Leadership & Leitkultur

Published on ZNet (Source: NYT), by Jürgen Habermas, October 31, 2010.

SINCE the end of August Germany has been roiled by waves of political turmoil over integration, multiculturalism and the role of the “Leitkultur,” or guiding national culture. This discourse is in turn reinforcing trends toward increasing xenophobia among the broader population.

These trends have been apparent for many years in studies and survey data that show a quiet but growing hostility to immigrants. Yet it is as though they have only now found a voice: the usual stereotypes are being flushed out of the bars and onto the talk shows, and they are echoed by mainstream politicians who want to capture potential voters who are otherwise drifting off toward the right. Two events have given rise to a mixture of emotions that are no longer easy to locate on the scale from left to right — a book by a board member of Germany’s central bank and a recent speech by the German president. 

It all began with the advance release of provocative excerpts from “Germany Does Away With Itself,” a book that argues that the future of Germany is threatened by the wrong kind of immigrants, especially from Muslim countries. In the book, Thilo Sarrazin, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thilo_Sarrazin
a politician from the Social Democratic Party who sat on the Bundesbank board, develops proposals for demographic policies aimed at the Muslim population in Germany. He fuels discrimination against this minority with intelligence research from which he draws false biological conclusions that have gained unusually wide publicity.

In sharp contrast to the initial spontaneous objections from major politicians, these theses have gained popular support. One poll found that more than a third of Germans agreed with Mr. Sarrazin’s prognosis that Germany was becoming “naturally more stupid on average” as a result of immigration from Muslim countries … //

… I don’t underestimate the scale of the accumulated nationalistic sentiment, a phenomenon not confined to Germany. But in the light of current events, another trend is of greater concern: the growing preference for unpolitical figures on the political scene, which recalls a dubious trait of German political culture, the rejection of political parties and party politics.

During the parliamentary election of the federal president last summer, Joachim Gauck, the politically inexperienced and non-party-affiliated civil rights campaigner, stood as the opposing candidate to Mr. Wulff, the career politician. Against the majority in the electoral college, Mr. Gauck, a Protestant minister with a history of opposition to the old East German regime, won the hearts of the broader population, and almost won the election.

The same yearning for charismatic figures who stand above the political infighting can be seen in the puzzling popularity of the aristocratic defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who, with not much more than his family background, polished manners and a judicious wardrobe, has managed to overshadow Ms. Merkel’s reputation.

Of even greater concern is the sort of street protests we are now witnessing in Stuttgart, where tens of thousands of people have come out against the federal railway corporation’s plan to demolish the old central train station. The protests that have been continuing for months are reminiscent of the spontaneity of the extraparliamentary opposition of the 1960s. Unlike then, though, today people from all age groups and sectors of the population are taking to the streets. The immediate aim is a conservative one: preserving a familiar world in which politics intervenes as the executive arm of supposed economic progress.

In the background, however, there is a deeper conflict brewing over our country’s understanding of democracy. The state government of Baden-Württemberg, where Stuttgart is located, sees the protests narrowly, as simply a question of whether government is legally permitted to plan such long-term megaprojects. In the midst of the turmoil the president of the Federal Constitutional Court rushed to the project’s defense by arguing that the public had already voted to approve it 15 years ago, and thus had no more say in its execution.

But it has since emerged that the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information at the time, and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of democracy. The question is this: Does participation in democratic procedures have only the functional meaning of silencing a defeated minority, or does it have the deliberative meaning of including the arguments of citizens in the democratic process of opinion- and will-formation?

The motivations underlying each of the three phenomena — the fear of immigrants, attraction to charismatic nonpoliticians and the grass-roots rebellion in Stuttgart — are different. But they meet in the cumulative effect of a growing uneasiness when faced with a self-enclosed and ever more helpless political system. The more the scope for action by national governments shrinks and the more meekly politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives, the more people’s trust in a resigned political class diminishes.

The United States has a president with a clear-headed political vision, even if he is embattled and now meets with mixed feelings. What is needed in Europe is a revitalized political class that overcomes its own defeatism with a bit more perspective, resoluteness and cooperative spirit. Democracy depends on the belief of the people that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future.

Jürgen Habermas, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Goethe University in Frankfurt, is the author, most recently, of “Europe: The Faltering Project.” This essay was translated by Ciaran Cronin from the German. (full text).

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