What is democratic legitimacy

Ulrich von Alemann






"We are the people!" The Leipzig demonstrators defiantly chanted in East Germany in autumn 1989. They accelerated the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the GDR so dramatically that Germany was reunified at a breathtaking pace in just one year. "We are the people!" This ingenious saying of the decade, now world-famous, sues for democratic legitimation where it was denied. What are the problems of democratic legitimation today? Are the parties the main problem? In this lecture I will first clarify our key concept, democratic legitimation, and then try to answer the problems raised in 7 questions.

Democratic legitimation - what is it?

The call of the GDR demonstrators was a beacon, but it was only a beginning. He actually means: "We are the people: and not the SED cadres, bigwigs and bureaucrats!" These were even anchored in the former GDR constitution. There it was not said that "all state power emanates from the people" as in the Bonn Basic Law (Art. 20) according to the liberal and democratic tradition of the bourgeois revolutions in France and the American declaration of independence. Rather, the first article already said: The GDR "is the political organization of the working people in town and country who jointly realize socialism under the leadership of the working class and their Marxist-Leninist party".

Article 4 continued: "All power serves the well-being of the people" - in other words, the reverse of the Bonn Basic Law: power does not come from the people, but part-riarchally from above, the state power should serve the well-being of the people. In the old GDR, democratic legitimation was not far off, as in all authoritarian communist states, even if a first basic condition was met: a formal democratic constitution existed. However, this condition is not sufficient.

Second, the constitution must also guarantee substantive procedures based on the rule of law that exclude arbitrariness.

Thirdly, fundamental rights and values ​​must be reliably guaranteed and protected, even for critical minorities, through the constitution and legal practice.

Fourthly, these procedures and fundamental rights must be recognized by the citizen and he must be able to have the confidence that he can rely on them.

Four basic elements are therefore essential for democratic legitimation:


  1. A democratic constitution
  2. democratically controlled procedures,
  3. Fundamental rights and values ​​that protect the individual, but also the opposition and minorities, e.g. B. Freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and
  4. the recognition and trust of the citizens in this democratic order.

These are the four basic elements of democratic legitimation, which of course can be further differentiated. The political parties come z. B. does not exist in these basic elements, although our main focus should be on them. The German Federal Constitutional Court made a possible differentiation of the principles of legitimation when it defined the term "free-democratic basic order", which occurs several times in the Basic Law, but which is not implemented:

It is an order "which, to the exclusion of any form of violence and arbitrary rule, represents a rule of law on the basis of the self-determination of the people according to the will of the respective majority, freedom and equality. The basic principles of this order are at least to be counted: respect before the human rights specified in the Basic Law, above all before the right of the individual to life and free development, popular sovereignty, the separation of powers, the responsibility of the government, the legality of administration, the independence of the courts, the multi-party principle and equal opportunities for all political parties with the right to a constitutional formation and exercise of an opposition. "

There we have them, the political parties as the culmination and culmination of this definition of democratic legitimation: the multi-party principle and equal opportunities for all political parties with the right to constitutional formation and exercise of an opposition.

If we break away from the German context and look into international democratic theory, we find e.g. For example, the American Robert A. Dahl (1971) has seven defining features for what he calls "polyarchy", i. H. the rule of the many, calls.


- Elected office holders;
- free, fair and regular elections;
- inclusive suffrage in the sense that all or almost all adults are entitled to vote in the selection of political office holders;
- all or nearly all adults have the right to vote;
- Freedom of speech;
- Freedom of information, organization and freedom of association, in particular the freedom to form independent political parties and interest groups.

With Robert Dahl too, the plurality of parties, but also of interest groups, is an essential feature of democratic legitimation.

Let's take a third look at the infinite variety of ways in which democracy can be defined. Let us take a look at Giovanni Sartori's impressive work "Theory of Democracy" (1992, first 1987). To the reader's surprise, Sartori rejects a catchy, positive definition of democracy in his seminal book, even though it is entirely devoted to that one subject. He justifies this with the great variety and time-relatedness of each definition. But he does not leave the reader empty-handed. He formulates what democracy is not:

"Democracy is a system in which nobody can choose himself, nobody can give himself the power to govern and therefore nobody can claim unconditional and unlimited power" (Sartori 1992, p. 210).

This negation also explains why, according to Sartoris, there can only be one democracy. There is no such thing as a "second" democracy, whether it be a communist people's democracy or a fundamentalist real and true democracy - whatever its provenance. The concept of democracy is indivisible. And so organized and competitive decision-making by parties and interest groups is inherent in the concept of democracy: Without free competition between parties, there is no democracy.

The competition of the parties does not have to emphasize the conflict, but rather the diversity, the plurality as a prerequisite, from which consensus can be formed. This is also the "crucial point" in Sartori's theory of democracy:

"that dissent, opposition, counter-politics and strife all gain a positive value and a positive role within the framework of pluralism, the pluralistic conception of society and history. Pluralism is first and foremost the belief in the value of diversity. And belief in diversity - in a dialectic of diversity - is the opposite of belief in conflict. Thus, from its pluralistic orientation, democratic theory does not (and could not) derive praise for 'conflict', but rather a dynamic approach to consensus based on the principle that everything is right or claims to be true, has to assert itself against criticism and contradiction and thereby be strengthened "(Sartori 1992, p. 101).

So much for my thoughts on democratic legitimation. I now come to your problematization on the basis of 7 questions, into which I would like to differentiate the question.

Question 1: Is the problem of democracy today in hostility or enemy multiplication?

An epoch-making political change has taken place in Europe since the turning point in 1989. The iron curtain has fallen across Europe, the old GDR has disintegrated, the Berlin Wall has been sold in handy pieces as a souvenir all over the world. The two German states have reunited. The communist regimes across Eastern Europe have collapsed. The CSSR is divided into two parts, the USSR has been atomized, and civil war is still raging in ex-Yugoslavia. The Europe of the Treaty of Rome has changed from the old EEC via the EC to Maastricht, and now the EU has been enlarged by the former EFTA states to 16 members. The Eastern European democracies are looking to join the EU and the NATO alliance. By the standards of the post-war period, the world is turned upside down.

A short time after 1989, the world actually seemed to stand still. The American Fukuyama predicted the end of history after the collapse of the bipolar world. Some politicians and conflict researchers believed euphorically in the beginning of an eternal peace. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck believed that politics had to be reinvented. With the collapse of the East / West antagonism, an almost paradoxical situation emerged. With us, politics still follows the old rules of the game. At the same time, "a piece of political wilderness, an institution-free, institution-free jungle has emerged" (Beck 1993, p. 206).

The game of classic industrial society continues, at the same time many are calling for the rules of the game to be turned inside out. Take foreign policy, for example: the iron principle of non-interference still applies, at the same time the counter-principle of interference for humanitarian reasons and for peacekeeping is not only promoted but also practiced. There are class parties without classes, armies without enemies, state machines that set in motion what happens anyway without them. There is a return of uncertainty in politics.

According to another thought by Ulrich Beck, it leads to confusion that we are now living in a hostile society because the East / West conflict has been resolved. In recent years, however, it has quickly become apparent that we do not need the East / West contrast in order to cultivate conflicts. The difference to before: The conflicts are becoming more and more numerous, the situation more and more confusing and the proposed solutions more and more complicated. At least there are encouraging developments: You don't just have to think of the fall of the Berlin Wall, you can just as well think of the epochal lifting of apartheid in South Africa and the sensational unification process between Israel and the Palestinians. All conflicts of self-determination and democracy, which are on the way to encouraging conflict resolution.

Question 2: Political disenchantment: what are the symptoms?

"It's hardly easier to get applause today than when you scold the parties." Who could have said that recently? It could be formulated this way in almost every country in Europe today, but the quote actually comes from the German political scientist Otto Heinrich von der Gablenz in 1952. Criticism of the parties is certainly not new. Disenchantment with political parties is not new, and disaffection with politics is not new. Criticism of the parties has, however, become particularly polyphonic in the last few years. This is particularly the case in Germany, especially after German unification, and although the German party system is one of the most stable and effective of all in comparison to most European and other party systems in the world.

In the choir of party critics there are voices from journalism, academia and politics itself. Konrad Adam criticizes the serious daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine: "The parties have power, but have forgotten how to deal with it responsibly. They narrow the common good on their group interests, which they then again confuse with highly personal advantages "(FAZ 3.9.1992). Publicly known scientists such as the sociologist Erwin K. Scheuch and the constitutional lawyer Hans-Herbert von Arnim blow in the same horn when they talk about "Cliques, cliques and careers. About the decline of political parties" (Reinbek 1992) or "The state as Beute "(Munich 1993), write. And even the former Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker accuses the parties of having developed into an "unwritten sixth constitutional organ that exerts an ever-increasing, sometimes completely dominant influence on the other five" (von Weizsäcker 1992, p. 140) .

I think that much of this criticism is fatally reminiscent of the end of the Weimar Republic with its aversion to the parties of the "system". Much of the old German hostility towards political parties, which is also hostility towards pluralism, shines through here. She would like to have parties that are non-partisan and only have the common good in mind.

But there is not only the journalistic debate in Germany and Europe. There are numerous symptoms of crisis that point to increasing fears about the future. I would like to point out 10 points that are discussed in Germany, but which are relevant in almost all European countries:


  1. The membership of the parties is melting.
  2. The turnout is falling steadily.
  3. The fragmentation of the party system is increasing.
  4. The proportion of regular voters is constantly falling.
  5. The general confidence of the population in the parties and in the politicians is waning.
  6. The alienation of young people from politics and their willingness to engage in violent clashes are increasing.
  7. Confidence in other public institutions and large social organizations, even in trade unions and the churches, is waning.
  8. The number of political scandals reported by the media is increasing.
  9. The large opposition parties in the parliaments do not benefit from the dissatisfaction, but also lose votes in favor of small protest parties.
  10. There is generally a decline in confidence in the problem-solving capacity of politics and also of the economy. "The politicians are all corrupt" or "the little man is always the one who has been betrayed", one can hear again and again in surveys.

But not only in Germany, in all Western countries, the public seems convinced that politicians, parties and the media have particular problems in their country, whether in the USA, France, England, Austria, Italy or Spain. If one compares the results of the polls, the reputation of the parties is in decline in almost all countries. In France in particular, there are traditionally strong affects and aversions against the political parties. In the Netherlands, the local elections of early 1994 further chaotic the confusing party system there. In the USA an influential book was published by the journalist David S. Broder in the early 1970s with the title "The party's over" (New York 1971). Is the party, the party, really over? Political scientists all over the world have been researching "party decline" since then. But the opposite thesis is also represented: "The party's just begun" is the name of Lary J. Sabato's book (Boston 1988), which propagates a revival of the American parties, for which there has been solid evidence since Bill Clinton's election victory in 1992. But this has long since changed.

The Italian party system was also declared dead in 1993 after unimaginable corruption scandals. In fact, the leading state party Democracia Christiana (DC) had to rename itself to Movimento Populare after it was completely disavowed by, among other things, Mafia contacts. The leadership of the social democratic PSI also got caught up in the maelstrom of revelations of bribery. After a radical reform of the electoral law and new elections, the party state did not disappear, but came to power with new faces. The populist media tsar Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing conservative collection movement Forza Italia formed a coalition government together with the autonomist Lega Nord and the former neo-fascists. But the corruption allegations remained. Berlusconi soon had to resign. A cabinet of experts now rules for a transitional period.

If the parties show symptoms of crisis across Europe, even in the industrialized countries around the world - we don't even want to talk about the post-communist states and their problems with party building here - then it cannot be a home-made problem. There must be a general trend in industrial societies behind it. It cannot be a question of the failure of certain parties or individual politicians, nor of structural deficiencies in either the German or only the European political system. Because the symptoms appear in all comparable European party systems to a similar extent. The changes in the party system are most often explained by three tendencies for change: the change in values, the change in media and the change in politics.

Question 3: Are the problems caused by changing values?

Modern societies are dynamic systems in which permanent change takes place, in contrast to static, traditional societies. Modern industrial societies thrive on economic growth, economic expansion and high mobility that go hand in hand with social change. One consequence of this is the relatively rapid change in moral and social values ​​that are accepted by the majority of society. The parties have had to go through such processes of change again and again since their inception: those who come too late are punished by the voters.

Although there has been change since the beginning of modernity, there has only been a special debate about changing values ​​since the 1970s, initiated by the American Ronald Inglehart with his thesis of a "silent revolution", a silent revolution through changing values ​​in industrialized countries has been. The thesis is that old materialistic values ​​such as high income, growth, but also security and order, are being replaced by new post-materialistic values, i.e. self-realization, participation and ecology.

The consequences for politics are obvious. Especially in countries with many "post materialists", political and ecological protest movements grew. Citizens' initiatives challenged the established parties, and finally new parties emerged like the Ecologists or the GRÜNEN, which were able to anchor themselves as a permanent force in German and many other European party systems.

In more recent theories of changing values, however, the dimension of materialism takes a back seat to post-materialism. It has been noticed that despite the change in values ​​in capitalist states, materialism remains a decisive basis. Instead, emphasis is placed on individualization. Sociologists describe this tendency with the keywords pluralization, fragmentation and destructuring. To put it more simply: Society is no longer divided into a few classes, but is split up into a thousand facets. In place of traditional marriage there is e.g. B. a variety of social forms of life for a period of time. The motives to support a certain party or to belong to a union or a church can be just as changeable and varied. Young people in particular are less and less bound to political parties, but also to churches and trade unions. People are becoming more critical. However, individualization becomes problematic when it turns towards egocentrism and pure benefit maximization according to the motto: "Everyone is next to himself". Overall, the change in values ​​can explain a lot of the rapid change tendencies and the forms of fragmentation in politics and in the party system.

Question 4: Has media change changed politics?

We live in a radically different media world than around 1950, but also than 1980. There are many more, much broader media, new television programs, video offers or interactive media such as CD-ROM. Old media, however, have not perished, contrary to the culturally critical calls for cash, but an unmanageable variety of old and new media has established itself. The world's largest book fair in Frankfurt, which has just taken place, has again experienced new visitor and exhibitor records - and has integrated the new electronic media.

The German sociologist Gerhard Schulze coined the new term "adventure society". Active younger people in particular want their needs to be satisfied quickly. Life par excellence has become an experience project. The everyday choice between possibilities is motivated by the experience value of the chosen alternatives: consumer items, eating habits, professions, partners, housing situation and also people in public and political life.

No wonder that this adventure society has massive repercussions on politics and the parties. It is largely a media phenomenon, as the importance of advertising for the experience value of products shows.

The increasing commercialization of the media in Europe has strengthened private TV providers and thus increased competition for viewers. The offer has changed drastically towards entertainment and advertising. "We enjoy ourselves to death," warned the American publicist Neil Postman in his well-known book. Political information no longer arrives, so it is coupled or coupled with entertainment for infotainment. Hurrying from action to action characterizes the media behavior and also the lifestyle of many young people. Zapping with the television service, channel surfing is modern. How can political stability flourish there? The parallels between zapping and swing voter behavior are obvious.

But the communication and information styles of political opinion journalism have also changed. A postmodern journalism has emerged that is progressive. Like the swap voter, the journalist changes his political orientation quickly. A consistent line that one feels obliged to is no longer popular. Politics and parties, and especially party politicians, become vulnerable to media campaigns. If this applies to a clear maladministration that is to be exposed, there is nothing wrong with it. But if media campaigns are only supposed to increase circulation or audience ratings, it becomes problematic.

Question 5: Do changes in values ​​and media cause policy change?

Changes in values ​​and media change the environment of the parties, and they change the parties and politics themselves. The media not only penetrate the communication structure of the parties, they also compete with them. There is simply little time left for ordinary citizens for political work. The adventure society with television shows and football broadcasts is eating away too much time. Citizens' initiatives and action groups also require time that is lost from party work. So parties are now under a much higher competitive pressure than before.

With their traditional forms, the parties do not convey communal experiences such as political movements with powerful large-scale demonstrations or intensive grass-roots work. The parties have lost their role as agenda setters to the media. The big issues are not determined by them. This is also because the big parties want to say too much at the same time, are too heterogeneous and send contradicting messages.

The big parties have fallen into a "modernization trap". Its initial strength was due to a broad membership and strong base of voters. They neglected these groups because they turned to the new middle classes, post-materialists and climbers in the adventure society. The German political scientist Elmar Wiesendahl described this trap: "Whatever they do, the integration parties that are open to the people's party are caught in a modernization trap. On the one hand, they have carelessly jeopardized the loyalty reserves of their core groups and their members without being able to compensate for them through their modernization strategy The ability of the people's parties to absorb and absorb is exhausted in the face of a more divergent, segmenting society. On the other hand, there is no way back to a closed milieu and party of convictions, especially since the electorate won by popular-party modernization is making this nostalgic retreat from modernity would not participate "(Wiesendahl 1992, p. 13 f).

Interim conclusion:

Let us summarize: The symptoms of the crisis are unmistakable - the parties are running away from the members and voters, and the young people can certainly not warm up to the laborious party work. The turnout is falling, as is the reputation of the parties and politicians. If you research the deeper causes, these cannot only be homemade. Because the decline in identification with political parties is widespread in all industrialized countries. The change in values, which is a consequence of economic growth and social security, is certainly partly responsible for this. Post-materialistic orientations are growing. But individualism is also increasing and the trend towards an "adventure society" in which the individual seeks short-term satisfaction of his needs and interests. The parties, like all large organizations, are massively affected by these trends and will have to change.

Question 6: Abolition of parties in favor of direct democracy?

Are there alternatives to the democratic party state? Are there any competitors to the political parties in the political market? Which could these competitors be?


- Associations and lobbyists in parliaments and governments, especially in confusing international politics, whether in the EU, UN or NAFTA,
- Citizens' initiatives, social movements and free voter communities or NGOs and Quangos,
- the media, e.g. B. also interactive television as a means of referendum or
- the people pure, d. H. a general expansion of direct democracy through referendums based on the Swiss model.

All of these competitors point to real trends in party democracies. But they are not a real alternative. The importance of associations and lobbyists continues to grow. Some of these are also very democratically motivated public interest groups, such as B. Common Cause in the USA or Greenpeace and Amnesty International worldwide. But the concerns about the greater influence of associations on politics to the detriment of the parties give cause for concern. Because the parties have to face democratic elections, the associations do not. This also applies to citizens' initiatives, social movements and free voter groups, no matter how idealistic their motives and however honorable their goals may be. Certainly they have a wide field of activity at the local level of municipal politics. Here they should enter into a more democratic competition with the parties.

In the future, the media will certainly compete more intensely with the parties for influence. The power of the media will continue to grow. This makes control and transparency all the more important in view of the concentration of the press and television around the world. In particular, the trend towards giant global media conglomerates that link all forms of communication is worrying. Even more problematic than the competition between parties and the media, where one can at least hope for mutual control, would be a further penetration of party and media interests, as the example of Silvio Berlusconi, who was elected head of government as media tsar, has shown . Public opinion as the fourth power that is supposed to exercise control over the other three can then certainly no longer be spoken of.

Many critics of the parties, the associations and the media propagate a strengthening of direct democracy through referendums, referendums and referendums. However, the example of Switzerland and the USA, where these direct democratic elements are part of everyday life, shows that the parties there are simultaneously becoming weaker and associations and action groups stronger. As necessary as direct democratic elements are to supplement the representative system, they are problematic as a total alternative. Because referendums are unable to compromise and make priority decisions. Well-organized individual interests, veto groups and conservative tendencies to persevere can become most powerful as a result.

Apart from that, it has been shown in Germany that referendums in the federal states do not make the parties superfluous. Only if one of the large parties, usually the opposition party, has an alliance with large associations, e.g. B. churches or trade unions or environmental groups is received, then referendums were successful. A strengthening of direct democracy will therefore by no means render the parties unemployed, because they would certainly also make use of these instruments.

Question 7: Reforms of the parties and politics?

The alternative must not be the abolition of party democracy, but its reform and democratic strengthening. The debate about disenchantment with parties and politics has left its mark on the parties in Europe. You generally like to deal with yourself. There was also the opinion in the parties that this massive criticism was a pure media phenomenon and that the journalists only cheered up scandals and abuses in order to increase the circulation. But pushing Black Peter on was not the general opinion. In response to the criticism, there are also many self-critical tones.

The parties need to feel more like service organizations for their members and especially for their voters. They are too preoccupied with themselves. Membership must be made more open to outsiders, the opinions and values ​​of the voters must be taken into account, and the internal management of the organization must be professionalized.

Surely these goals mean squaring the circle. Because professionalization goes against the interests of grassroots democracy. Voter orientation can be played off against membership orientation. Too much basic orientation can obscure the external image of a party. There is therefore no golden silver bullet for party and political reform.

A radical party reform must take place on a broad front; it cannot be limited to organizational cosmetics. In particular, it must endeavor to restore the parties' credibility for competent problem-solving. It must make it clear that the plurality and diversity of parties are a great asset. This creates conflict, but it can be led to a consensus.

The abolition of parties would result in the liquidation of plurality in society. And the withering away of plurality means encrustation and standstill. Nobody can want this. Plurality is the essence of democratic legitimation. And so we are back at the beginning of our topic, namely with the definition of democratic legitimation, which is unthinkable without a plurality of parties.

"We are the people" - that's how I started this lecture. The parties must never forget this basic political cry for democratic legitimation. Parties are important and necessary. But there is one thing they are not: they are not the people. We are the people.

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