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roger de weck ‘The more power citizens have, the more responsible they become’

Roger De Weck

Roger de Weck: 12 proposals to modernise democracy in the digital age.

(© Keystone / Urs Flueeler)

How can democratic institutions be revitalised? Why is it necessary to modernise them? Author, journalist, and ex-head of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation Roger de Weck answers these questions in a book to appear this week.

“The Power of Democracy: an Answer to Reactionary Authoritarians”, published on Monday, is the work of someone who says he “loves democracy, because it’s imperfect and because it doesn’t try to be perfect – it tries to be human”. Why did you write this book?

Roger de Weck: We are surrounded by authoritarian and populist politicians, whose rise has shaken many citizens. Some conservatives are swinging towards reactionary politics, while many liberals and leftists have lost their bearings. My goal was to underline that democracy – much more than authoritarianism – offers a future. And that to push back against authoritarians, it’s not enough just to criticise them; we need to modernise democracy, to update it for the digital and ecological era, so that it can regain trust. Democracy also needs to be strengthened, so that it has something to offer to those who have lost out in the shift towards digitalisation and globalisation. You outline 12 proposals for reforming democratic institutions. Which would you highlight as most important?

Roger de Weck: Some of the more modest proposals could be implemented straight away. Others are more daring, and are meant to spark debate. The most ambitious is to create a new house of parliament exclusively dedicated to sustainability and the environment, where elected representatives would debate all new laws solely through an ecological lens. Nature is the weakest link in the democratic chain; we need to give it an institutional home. Natural resources are running out, and this is something that will have a drastic impact on society and indeed democracy. Just as we have introduced a chamber to represent regional interests in many democratic systems, I think we also have to introduce a chamber for nature.

“Just as we have introduced a chamber to represent regional interests in many democratic systems, I think we also have to introduce a chamber for nature.”

End of quote Reactionary politicians, who you say are “anti-democratic”, often position themselves as defenders of democracy…

Roger de Weck: One of the fundamental principles of democracy is the separation of powers, so that no one person or group has all the power: not the people, not the government, not the courts. Many reactionaries want to give all the power to the people, often represented by the figure of a “strongman”. This is the opposite of liberal democracy. As French philosopher Montesquieu told us, whoever monopolises power, abuses it.

Democracy is also about dialogue. Of course, decisions have to be made, through votes in parliament or referendums. But debate is even more important. When debates are damaged or skewed, as happened in the UK around the Brexit vote, democracy suffers. The sharing of power is indispensable for this free debate: everyone must be able to participate, through the freedom of opinion and the media, and the freedom of assembly. This also means respecting human dignity and the opposition, and a commitment to safeguarding the rights of minorities. “Authoritarian democrats” in power in Hungary, for example, don’t care about this. Dictators and authoritarians want all the power, and they hate when they can’t control the public sphere. One of the recurring themes in the book is the predominance of the economy over politics. What is the link between this and the rise of reactionary politics?

Roger de Weck: In the liberal tradition, democratic institutions set the framework within which companies operate. Today, it’s often the opposite: the state follows big business. We need to re-establish the primacy of politics over economics. I’m not under-estimating the importance of the economy, but other values must be defended: social, ecological, cultural, regional. We can’t preserve all of these if economic logic always wins out. In Switzerland, the two trends exist side by side: strong democratic pride and a very liberal economy. How is the tension between them managed?

Roger de Weck: Semi-direct democracy – where people and parliament both have their say – is a democracy that can work for the digital age. It’s the democracy of the future. With the internet, channels for expression have hugely increased. At the same time, throughout the world, citizens have less and less influence on the political system, especially when in states under authoritarian regimes. This feeds frustrations that have been expressed in the Arab world, in Turkey, in Latin America, through numerous protest movements, through the “yellow vests” in France. Semi-direct democracy rebalances this discrepancy between the means of expression and the means of influence of citizens. This is why various ideas are coming up Europe in support of elements of direct democracy. Do you think direct democracy could be introduced in other countries, in Europe and beyond?

Roger de Weck: The political class is sceptical towards direct democracy, since it isn’t keen on losing power. Direct democracy is also often misunderstood, or confused with democracy by plebiscite. The top-down consultative plebiscite on Brexit proposed by [British prime minister] David Cameron had nothing to do with direct democracy, which is always bottom-up: the citizens themselves launch referendums. Then, later, once the terms of Brexit had been hammered out, nobody wanted to ask the citizens what they thought.

Germany, meanwhile, is quite reticent when it comes to direct democracy. Some features exist at the regional level, but the national trauma of Nazism still lingers, and there is a strong distrust towards citizens. This creates a vicious circle: the less power citizens have, the more they become and behave like subjects. The more power they have, the more responsible they become. French citizens, for example, only get to vote in referendums every 15 years or so. As a result, they don’t really decide on the question put before them; rather, they use the chance to express their dissatisfaction with government.

“My hope is that Switzerland, which was the first European country to experience reactionary populism, will be one of the first to reject it.”

End of quote You write that Switzerland, for better or worse, was always a frontrunner in the history of democracy. In 1848, it became a liberal island in a monarchic Europe; in 1968, it experienced both the student movement and one of Europe’s first xenophobic political movements, against Italian immigrants. And in the 1990s, the populist People’s Party became something of a prototype for today’s extreme-right parties in Europe. How do you see Switzerland in 2020?

Roger de Weck: My hope is that Switzerland, which was the first European country to experience reactionary populism, will be one of the first to reject it. Thanks to people’s initiatives and referendums, the semi-direct democratic system enables emerging issues to come onto the political agenda very quickly – to force a vote on a constitutional amendment, you need to gather 100,000 signatures. As a result, issues are dealt with ten or 20 years earlier than in parliamentary democracies. This explains, for example, how the debate around immigration started so many years ago in Switzerland. However, we now see that the populist reactionaries here are on the back foot. I hope that Switzerland, once a pioneer of openness and liberalism, will rediscover this tradition. How do you explain the fact that even in Switzerland, where more avenues of political expression are open to citizens than elsewhere, we see more and more public demonstrations?

Roger de Weck: I would guess that the number of demonstrations has increased largely due to the “Fridays for Future” climate marches. The young – and not so young – people who are gathering in the streets to protest climate change are becoming more and more frustrated; everyone tells them “yes, you’re right”, but nobody is taking the necessary measures. This generation is counting on democracy, and the pressure they bring is an important addition to the debate. We can’t disappoint them. This is another reason to modernise democracy.

Interestingly, the young people of “Fridays for Future” are the opposite of my generation: they don’t believe in overarching ideologies, neither liberal, nor communist, nor anything else. And they’re right – all ideologies eventually disappear. They don’t want to improve the world, like the 1968 generation or like the intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre, but rather they want to avoid disaster, in the vein of Albert Camus. But they still lack concrete demands. Sooner or later, perhaps they’ll turn to institutional reforms and the building of a green democracy. Do you see the “green wave” that entered parliament last autumn in Switzerland as a step in this direction?

Roger de Weck: We’ll see. The rise of the Greens has also – paradoxically – managed to rally together the anti-ecologists in Bern. Faced with the inertia of the old guard, one of the more pragmatic and realistic proposals in the book is to lower the voting age for elections to 16, as is the case in the small canton of Glarus. The large majority of young people demonstrating on the streets have shown an admirable sense of responsibility, perhaps more so even than adults would; why not give them a voice within democratic institutions? This wouldn’t be a revolution; it would be a very positive evolution.

Roger de Weck, “The Power of Democracy – an Answer to Reactionary Authoritarians” is published on March 9 in German by Suhrkamp, Berlin.

Roger de Weck

Roger de Weck is a journalist, author, and visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. He has directed the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, the German weekly Die Zeit and the Swiss daily, Tages-Anzeiger. He was chairman of the board of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

He is the author of various popular books. Born in Switzerland, bilingual in French and German, he studied economics at the University of St Gallen. Amongst others, de Weck is a member of the Foundation Board of the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, and the Scientific Council of “Critique Internationale” at SciencesPo Paris. He holds honorary doctorates from the Universities of Lucerne and Fribourg.

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