A supposedly serious Bloomberg headline is setting the tone for the new year: “2024 is the Year of Elections and That’s a Threat to Democracy”. As expected, the usual suspects in the mainstream media are dusting off the 2016 playbook – the one that worked so well in preventing Brexit and Donald Trump – warning once again of the “Trump Dictatorship”. In Germany, where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is poised to win big in three regional elections as well as the EU elections this year, members of the conservative and Social Democratic parties are trying to find common ground to ban what has become the second strongest party according to recent polls.
One is reminded of a poem by Bertolt Brecht, written during the people’s uprising against the Sovietization of East Germany in June 1953. Brecht quipped that “the people had lost the government’s confidence and could only regain it with redoubled effort. If that is the case, would it not be be simpler, if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?”
I am not arguing that a significant part of the Western media and political class has signed up for a 21st century version of agitprop when it comes to how they deal with opposition movements, but there certainly is some resemblance. Whether it is Robert Habeck accusing protesting German farmers of being paid by Putin, Justin Trudeau calling Canadian truckers “Nazis,” the BBC labeling the libertarian Argentinian President Javier Milei “far Right”, or Foreign Policy the Dutch politician Geert Wilders “an extremist,” the intended purpose is the same: Associate the opposition with allegedly Hitleresque policies, and suddenly all means are justified in allowing them any shot at power. After all, when it comes to avoiding a new Hitler, all means necessary must be allowed. So trying to ban the AfD or Donald Trump on flimsy charges or initiating a ridiculous smear campaign against a local politician in Bavaria is not at all anti democratic, but in fact the only way to save democracy.
It does not matter whether or not these movements or individuals are popular with the people, since most of them are just too stupid to understand the threat we are facing – or so the editorial boards from The Guardian to Bloomberg are thinking. To modify Brecht, the people have lost the media’s confidence and since they cannot be dissolved and replaced, one can at least attempt to ban their favorite candidates. I would add, however, that given the Left’s preference for open borders, they are not entirely beyond at least trying to replace parts of the electorate with new people.
What all these defenders of democracy don’t seem to grasp, however, is that they are the true threat to democracy: The strength of a democratic system is not its moral superiority, after all, you can have a democratic system and still enact immoral policies, like slavery and segregation in the United States. The true strength of democracy is its ability to change a country’s political direction without the need to overthrow the entire political system: Moving from Obama to Trump to Biden and possibly (for one term) back to Trump is not a demonstration of democratic weakness, but the exact opposite.
If a political system is receptive to the will of the people, they are much less likely to call for a revolution and the abolition of the entire existing political arrangement. Once this receptiveness disappears, however, an ever growing number of people will start to question the political system as a whole, and that is the true danger. Trump, the AfD, and others are amplifying important sentiments among the population, but they are not creating them. Does anybody seriously believe that if it would not be for Geert Wilders, the Dutch would be happy and content with their country’s immigration policy? That the US Southern border would be an example of orderly conduct if Trump did not exist? That sacking Suella Braverman will make Britain’s problems with integration disappear?
Particularly the Greens should understand this: When environmentalism became a thing in the 1960s, originally few cared about it, but once it become clear that the electorate cares, almost all parties started to integrate pro-environmental positions into their programmes. It would certainly have been easier to just ban the new movement, but that would have been – what is the word – undemocratic. The political system recognized the new priorities of the people and adapted accordingly. In a similar fashion, segregation in the US was overcome by grassroots movements that pushed their agenda into the consciousness of the general public and political elites who started to turn against the seemingly unassailable system of legal racial divisions. Unfortunately, many members of the Left leaning dominant class in media and politics does not want to continue this approach of reconciling issues of public salience with the political system, and instead try to use the latter to squash any criticism of their policies.
Suppose we truly ban all these alleged “enemies of democracy” that currently dominate the headlines: Will this strengthen or weaken the legitimacy of a democratic system? If I can only vote for parties that support the current course and any dissent will be marked as un-democratic and subject to legal persecution, at what point will I start to sympathise with parties that truly want to replace democracy with something else?
Killing the messengers will not make the problems they talk about disappear, but create the impression that those in power have no interest in dealing with them, and that the system is incapable of a course correction. Say what you want about the current swath of Right-wing populists, but so far they are all willing to operate within the existing political system.
If they should be denied fair participation and a shot at governing if they have the required votes, new actors will appear to absorb the growing public anger, and it is unlikely that they will be committed to a democratic system. Ultimately, banning imagined fascists will give rise to real ones.