Why can't we all agree on politics?

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"The future of our democracy"


Nobody with understanding, with experience and a sense of history will dispute: Despite all its deficiencies, democracy is the best form of government, at least if one judges according to practice. Many knew this even before Winston Churchill.

We remember it on days of remembrance of very different kinds and are grateful that we live in a country with a stable political system. We have made ourselves comfortable in our democracy. We rely on it to work and, indeed, we can count on it. But unfortunately too many rely on democracy to function without their intervention. More than fifty years of stable democracy in Germany: How is it that the question is repeatedly asked whether our democracy is not in danger? Recently there has been more than one public debate with many different contributions about the future of our democracy, about its actual or alleged dangers.

Let me give you three reasons that give many people cause for doubt as to whether our democracy works the way we would like it to. The uncovering of illegal forms of party funding has reinforced the skepticism of many that the parties think of themselves first and foremost. Is party democracy really sustainable, the question is raised, isn't it in urgent need of reform? The appalling acts of violence against people who look different from the majority or who are weaker makes many of us ask: Why is democracy not strong enough to prevent such outrages? Many have growing doubts as to whether democratically legitimized politics are ready and able to shape economic globalization appropriately in the interests of the people. Even convinced market economists ask whether governments are not increasingly becoming agents of economic interests. One of the most important tasks for the future is to enable politics at the international level to give the economy a regulatory framework - just as this corresponds to the idea of ​​the social market economy.


Violence against the weaker, against strangers and attacks on Jewish institutions and places of remembrance are attacks on the dignity of all of us. It is an alarm signal when dull racist slogans are spread again today, which especially young people use as an occasion or pretext for brutal violence and hateful acts. The vast majority of people in Germany detest and despise these acts. That is why we can say with a clear conscience: Democracy in Germany is not really endangered by right-wing extremism. But we have every reason to be vigilant and act decisively. Every act of violence is one act too much. Our democracy is particularly committed to protecting human rights and thus also of minorities. That is why it is and must be able to defend itself. It must use all the means of the rule of law without endangering its liberal substance.

The success of such a policy will be greatest if we act decisively and quickly, but at the same time take targeted preventive measures. I advise us to look very carefully: there are right-wing extremist ideologues and cynical key words who can only be reached in the rarest of cases through dialogue and education. But there are also many violent and sensational fellow travelers and also young people who use the taboo to draw attention to their actual or supposedly hopeless situation. We mustn't write them off as hopeless cases. We have to ensure that all young people have a place in our society and that they can feel that they are in good hands. That is why we must not let up in our efforts to provide training and jobs for all young people. That is why we must not slack off when it comes to meaningful leisure activities for young people. This is a task of clubs and youth organizations, of parents' initiatives, but also of communities. It is about much more than sufficient financial resources. Young people need orientation and they need role models. You need the chance to gain experience with yourself and with others and to test your responsibility for others. They need parents and friends who have time for them, who are there for them.

So that young people can find their place in our society, we also need many men and women who do voluntary work: men and women who organize the volunteer fire brigade or regular football training, who are involved in animal welfare or encounters with young people from twin cities to plan. Such a network supports young people even in difficult situations and makes them strong against poisoning and seduction. If each of us takes part in this network in his own place, then that is also a very important contribution against xenophobia and violence in Germany. Most of us know that. But we also have to do something about it.


I keep asking myself whether we are doing enough to ensure that young people can learn the democratic way of life so that they have the opportunity to make their own experiences. Indeed, democratic attitudes and democratic action are not innate. They have to be learned. That is why democracy must be taught. It must be tangible. It is best if it is demonstrated. Political education at our schools gives young people an understanding of the building blocks of our society and our state building. It is essential. But political education has only achieved its goal if it succeeds more: it must encourage young people to interfere in public affairs because it is their own affairs.

Young people should learn that democracy is not a comfortable hammock in which one can swing over all the adversities of the world. They should learn that you have to commit yourself if you want to achieve something. They should learn that our democracy is only alive if we also use our rights. It should become clear to young people that democratic action cannot be delegated at will, while one only takes care of oneself. We have to make it clearer again that in a democracy we are first of all citizens with the same rights and duties. Democracy dies if we only behave like market participants and consumers.

Of course I know the argument: "You can't do anything anyway". And it's true: each and every one of us knows situations in which one feels like Don Quixote fighting the windmill wheels. This can happen to you with administrations and utilities, with social security or with a private company. For me, a democratic citizen is characterized by the fact that he also accepts decisions that he does not consider to be the ultimate wisdom, if that cannot be avoided due to the nature of the matter. The democratic citizen is also characterized by the fact that he knows his rights and that he knows which ways are available to him to defend his legitimate interests. Because you really don't have to put up with everything.

In our democracy there are many ways to control, criticize and influence state action. Young people have to feel that council members and MPs are not there for themselves or for their party, but for the citizens. They need to know what to do if they feel wrong or badly treated by the administration. You have to learn and practice that you can make a difference together with others, in associations, in the trade unions, in citizens' initiatives with information stands in the pedestrian zone or through letters to the editor in local newspapers. After all, democracy gives each individual the opportunity to help shape the conditions of his or her own life and to influence the forms of our coexistence.

Those who know their rights and who have learned to use them will also see and accept more easily that in a democracy there are also obligations to rights. In addition to the few statutory obligations, democracy also needs attitudes to which everyone should feel obliged. Everyone should try to find out about important public matters, and everyone should feel obliged to exercise their right to vote at all democratic levels. If you don't vote, you vote too. He supports the respective majority. But if majorities with ever lower voter turnout come about, then the passive majority must neither be surprised nor complain about decisions that they do not like. Political thinking begins at home and at school. However, the parties bear a special responsibility. One of the authors of the latest Shell study on the situation of young people in Germany recently said that it is not the young people who are tired of politics, but rather that they feel that politics is tired of them. That must also give food for thought to those in all parties who do their best to win young people to work in their party.


It is not only young people who are obviously looking for new ways and new means of representing their interests and making their contribution to politics and society. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence, once said "Every generation is called to reconsider its constitution and, if necessary, to renew it in accordance with the changed requirements." So Thomas Jefferson

Let me make this clear on a subject that has been discussed a lot over the past few months. With one exception, our Basic Law recognizes neither referendums nor referendums. The mothers and fathers of our constitution in 1948 and 1949 had good reasons for this. The historical experiences of the Germans in the Weimar Republic seemed to speak against plebiscitary elements and in favor of a strong parliamentary system. Even today, we shouldn't simply put concerns aside. Who would deny that referendums and referendums also call demagogues onto the scene and that some can be tempted to raise the mood and vote with a lot of money? But I am sure that after more than fifty years of democracy we are self-confident and experienced enough to find a good path between populist incitement and over-cautious rejection.

I think it is right that all parties are now thinking about how we can enrich our Basic Law with plebiscitary elements. The topic must be dealt with seriously and with concrete results. Especially in the age of global change, our representative democracy is more dependent than ever on the participation of the citizens. I would like the citizens to have additional and new opportunities to decide on their concerns. That strengthens democracy. We need this especially at a time when actual or pretended practical constraints threaten to further narrow the scope for political decisions.

We have had good overall experience with citizens' and referendums, with referendums and referendums in cities and municipalities and in many countries. The results show that many citizens can identify more strongly with the political situation if they can directly help decide certain questions. Referendums and referendums cannot and should not replace parliaments, but complement their work. In any case, I do not want a system change from representative to plebiscitary democracy. As at local and regional level, we need clear rules as to which questions should be decided directly by the people and which requirements must be met for a vote to take place and for it to bind parliament and government.


In a democracy, civic engagement cannot, of course, be limited to ticking the ballot paper in elections or votes. Citizens can also exert direct influence through their work in favor of the common good - above all through voluntary and honorary work in their very different forms. Voluntary work - the word sometimes still has an aftertaste to us. Many tend to neglect services that do not ask for money and do not have to be paid for. Anyone who has this attitude is overlooking how much poorer our society would be - poorer in every respect - if it weren't for people who do more than their duty. They ensure that our society not only functions, but also ensure that heat flows. They provide services that the state and the market cannot provide, or only to a limited extent, because they are - in a double sense of the word - priceless. These services make life easier for many people and they also enrich it. In the best sense of the word, they are democratic achievements because they are geared towards the common good and promote cohesion in society. The willingness to volunteer is extraordinarily high in our country: every third German citizen is a volunteer in one form or another, a total of 22 million people. I said: every third German citizen. It would be more correct to say: every third German citizen, because the vast majority of unpaid work is still done by women. If you look closely, you can see that it is predominantly women who are involved in areas with relatively high demands and burdens: 67 percent in the social sector and 66 percent in the health sector.

Volunteering has a long tradition. What has changed and continues to change are the motivations and expectations. As before, disinterested motives are in the foreground. But more and more women and men expect that voluntary work is also enjoyable, that it offers the opportunity to learn something about yourself, to find confirmation and to deepen your own knowledge. I see this as a great opportunity to win even more young people for voluntary work and thus for civic, democratic engagement. As a volunteer, young people have the opportunity to get to know new and different realities of life and to gain social experience. That sharpens the view for public affairs. Those who gain personality in this way also improve their professional opportunities.

With a view to the future development of community service, I say: The willingness of young people to get involved in voluntary work will increase if we create better framework conditions. The voluntary social year must become more attractive for young people. You should be able to use it for your professional orientation. It should be counted towards the training time or at least be able to bring a bonus for training places and study places.


We cannot discuss the future of democracy without talking about the parties. In the past few months it has often been heard that we were not only experiencing a party crisis, but a crisis of the parties as a whole, indeed a crisis of party democracy. Ultimately, nobody denies that we need parties. Everyone knows how important they are in shaping the will of the electorate. The parties organize the political debate, they draft models and counter-models, they uncover weaknesses and contradictions and name the costs and consequences of certain decisions. It is easy to condemn “the party system” in a sweeping manner. Anyone who does this, however, has to be asked: What alternative do they want? Who or what would take the place of the parties? Who else would we leave it to decide our fate? Nobody can seriously wish for a return to the corporate state. But precisely because we need the integrating power of the major people's parties, we also need a broad debate on how party democracy can be improved.

Because what we experienced was not a state crisis, but a crisis of credibility in politics. Many people think that the parties have pushed themselves too strongly between the citizens and the state. They criticize the fact that the parties not only - as the Basic Law writes - "help shape the will of the people", but that they have also, to a certain extent, assumed state offices. No longer decides on access, as prescribed by the Basic Law, suitability, qualifications and professional performance. Even headmaster positions, so the allegation, would be awarded "according to the party book". These are allegations that deserve careful examination in each individual case and from which we were protected by more openness and transparency in the parties and in the decision-making bodies. Democracy must not be a party state in the future either - which of course I would like to see a lively party democracy. This includes that the parties have their own, characteristic profile.In the dispute between the parties it must become clear that politics is about different interests and different evaluations.

It is vital for democracy that the political debate is conducted in such a way that the parties' positions can be clearly distinguished. I am for arguments - if need be, also for hard arguments - in the matter and against lazy compromises. But I add: there is also lazy uncompromising behavior. It's no better. Democracy lives from regulated conflict and from the willingness and ability to come to an understanding, to reach consensus. The question of conflict or consensus is posed incorrectly. Both belong together.

We need to have a thorough and serious discussion of the roles of the parties. This also includes the question of how the parties finance themselves. In February I reappointed the party funding commission. It deals with questions of party financing in the narrower sense, as was usual up to now. But I also asked them to make recommendations on structural changes. We have to ask ourselves: Does compliance with the legal regulations need to be better monitored and how can this be done? Should or must the system of sanctions for parties and those acting on their behalf be tightened in the event of illegal behavior? Are the applicable laws sufficient or are legal changes necessary?

Other questions also deserve to be discussed if we want to prevent mistrust and indifference from settling in the minds of many people: What is the state of democracy within the parties? What can be done so that people from as many different professions as possible find it attractive to strive for a member of parliament? What can be done about the fact that more and more politicians have no professional experience outside of politics? Are there sufficient rules of conduct when former MPs use their connections in politics and administration to promote the interests of commercial enterprises or associations? The parties have lost a lot of prestige because of the way they treat each other. The recent debate about the distribution of merits for German unity was a sad example of this. By the way: In my experience, voters do not honor a dispute that is primarily about belittling or scornful political opponents.


It is essential that the work in parliaments is organized by political groups and with the help of the political groups. But wouldn't it be desirable for parliamentary work to be more oriented towards the ideal of the Basic Law? It is known there that MPs are only obliged to their conscience and are not bound by orders and instructions. It is sometimes astonishing how it is taken for granted that in a certain matter "the parliamentary party obligation is lifted" when it cannot actually exist.

The function and work of our parliaments has changed considerably over the past few decades. Most people have a concept of the separation of powers in mind that no longer applies: Parliament and government no longer face each other, as in the early constitutional period. Today the government majority and executive form one pole, the parliamentary opposition the opposite pole. This separation of powers is no worse than the original. The Bundestag takes it into account in its work and reforms it where necessary.

Today, our parliaments often have different tasks and organizational options than they did a few decades ago. There are several reasons for this: The shifting of important decisions to the European level and the need to act that arise in the course of globalization are certainly the most important. The importance of the Bundestag has not diminished as a result - it has only changed. The classic speech parliament has long since become a working parliament. Audit and control tasks are performed in the committees and parliamentary groups, in hearings and expert panels. The change in parliamentary work is appropriate and timely. But I wonder if most people are well aware of it. It seems to me that there is too little public clarity and too many misunderstandings about how our representative democracy actually works today.

Of course, some complicated changes are difficult to understand. But is enough being done to explain change and encourage understanding? Where there is a lack of transparency and thus insight, there can be no trust.

The function and work of our parliaments is changing, but let us be careful not to deparliamentarize politics! Politicians must not emigrate from parliaments. Expert panels can provide meaningful support to the work of parliaments - but they must not replace them because they lack democratic legitimacy. Our media is rightly called the "fourth estate". The control they exercise is important and democratically essential. It is up to the MPs to decide how closely they orient themselves and their work to the laws of the media world. Parliament must first and foremost remain a forum for political debate. Not every draft bill from a ministry has to be the subject of an interview. Not every necessary reform needs to be talked to death in endless talk shows. Not every proposal has to go down in a headline cascade.


"The future of our democracy" - this formulation could also reflect the concern that our democracy is in danger. I do not consider this concern to be justified. Our democracy has a future - and we don't have to reinvent it for it. Our democracy has proven that it can not only withstand great challenges, but also meet them. It has proven to be stable and able to defend itself. It has come to terms with the terrorism that has wrongly invoked left ideals, and it will also be able to successfully face the violence and extreme right-wing aberration that flares up. Our democracy has mastered economic and social upheavals, as much as we are concerned with problems such as unemployment, poverty, everyday violence and a lack of equality and demand ever new efforts. But in no other form of government can equality and justice, prosperity and freedom be realized as extensively as in democracy.

We have to agree, however, that our democracy is not just an option or a field of experimentation. It is the indispensable, worthy of protection, but also the basis of our coexistence that needs to be shaped. That also means: we have to keep a clear view of where it needs to be expanded or modernized. We must not tire of asking what we can do to keep our democracy attractive, up-to-date and alive. How can citizens exert greater influence on political decisions? Breaking new ground places demands on our parties, which sometimes go to lofty heights in order to avoid the troubles of the various levels, and that places demands on our political elite, which can never be too down-to-earth. Every citizen must have the feeling: Yes, the form of government and life that I want, in which I personally and in which we can all feel protected and in good hands, is encouraged and challenged. Yes, here is the form of government and life in which my individuality is recognized and needed and which best promotes our common interests. Yes, it is worth working for this democracy. Our democracy is not in danger. Our democracy has a future - provided we all, and I repeat: we all, are ready to maintain and shape it through our own efforts.