Why are liberals so clumsy

Till van Rahden: Democracy. An endangered life form

Too impatient for democracy? A short commentary on the book “Democracy - A Form of Life Endangered” by Till van Rahden

by Jakob Fürst

Till van Rahden's book begins where many political analyzes of our time end: the liberal democracies decay, degenerate, and collapse - a judgment that on the one hand seems to be omnipresent, on the other hand, in addition to a certain fascination for the spectacle of doom, also conveys impatience. Is it finally that time? Are liberal democracies finally where we have been writing them for decades? Are they now finally being replaced by what may be coming?

We encounter this form of human impatience again and again in “Democracy - A Endangered Way of Life”: in Theodor Heuss' “Piefke from Moabit”, who prefers to be “master man and hero” today rather than tomorrow, and for that in the 1930s and 1940s even accepts world war and genocide; among the West Germans of the 1950s and 1960s, who, in their longing to finally be "normal" again after the self-inflicted mass violence (ideally to go unnoticed at all internationally), busily and awkwardly deal with the question of how to Could “become democratic”; among the sixty-eighties, for whom that very democratization is proceeding far too slowly; and - fast-forward - in the present, when some are already prematurely lamenting the end of liberal democracy and others are secretly or incredibly happy to welcome it.

Van Rahden's discoveries in the social media bubbles of the time are inspiring: community and church brochures, industry and trade union magazines, advice literature, comments on the reasons for judgments and even the big weekly magazines participate in the public debate on democracy - each of these media is denominational, political or at least Located according to specific interests, with its own (numerically sometimes considerable) readers: ownership and their own intellectual points of view. The point that is surprising from a later-born point of view is how detailed many of those who wrote at the time tried to address “democracy as a way of life” and emphasize how important it is shape dealing with disputes and conflicts in ordinary everyday life for the personal experience of democracy and its further development. Your arguments move beyond the passive assumption, constitutional and power-sharing institutions or Norms alone would be enough for democracy. To a certain extent, they are looking for the civic leisure that is necessary to take care of one's own common good in a quarreling manner, in order to restore it every day in constant detail work. It therefore seems easy to understand that the relationship between the sexes in marriage and family and the understanding of fatherhood between militaristic patriarchy and democratic equality are receiving a lot of attention in the media and, ultimately, in the judiciary.

The pace of these developments, however, was evidently more leisurely than it was in 1968 - and this observation, too, is reminiscent of the current situation in which so many doubt the democratic aspect of liberal democracy. For some, this form of government is too sluggish to make urgent decisions, for others it is too compromise-oriented to correct abuse of power, the third displeases its cosmopolitan tendency, the fourth its aristocratic tendency.

So what can we learn from this story? Is the annoyed disappointment that is currently emerging with liberal democracy the impatience of our time - accompanied by the resigned despondency of those who think the liberal-democratic constitution of our societies is actually still worth preserving?

West German post-war society had neither moral nor realpolitical alternatives to liberal democracy - man had to Become liberal-democratic, and therefore ask yourself how best to do this. The contributions in the cited medium and small media and their strenuous search for the silver lining of democracy as a way of life bear witness to this. Today we see it a little differently: the democratic farewell to democracy is again an actual alternative, not just for Germany.

The specific proposal in Till van Rahden's book, the fragile democracy of the post-war period and the diverse efforts to promote it shape (more than hers standard) as inspiration seems helpful to me. Where we lack concrete areas of democratic experience, we also find it difficult to believe in democracy on a large scale. Can we therefore use the gradual elimination of undemocratic remnants in the 1960s (for example in families) as a model for today's challenges to democracy, for example in working life, at schools and universities, in road traffic, in intergenerational dialogue? Would we get used to the sensitivity for the conflictive democratic way of life that we need in order to be able to work on major construction sites such as electoral law, police, technology or climate policy? Perhaps the knowledge that West Germany was able to undertake the intellectual project of “democracy as a way of life” immediately after its democratically darkest hour serves as an anchor of hope that we will - despite the urgency of the problems at hand - even today in more democratically stable times have the hand to continue to democratize our society? Is it worth preserving what we like about the liberal democracy that exists today and improving what is not yet democratic enough for us? If we answer these questions in the affirmative, it will depend on all of us, our creativity, our persistence - and our patience: as democracy researchers, as political educators, as citizens.

Jakob Fürst is Head of Programs at the IWM.



A plea for a conversation with everyone, Deutschlandfunk, January 13, 2020

It starts in the family, Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 3, 2020 

Till van Rahden: Democracy, Sehepunkte, issue 20, 7-8, July 15, 2020

Till van Rahden: Democracy, socialnet.de, July 14, 2020

H-Diplo Roundtable XXII-21 on Till van Rahden, Democracy: An Endangered Way of Life. Discussion published by George Fujii, January 15, 2021.


Democracy: A Fragile Way of Life, The Graduate Institute Geneva, March 2, 2020.

Other texts

Till van Rahden: Democracy as a way of life. A German misunderstanding, IWMpost 126, 2020.