Political Systems
Dr. Volker Mittendorf / Political Science
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A Functioning Democracy Does Not Need Heroes

Political scientist Volker Mittendorf on political systems and the importance of elections

Germany's federal elections will be held on September 26. Profound changes are imminent, because the "pure people's parties will no longer exist in the future," says at least political scientist Dr. Volker Mittendorf, who studies political systems at Bergische Universität. The native of Hesse knows very well how they came into being and how they change.
The term "political system" is not that old. It emerged in the 1940s from the observation that there are certain processes whose initial and final states can be determined. "But what happens in between, that can't be observed so precisely, and for this area in between, the concept of the political system has developed." He said one can never speak of good or bad in this context, because it is always a matter of who decides what is good and bad, so it makes more sense to evaluate the interplay of a wide variety of elements that make a system functional or dysfunctional. "And in the case of dysfunctionality, the question is then whether it has led back to stable conditions through internal reconstruction or rebuilding measures, or whether this instability builds up and, under certain circumstances, leads to a complete system failure." The concept of the political system is applicable not only to nation states, but also to the global political system. Against this background, it could be readily observed that in Germany, since 1949, it has proven to be relatively quickly stable and, over time, also capable of being rebuilt. "There have always been challenges to which the political system has responded well in this sense, unlike the Weimar Republic in the 1930s, for example," he explains. The Weimar Constitution, he says, continued to be in force formally as a constitution, but was then transformed into a dictatorship, and that can be measured empirically.

Political systems have been compared and classified since ancient times

The approach to explaining forms of government and state varies widely. Beginning with Aristotle, who assumed a logical derivation of the terms, people still link good and bad forms of government with the question of the decision-makers. Is it one, is it a few, or is it even many? "This is a doctrine of forms of government that we still teach in political science today," Mittendorf explains. "This basic idea, against the background of such theoretical considerations, to evaluate the reality of whether a form of government is good or bad, is always an exciting question."
Political science, he said, conveys - simply put - three main schools of thought that can compare processes. In the classical, normative-ontological school of thought, one assumes that there is an objective good or evil. And whatever this consisted of, it was the task of the scientist to work out this norm, to establish it, and then to judge whether a state conformed to this good or bad theory of government. "There are, moreover, at least two other main schools of thought, that is, basic epistemological positions." There would be Hegel and also Marx with rather dynamizing processes, because "what is good and what is bad, according to this view, changes over time," the expert explains, "can sometimes be on one side, sometimes on the other. This dialectic ensures that the world continues to move forward." Finally, the third stance is more in line with modern scientific theoretical thinking, he says, and is the distinction between subjective and empirically perceivable reality. All three perspectives still have their place in teaching and enrich political science.

Several waves of democratization up to the 1990s

Whether a state is functioning as a state and thus continues to exist as a political system can be observed via so-called state stability indices such as the Fragile States Index. Surprisingly, one finds that both autocracies and democracies are usually in a rather stable state in their function. "The transition from democracy to dictatorship is relatively easy to make. In the other direction, it is often more difficult and is not infrequently accompanied by instability. And if we compare these different indices, we come to the conclusion that there have been several waves of democratization, in the 1990s it was the third wave," but "at the moment it looks a bit like the stabilization of democracies worldwide is on the way back again. This is also true for some states in Europe, where there are first signs that the formerly stable democracy is becoming more fragile."

Constitutional claim - constitutional reality - constitutional realization

The decisive factor for classifying a political system is never the written constitution alone, but above all the so-called constitutional reality. In Germany, this term is ultimately not a political science term, but a constitutional law term, and comes from the philosophy of law. "There is always the constitutional claim, which is opposed by the constitutional reality and then, as a third, passes over into the constitutional realization." He said that the constitutional lawyer and also the political scientist who deals with this should always look at the constitutional text, but keep an eye on reality, because court decisions are also changeable. Thus, he said, the three-step is constantly in flux, because when constitutions change, a new constitutional claim also arises. Recent examples, he said, include children's rights and climate protection. "These are constitutional claims that then cause a tendency in case law practice, if necessary," Mittendorf says. The Constitutional Court ruling on climate protection can be seen as a groundbreaking decision in that regard. It says that not only the future generation alone may be burdened with the costs. This claim had been virtually interpreted into the existing constitution. In order to actually be able to achieve the climate target, a heated debate is now taking place, which can be well described by the terms constitutional reality and constitutional realization.

Susceptibility of Political Systems to Manipulation

If you ask about the susceptibility of political systems to manipulation, you quickly have names like Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in mind, who seem to easily implement constitutional changes in order to stay in office for life. "They are mainly good at rewriting the constitution or the constitutional claim," Mittendorf explains. But that has less to do with manipulation and more to do with power, he adds. Power, he says, is everywhere in society. As soon as someone complies with the will of another, power has already been exercised. There is power in a threat, for example. "As soon as power resources are no longer evenly distributed in the separation of powers, political systems change. If the supporters of these power mongers succeed in mobilizing the willingness to follow in the population, then they also succeed in monopolizing power and undermining the separation of powers. We see this with Putin, Erdogan, who, despite economic processes that caused his power to wane, managed to strengthen his person by redefining his presidency after the coup. And to some extent we have seen similar things with Trump."

Heroes are needed only where politics works with fear

"In a liberal constitutional state with a very well-developed democracy, fear of government is not the essential driver," the scholar says. There are two main sources through which to support a political system, he says. One is fear of negative sanction if I do something, and the other is support because I think it is right, he said. "A functioning democracy doesn't need fear," Mittendorf says firmly, "and a good democracy doesn't need heroes." Heroes are needed only where politics works with fear, he says. "Erdogan obviously has only half of the population on his side; fear dominates among the others. It's similar with Putin, where it's no coincidence that when Alexei Nawalny was attacked, he was supposed to be killed with a poison, which is only available to Russia's military. This is a story that creates fear in any imitator."

Popular sovereignty before system of rule

Recently, President Assad was confirmed in his presidential office with an incredible 95.1 percent, according to official figures, although he has been unable or unwilling to end the civil war since 2011. This raises the question of why elections are held at all. Says Mittendorf: "Since popular sovereignty replaced the belief in divinely legitimized systems of rule, since then the act of voting has been a very essential element in maintaining legitimacy for rule. Neither Putin, Erdogan, nor Assad can dispense with the fact that there is a fiction of this empirical popular consent." In Syria, he said, one should rather ask who the 4.9% of courageous people are who did not vote for Assad, because even a refusal to vote can be interpreted as oppositional, and anyone who even insists on secrecy of the ballot is already suspicious. The electoral act itself must always be designed in such a way that it and the outcome are transparent, i.e. that it can be verified by everyone as general, free, equal, direct and secret, and that it can take place under the condition of good information. It was not without reason that these regimes controlled media reporting and manipulated the judiciary. "And we also find such processes in Europe," Mittendorf forwards, "Poland, Hungary, to some extent perhaps also Austria. Whoever succeeds in manipulating the electoral act in such a way that people agree, even though it is not their reflected opinion, can also hold on to power. There is simply no longer a society that refers to a divine origin."

Germany's balance of power after the Bundestag elections

On September 26, there are federal elections. The Merkel era is over, the first woman is waiting in the wings for the Greens, the Social Democrats continue to slip, and the right has already achieved a double-digit election result in Saxony. Sociologist Max Weber said in 1919: "Politics is the striving for a share of power or for influencing the distribution of power...". How will the balance of power in Germany shift this fall? "In general, you can see that the entire balance of power is moving away from the classic people's parties. That's the very big trend, which is hard to deny," Mittendorf explains. This began with the SPD more than 30 years ago, when a second left-wing party, the Greens, emerged, which pursued a quasi counter-position, and then, after the fall of communism, the later Left Party joined in. Thus, there were two more positions through which the people's party lost its old binding power. "It was no longer just about right and left, but there came ecology and the peace movement with the Greens, and also the distribution issue after the fall of the Wall with the Left Party proved to be sustainable." With the AfD, which first of all decidedly represented a different European policy perspective and saw European integration as problematic in that it meant that the particular group it represented no longer received enough support, the people's party character of the CDU had also become problematic. "The pure people's parties will no longer exist in this form in the future. The distribution of power will have to deal very strongly with the changes in communication processes, that is, with social networks and social media, and will become more transparent in the process." However, he said, it could become difficult if the trend toward personalizing individual politicians* intensifies. "A democracy without heroes works best when everyone can implement their factual claims and the factual issues and factual debates take center stage." Contrast that, however, with debates on social media about followers of certain people. "Followers can also be seen as a specific subform of power. Those who can rally a particularly large number of people behind them are seen as having charisma, and they are also more likely to believe things that today would be readily described as fake news," says the researcher. At this point, citizen participation processes, whose central research takes place at Bergische Universität, could once again put the factual aspect before the personal aspect, because, says Mittendorf, "we have to get away from that and address the long-term problems that we do have. We have huge problems with globalization, increasing inequality worldwide, man-made climate change and species extinction. These long-term tasks and the associated international long-term security architecture must remain in focus, and transnational processes must also be developed for this purpose."

The election will necessitate new alliances; the classic voter socialized in a working-class household does not exist today, nor does the Catholic voter close to the CDU. At any rate, a return to urgent substantive issues would do our democracy good.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 06/14/2021)

Dr. Volker Mittendorf is an academic councilor at the University of Wuppertal (BUW). He is deputy director of the Institute for Democracy and Participation Research (IDPF) at BUW. His research fields include the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany, local politics research, participation, effects of direct democratic procedures and argumentation patterns in election campaign communication.

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