Power and Structures of Political Systems
Prof. Dr. Detlef Sack / Political Science
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

The Last Ten Years Have Not Been Good Years for Democracy

Political scientist Prof. Dr. Detlef Sack on power and structures of political systems

The world is in a state of flux. Climate crisis, war and corona are burdening people worldwide, political systems are escalating, leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Georgia Meloni or Viktor Orban are worrying many citizens* with their statements and actions. "There are people who are personally structured in a similar way to these politicians, but who don't have the means to act it out in this way," says Prof. Dr. Detlef Sack from the Department of Democracy Theory and Government Systems Research at Bergische Universität. Psychologizing political leaders like Putin, etc., is of little use and too short-sighted, the political scientist continues, because the decisive factor for success is the political systems that prevail there.

The concept of power is complex

The political lexicon says: `Power is a basic political-sociological term used for relationships of dependence or superiority, i.e. for the possibility of those in power to assert and realize their own goals without the consent, against the will or despite the resistance of others. ` Politically, power-seekers with a pronounced desire for power seem to be on the rise, but do they actually pose any dangers? "There are two answers to this question," says Sack, because in addition to the dictionary definition according to Max Weber, political science and sociology have another concept of power "that guides my work. This is that of Michel Foucault (Paul Michel Foucault 1926 - 1984, French psychologist and philosopher), who says: 'Power always has two sides. ` This is on the one hand the superiority and subordination and on the other hand the fact that power also has a productive component. Power precisely also empowers people to do something when they gather, as an association, as a sovereign of the people, as a democracy; then it is an exercise of power, a positive concept of power."

At the same time, he said, it is also the case that when people are oppressed by power, other people exercise that power. "The concept of power is a little more complex," the scientist says, adding that people don't always find it easy to override, subordinate and empower themselves. "What we are finding right now is that the last ten years have not been good years for democracy as a system of political rule" he describes the situation. "We have seen that a whole series of democracies have experienced something like a slide, a regression into autocratic conditions, also in Europe. Very prominent, for example, is Hungary." And if you look at it globally, he said, you have to say that important, populous states like India or even Brazil, where a great many people live under political rule, have moved away from democracy. At the same time, he said, there is also great stability in the economically powerful autocracy of China, so that one can say: "Autocracies have, in a sense, gained an advantage in the last ten years. More and more people in the world are living in autocratic conditions."

Power in Politics

According to Foucault, then, power has a productive component and empowers people to do things. "In politics, again, it is very complex," the expert explains. "Power in a democratic politics, but definitely also in autocratic politics, means winning majorities and support. They have to promote their cause. They do that by using carrots and sticks, so to speak. One is that they say-and that would be the stick-: I have the means of power and I make you, social groups, dependent on me. The other is actually the carrot: I approach you, I take responsibility, I take care of you." Sack clarifies that autocratic rule is not one that comes across as sheer brutality either, but one that also signals time and again that it is emphatic and caring and has understanding; just for certain clientele. "You can't exercise power without approaching other people, without including certain social groups. And then it's up to political judgment whether you think that's right or wrong, who wins there and who loses there."

Power players rely on networks of elites

Yale University psychologist Michael Kraus says, 'It's not power itself that corrupts people. It's just that power simply brings out our true nature. ` Political leaders such as Putin, Xi Jinping, or Erdogan, for example, have been successfully trying to shape the world according to their ideas and will for years. Is it possible to politically stop people who no longer have or allow a corrective? In this context, Professor Sack once again clarifies that it is not individuals per se who lead countries, saying, "As a rule, that is not the case, but it is the case that we are dealing with prominent leaders from networks of elites, and that is much larger in scale. In these networks, certain people, certain qualities that they have, can be particularly brought to bear." In terms of the Russian and Chinese regimes, he adds, these networks of elites have existed for years and have developed loyalties to each other. "There, not just the characteristics of a particular person, but the characteristics and strategies to appropriate resources are served by specific elite networks." As a political scientist, Sack is therefore skeptical about the psychologization of individual leaders. "As a political scientist, I have to say, political rule takes different forms and power networks that bring together specific clienteles who rule autocratically. That's what I can study."

Power analysis via means of power

Power people place special emphasis on standing out in front of others as superior, great, unique, and unattainable. The focus of their actions and speech is always themselves, their ideas and their successes. They manage to turn defeats into successes. When asked how one can still reach such people at all, Prof. Sack promptly answers, "Quite simply: not at all," and continues, "if I as a political scientist simply assume that we are dealing here with people with certain characteristics who, by belonging to certain groups, have the possibility of oppressing others, then I would start with the means of power." Then, he said, it's a matter of material foundations as well as the legitimacy of this form of rule. One can see, he said, that certain social groups, perceive the appearance of political leaders like Putin or Bolsonaro as pleasant and desirable. "The elections in Brazil have now shown it again that you have to say that relatively large parts of the population do see authoritarian leadership as attractive."

Democratization from outside has no chance

However, government systems such as those in China or Russia cannot be compared with democratic understandings in Europe. Whether democracies have any influence at all on dictatorships depends, in Sack's opinion, on how strong those dictatorships are. "Strength is expressed through military strength on the one hand and economic strength or a large domestic market on the other. That's why we look at China." The so-called Middle Kingdom can get away with relatively much, he said, because it has such a large market, and both a production and a consumption market. From there, the thresholds from the outside to be able to do something and to want to do something are relatively low." The situation is quite different in Russia, he said, where there are enough raw materials, but the consumption market is comparatively small. Democratization from the outside has already been attempted in the past, for example, in smaller states such as Iraq through military intervention. "As a rule, this falls far short and usually leaves the countries in chaos. Democratization from the outside is not going to happen in this way," the 57-year-old states, "it has little chance of success." Instead, he says, you have to take a close look at the systems and decide whether you see them as legitimate, what your own stance is on cooperation and trade relations, and how much room there is for protest movements that take place inside the country. "It is by no means the case that Russia, China or even Iran are governing without internal contradictions. We just don't know what's bad and what doesn't work. That is information policy." Even we in Germany do not believe everything the German government says. In any case, China is certainly a state that is very interesting, he said, because "it is a rather old society with comparatively young people. The old people are becoming visibly poorer. China has an innovative capitalism with innovative products in the IT sector, and it is precisely these IT people who are usually highly educated and who at some point say to themselves: 'I want to have a say in this, too. ` The problem here, he says, is that the country has little to offer this emerging middle class. The real estate market, for example, which is maintained at great expense, offers few prospects for highly educated families with one child. "In addition," Sack explains, "KP-China is not a homogeneous party. XI Jinping may have tried to bring it in line, and yet he's dealing with three wings of his party." A critical look at the internal contradictions, he said, shows the difficulties autocratic states face when they look closely. "Democratization is a process that is driven from within by internal conflicts."

Right-wing populist minorities in Europe

Democracy means "rule of the people," i.e., in democracy the people are the supreme power of the state. Political decisions are made by the majority will of the people. We in Germany in particular know from the National Socialist era what can happen when right-wing extremists come to power. The state election in Lower Saxony gave the AfD 10.9% and in Italy the center-right bloc was able to achieve a clear parliamentary majority. Giorgia Meloni 's Fratelli d'Italia emerged from the election as the strongest single party with 26.0%. Is there a shift to the right going on in Europe? "The first thing to say is that we're not talking about 50% majorities," Sack begins, "we're talking about minorities! We are talking about strong right-wing populist minorities, but even 25% is a minority. It's not even close to half." Therefore, he says, there is no need to panic. Nor can you capture the vote for a right-wing populist party with one explanatory approach, he said. What is clear, he said, is that "there are those who have experienced loss due to various processes of an economic and social nature." In Germany, as a result of reunification, many citizens still believe that their lives have been devalued. These are so-called modernization losers. However, right-wing populist parties are also elected by people who actually have privileges and don't want to give anything away. This is what we understand as dominance-cultural behavior patterns coupled with group-based misanthropy. Here, one's own privilege, one's own prestige is seen as worth protecting, and one defends that brutally against other groups of people." So right-wing populists are elected by different social groups.

Crises = challenges for democracies

We live in difficult times. Climate crisis, pandemic, inflation in all areas, and people are shouting to the government: `Do something! ` So are government systems prepared for such crises at all? "We have governments like the Dutch, the French, and to some extent the Swedish, that have reacted relatively quickly to crises," the scientist enumerates. In Germany, he adds, there is a special problem, and that is that of being a federal state in which a relatively large number of negotiations have to be conducted. "The advantage of this is that once it has been negotiated through, everyone accepts the result. The disadvantage: there's a fair of proposals and trying to implement one's own proposals in each case." However, he said, one had to give the governments credit for the last three years of Corona and the Russian war of aggression for the fact that it was a decidedly high pressure they were under. For the Federal Republic, this was compounded by a decidedly high dependence on gas from Russia. "In energy policy, governments have demonstrably made mistakes, but they have also learned in a relatively short period of time," he said, adding that the coalition parties, as government leaders, helped make decisions by consensus. "We have the FDP, which is very skeptical about spending, but supports this. We have the Greens, who are skeptical about nuclear power plant operation, but support a directive decision, etc. In other words, yes, we are ill-prepared for crises because we afford democracy, both at the federal and state levels. The advantage is that although it's very jerky and shaky, then at some point there's also a relatively large consensus."

Uwe Blass

Dr. Detlef Sack is a professor of political science, especially theory of democracy and government systems research at the University of Wuppertal.

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