A country without democracy will fail


Hans Vorländer

Prof. Dr. Hans Vorländer, born in 1954, has held the chair for political theory and the history of ideas at the Technical University of Dresden since 1993. There he is himself director of the Center for Constitutional and Democracy Research.
His main research interests are: political thinking and comparative political research, political theory and the history of ideas, constitutionalism and the constitution, democracy, liberalism and populism.

How does democracy work? A favorable environment, effective civil control of state violence and a pluralistic, active civil society are conditions for the development and stability of democracies. Secularization and stable economic conditions are also important. These prerequisites are not always met.

The concept of "embedded democracy" (& copy Bergmoser and Höller Verlag AG, figure 95092)

Modern, empirical and comparative research on democracy has shown that democratic conditions do not necessarily occur when certain conditions are met. It is also not possible to make reliable predictions about the success of democratization processes. Because their success or failure depends on the specific circumstances and situations, but also on the behavior of the respective political actors. Nonetheless, research on democracy has gained knowledge that certain prerequisites and conditions favor the emergence and stability of a democratic order.

What makes a democracy work

Four conditions together promote a functioning democracy.
  • First, the international situation must be compatible or conducive to democracy. No state is independent of its environment. Interventions by a foreign power and foreign policy dependencies can promote democracy, but also inhibit it or even contribute to its abolition.

    For example, the influence of the Soviet Union on Central and Eastern Europe after World War II prevented some countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland from establishing themselves as democracies. It was not until the change and later disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s that many Eastern and Central European states made the transition from authoritarian-socialist regimes to democracies.

    International support, for example through membership in military alliances or through the prospect of membership in the European Union, should also help to stabilize the newly founded democracies at home. However, this intention did not always lead to success: In Ukraine, Russia asserted its claim to geopolitical power by annexing Crimea and contributing to the destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

  • In Latin America, the US intervened several times, sometimes violently, to overthrow democratically elected governments that did not seem to be in line with their geographic, security or economic interests. Panama, Chile and Guatemala are such examples.

  • On the other hand, it was also the USA - and Great Britain - that significantly promoted the re-establishment of democracy after the Second World War. This is particularly true of West Germany, which the Western occupying powers supported in rebuilding democracy, while the USA simultaneously provided economic aid programs to ensure that rapid, stabilizing economic growth began. The Federal Republic of Germany and Japan are the most obvious cases in which the establishment of a democracy with the help of democratic victorious powers was sustainably successful.

    However, regime changes brought about by military interventions, such as those that recently took place in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, cannot always be seen as a guarantee for successful democratization processes. On the contrary, they can lead to civil wars and (new) tyranny wherever they are accompanied by the disintegration of the state structures and where the cultural, ethnic or religious contrasts in society are very great.

  • Second, effective civilian control of police and military power is important for the success of a democratization process. If it is in the hands of individuals or in the sole control of groups, there are extremely seldom, if ever, free and fair elections, the minimum requirement of a democracy.

    Democracies are based on law and order. Arbitrariness and the use of force as well as the elimination of a free political will-formation and decision-making process are alien to them. Civilian control over the police and the military is therefore of vital importance for the creation and maintenance of democratic institutions.

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Tyranny of the majority

The book "De la democratie en Amérique" ("On Democracy in America") by Alexis Clérel de Tocqueville was published in 1835, three years after a trip to America that the author had undertaken on behalf of the French government. [...] Tocqueville is an empiricist and a staunch advocate of democracy, which he considers to be the new, upcoming form of government, but against the dangers of which he wants to warn.

I consider the principle that in the field of government the majority of a people have the right to do absolutely anything, godless and abominable, and yet I derive all violence in the state from the will of the majority. Am I contradicting myself?

There is a general law which, if not established, has been adopted by the majority of all people, not just by the majority of any people. That law is justice. The right of every people finds its limit in justice. [...]

Hence, when I refuse to obey an unjust law, I by no means deny the majority the right to command; I am only appealing from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of humanity. [...]

What is the majority, taken as a whole, but an individual with views and interests that mostly run counter to those of another individual, called the minority? […] [U] nd I will never grant a majority the power to do absolutely everything that I deny an individual among my own kind. [...]

There is no power on earth that is so venerable in itself, no power endowed with such sacred law that I wanted it to act uncontrollably and to allow it to rule unhindered. As soon as I see, therefore, that the right and the opportunity to do absolutely anything is granted to any power, whether it is called a people or a king, a democracy or an aristocracy, it can be exercised in a monarchy or in a republic, as soon as I do that see, I say: This is the germ of tyranny, and I will try to live under different laws. [...]

On the other hand, imagine a legislative power that represents the majority without necessarily being the slave of their passions; an executive that has adequate powers and a judicial that is independent of the other two; even then we will have a democracy, but there will hardly be any chances for tyranny. [...]

Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy in America, selected and edited by J.P. Mayer, Philipp Reclam jun. Verlag Ditzingen 2006, pp. 145 ff



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For the freedom of those who think differently

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill is one of the most important thinkers of liberalism. In his youth he was influenced by Bentham’s utilitarianism. It is based on the principle: If only everyone acts rationally according to his own wishes and free from government interference, then that leads to the greatest happiness for an ever larger number of people. In addition, Mill devoted himself to the question of the compatibility of liberalism and democracy. In the publication Considerations on Representative Government, he offers a parliamentary system of government as a solution.

[...] Society can and does carry out its own orders, and when it gives bad orders instead of good ones, or mixes itself with things that it was better not to deal with, it exercises a social tyranny that is more terrible than some kinds of official oppression. It does not usually offer the utmost penalties; but it leaves fewer ways to escape, it penetrates much deeper into the details of life and enslaves the soul itself.

So it is not enough to protect oneself against the tyranny of those in power, one must also protect oneself against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling, against the intention of society to use other means than civil punishments for their own ideas and practices as rules of conduct impose that deviate from it. One must beware of the tendency of society to hinder the development and, if possible, the formation of any individuality who is inconsistent with the ways of the general public, and to force all characters to follow their own pattern. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion in personal independence, and to find this limit and to protect it against assault is just as indispensable for a good security of human life as protection against political despotism. [...]

John Stuart Mill, On Freedom, ed. by Horst D. Brandt, trans. by Else Wentscher, 2nd, improved edition, Felix Meiner Verlag GmbH Hamburg 2011, p. 9



  • Thirdly, a functioning and stable democracy requires a pluralistically structured society free of state dirigism in which the power resources in politics, society and the economy are widely distributed. Only when the power of disposal over capital, labor, money, physical and psychological violence, information, media and knowledge is widely distributed, can a concentration of power be prevented that distorts the democratic process or deforms it into an oligarchy through the rule of individuals or cliques.

    It is therefore also necessary that political powers are divided between different institutions. In the unanimous view of Montesquieu and the Federalists, the powers must also control each other and thereby create a balance that tames power and enables freedom.

    In addition, the French publicist, politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and the British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) point to the need to prevent tyranny of the majority itself. No group in society should become so powerful that it can dominate or suppress other groups and minorities. In a free, liberal democracy, today's minority should always have the chance to become tomorrow's majority.

    The more power is distributed among many carriers, the higher the democratic content of a system. The more concentrated the power, the lower the democratic content. Plurality in society, diversity in culture and competition in the economy, building blocks of what the philosopher Karl R. Popper (1902-1994) called the "open society", are therefore good prerequisites for a stable and functional democracy.

  • Fourthly, democracy also includes an active civil society which, with its diverse communities and intermediary associations that mediate between state and society, such as parties, associations and citizens' initiatives, develops a sense of citizenship and thus a democratic political culture. In this way democracy is supported and kept alive as a form of government of civic self-government.

    The failure of Weimar democracy shows how important it is for citizens to recognize democracy and trust their institutions, to be able to accept the processes of democratic conflict resolution and political compromise, and to be able to respect the decisions. The more support the citizens are willing to give, the more pronounced the stability of democracy, the better it can survive temporary institutional crises or economic problems without lasting damage.

    It becomes problematic when democracy is no longer trusted to cope with political, social and economic tasks in the long term. Then efficiency problems also create a loss of legitimacy. A political culture with an active civil society is able to absorb efficiency problems because those involved do not rely solely on state decision-making processes and state services, but also on their own activity and performance, their contribution as citizens.

    Above all, countries that have moved from dictatorships to democratic forms of government need civil society cultures, which, however, usually only emerge in an adjustment process that spans many years. Because people who have been politically incapacitated for decades do not turn overnight into the active and creative citizens on whom democracy ultimately lives. This requires building experience, getting used to democratic decision-making and decision-making processes and, finally, the conviction that democracy is by far the best form of government despite all its weaknesses.

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Farewell to utopias

[…] In 1945, when the Second World War ended, the book by the then 43-year-old Austrian emigrant Karl Popper, who had survived the war years as a lecturer in philosophy in Christchurch, New Zealand, was published in London. "The Open Society and Its Enemies" became one of the most important political books of the 20th century. Popper is neither conciliatory nor a conciliatory thinker. [...]

"The open society and its enemies" [...] turns against the totalitarianism of fascism and communism as well as against the supposedly nice occidental thought tradition of Plato. Plato, Hegel and Marx, according to Popper [...] do not stand for openness, but for the concept of historicism, that is, the idea that the world and its inhabitants are subject to fixed laws, an inevitable process. The story is not open, it is fixed. All of human history is a program that is unwound. [...]

The result is ideologies, that is, closed worldviews, which first produce the apparent consistency of the processes, that inner logic that is so often spoken of. Openness, on the other hand, is when one can also think differently, in alternatives and in the plural. Why are people closing up? Because they're scared. Because they are insecure. And because the closed societies give them the perception that everything is in order, that is, going according to plan, as more than 2000 years of intellectual history have repeatedly asserted. In the end, everyone beckons "the kingdom of heaven", says Popper, and this threatens great disaster: "If we do not want to plunge the world (...) into disaster, we have to give up our dreams of world happiness," he said. The open society is not harmonious, not free of contradictions, in it not everything seems to fit into the other. You have to endure something - especially the others. That is their price.

Popper's most important advice is to move away from the big throws, from the utopias and the utopians. The open society corresponds to the individual, the closed society to forced collectivization. If you want openness, you have to go into detail again and again. For Karl Popper this means: The open society takes small steps, it produces "piecemeal". That is not very attractive when you want to promise everything to everyone, when you want to solve all problems and suddenly spread the good and the beautiful. But that is exactly what defines the enemies of the open society. They take on too much, they are not sober, they are not humble enough for freedom.

Popper's open society relies on institutions that can be critically controlled, on self-criticism and constant questioning of one's own positions. She is freed from heroes and leaders. The real troubleshooters are ordinary people, civil society citizens, nothing spectacular. Democracy is not pathos, but a tool that is not there to make everyone happy, but simply to keep suffering as small as possible. It brings different interests into consensus and thus depicts diversity. It is not "rule of the people", warns Karl Popper, because the "majority can also support tyranny." In his view of things, elections have a simple function. You should ensure the bloodless change of power.

[...] Popper's work also includes the critical handling of apparent certainties. The idea that the new is better than what one knows turns out to be precisely that prejudice as well as the opposite. The point and purpose of openness is not to buy a pig in a poke, but to open the bag and see what is inside. [...]

Wolf Lotter, "In open society", in: Brand eins 01/2017, p. 34 ff.The full article "In open society" can be read at: