founding of the AfD in 2013, the rise of PEGIDA in 2014, and the ongoing ‘refugee crisis’ since 2015, fundamental discursive shifts to the right and a change of the political culture could be observed in Germany.
These anti-system actors (mainly parties, but also movements and scenes), defined in line with Capoccia and Zulianello, are challenging liberal democracy and its values by stressing “Us versus Them” as the structural core feature of their political agenda. Their goal is the polarization of political discourse and division of society. Applying Habermas’ theory of communicative action, these actors overemphasize the instrumental character of communication by the intentional neglection of the intrinsic rapprochement character of communication. Furthermore they also prioritize strategic over communicative goals: they do not want “the unforced force of the better argument” to unfold its power, but to achieve their predetermined goals without discursive negotiations. In short, these far right actors are challenging the structures, values and (communicative) procedures of liberal democracy.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the reactions to public speeches, rallies, or the campaigning of the far right becomes harsher as well, which means that some of the actors do not stick to the above mentioned rules of democratic discourse. Thereby, they also contribute to the vicious circle of provocation. These circumstances do not make it easier to bring these people back together again for them to listen to each other and respect dissenting political views.
German society faces such a situation for the first time: the media, civil society, and politicians are often challenged by dealing confidently with these actors, i.e. to push (or even force) them back on the pathway to a democratic discourse (i.e. sticking to the rules of truth, adequacy, veracity and intelligibility). Three recent examples show how society fails to agree on a minimum set of rules for a democratic culture of conflict and debate that safeguards societal cohesion within politics. The failure to stick to rules on democratic discourse can be traced back to a lack of proper terminology and mutual understanding.
- In the aftermath of the Brandenburg and Saxony state elections on September 1st, an interview with the Saxon CDU MP Marco Wanderwitz was aired. The anchor, Wiebke Binder, asked him if “a stable two-party coalition, a ‘bourgeois’ coalition of the CDU and the AfD is still ruled out.” In this context she used the term ‘bourgeois’ for a clearly far-right party without realizing it, until she was confronted with a sudden media frenzy. Shortly before, and immediately after the state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony, AfD started to reclaim the term of ‘bourgeois’ or ‘bourgeois-conservative’ as a self-description to position the party inside the democratic spectrum, as a loyal opposition and not as an anti-democratic opposition.
- The second case also deals with the AfD and Björn Höcke, the leader of “The Wing” (Der Flügel), an extremist faction within the party, under initiated surveillance of the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). After the AfD’s success (23.4%) in the Thuringian state elections on October 27th, media coverage focused on the extremist rhetoric and ideology of Björn Höcke, as well as on the articles he allegedly wrote under the pseudonym Landolf Ladig for the NPD press (‘Volk in Bewegung’ and ‘Eichsfeld-Stimme’). In an attempt to defend the ‘bourgeois’ and ‘centrist’ image of the AfD, the federal leader, Alexander Gauland, told the press that “Mr. Höcke doesn’t shift the party to the right. Mr. Höcke is the center of the party.” Contrary to this opinion, the administrative court of Eisenach adjudicated that it is a value judgement covered by freedom of speech to call Björn Höcke a fascist.
- The third example deals with the former leader of the AfD, Bernd Lucke, economics professor at the University of Hamburg. After having left the AfD in a commotion and failing to establish another, more moderate party (ALFA/LKR), he recently returned to the University of Hamburg to teach macroeconomics. The first two attempts to hold his first lecture failed, as students who claimed to speak for the student body and the political left stormed the auditorium. They raised Antifa banners, shouted “Incapacitate Lucke” and called him a “Nazi-Pig”. The third lecture was held with massive police protection and access controls. The students were predominantly not interested in a (democratic) discourse and Bernd Lucke reacted with an irreverent comparison, where he stated that the defamation against him as a “Nazi-Pig” were of the same quality as the (anti-Semitic) insulting metaphor of the “Jewish sow”.
These examples show how the vicious circle of downplaying, irreconcilable polarization, and thus the poisoning of democratic discourse is threatening liberal democracy by contravening the rules of a democratic discourse. A first step into the direction of a democratic discourse is the use of a correct and appropriate terminology and respectful language in general. That means, for example, not calling someone who has a very conservative political stance a Nazi. Vice versa, it should be allowed to call people who advocate fascists politics, fascists – or enemies of liberal democracy. Furthermore, the concept of freedom of speech means that everything can be said that is not prohibited by law, but it does not mean that this might not rouse opposition and cause conflict. In order to strengthen democratic discourse, thereby liberal democracy and its canon of values, it is necessary to stress dissonance tolerance as a central factor of democratic language and discourse.
Mr Maximilian Kreter is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at Hannah Arendt Institute Totalitarianism Studies, TU Dresden. See his profile here.
© Maximilian Kreter. 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).