Dr Kennedy Graham

Extremism and its discontents

Another scar on global democracy appeared recently, this time in Germany.It seems that the number of soldiers on duty with extremist political leanings has become a concern to the military leadership in that country.

Soldiers were found openly possessing Nazi memorabilia. Germany’s defence minister and the Chief of its Defence Forces ordered an investigation, vowing that “right wing extremism needs to be rooted out”.

These events, not just in Germany but elsewhere, have a common thread. It is the perceived mistrust and weakness of the democratic institutions and an increasing feeling of disconnect between political representatives and the population at large.

It is one of history’s many ironies that it required German intellectuals to point out some insights into modern political psychology. Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) described what an underlying tension between human civilization and the individual. One the one hand, as individuals we instinctively pursue the quest for freedom; on the other, the body politic requires a degree of social conformity.

The Austrian-British philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote his famous The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) while in exile in New Zealand. The work is a scathing attack on totalitarianism and a passionate defence of liberal democracy as the only form of government that allows evolutionary change – which may include structural change where required.

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) made clear, an eternal balance is to be found between the individual and the collective, and it is now enshrined in binding international law through the covenants. The related version of this in national political theory is liberal democracy, whether domestic tidal forces shift to the right or the left in this respect.

More recently with the Austrian, Dutch and French elections, we have witnessed the principles of liberal democracy at work – the separation of power, the rule of law, free and fair elections. We may not always be aware of it, but liberal democracy has a powerful immune system that can ‘heal’ the body politic.

Even the German system shows resistance, as the principle of societal accountability forces the defence establishment to intervene and address unethical and illegal behaviour among its membership.

As with a living organism, the body politic can suffer from a weak immune system. It needs to be strengthened continuously.

How can we strengthen the immune system of our body politic?

  • Political engagement: We are all in on this. Liberal democracy requires a strong and healthy discussion culture where different ideas can be debated and tested. Respect and dignity comprise the key to an environment in which people feel save to voice or rebut ideas in an ongoing exploration of finding the best solutions to the challenges we face.
  • Popular participation: Make sure we are using our sources well. Liberal democracy thrives on the highest level of its members participating in society.  This means reducing poverty and addressing employment issues through meaningful and viable polices.
  • Good government: Our institutions on paper are good. Institutions, however, come alive with the people that work in them. We need people who are motivated primarily to serve their community, not to line their own pockets with public funds. This applies, of course, to politicians as well. Once a government has been appointed, it is critical for its members to appreciate the fact that they are not only taking up the responsibility to govern for those who have elected them, but for the entire country.

A healthy vigilance, not radicalised vigilantes, is what we need in the 21st century.