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"Sometimes the mountain has to go to the prophet"

Hertie School holds public discussion about the future of democracy as part of its Hertie Futures Forum series.


With important elections around the world, including regional elections in Germany, European elections, and presidential and congressional elections in the United States, 2024 will be a critical year for democracy.

On 13 December, to discuss the elections and the state of democracy, the Hertie School hosted the public discussion “Democracy on trial: Will 2024 change the face of democracy?”, which took part within the Hertie Futures Forum event series celebrating the university’s 20th anniversary. The event included a keynote speech by Wolfgang Schmidt, Head of the Federal Chancellery and Federal Minister for Special Tasks, and a panel discussion including Schmidt; Andrea Römmele, Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society; Lilli Fischer, Deputy Faction Leader of the CDU in the Erfurt City Council; and Steffen Mau, Professor of Macrosociology at Humboldt Universität. The discussion was moderated by Deutsche Welle TV Chief Correspondent Melinda Crane-Roehrs and closing commentary was given by Senior Professor of Sociology Helmut K Anheier.

Schmidt’s keynote addresses support for the far-right AfD party


After introductory remarks from President Cornelia Woll emphasising the importance of democracy research in the history of the Hertie School, Wolfgang Schmidt gave a keynote speech on his recent experience negotiating budget cuts in the federal government’s three-party coalition, as well as the state of democracy in Germany. Addressing growing support for the country’s far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), he said that people have “lost confidence that the future will be better”, and that “trigger points” such as inflation and migration have also fed into the party’s success.

Concern about polarisation in the US


In the panel discussion, both Prof. Römmele and Schmidt were worried about increasing polarisation in the US. Schmidt observed that there is no more common ground between the political camps: “This one fireside […] in the US where we all come together doesn’t exist any longer.” Looking to the 2024 presidential election, he was “worried that in such an established democracy, an election is a nail-biter – it shouldn’t be”. Schmidt was especially concerned about who Donald Trump would appoint to positions in his administration should he be re-elected. “Normally, if you have a change [of government] between Democrats and Republicans, you know who’s coming in,” he said, but with more ‘reasonable’ Republicans no longer supporting Trump, “the big question is who will be the people that staff a possible Trump administration”.

Römmele was equally worried about the US election, saying that “what the US shows us is what […] happens to a state that fails to reform”. In her view, the electoral college is “completely out of date”, and presidential primaries are “a poison to a democratic system” because they polarise the political camps before the general election. She also remarked that in the US, as opposed to Germany, “the rules of the game are interpreted differently and are not accepted as the rules of the game anymore.”

Reasons for declining trust in democratic institutions

Discussing the causes of declining trust in government, the panellists saw a disconnect between politicians and the people. Alongside structural hardship like inflation and the fact that political discourse feels “elitist” to many, Schmidt stressed that “online media accelerated the frequency of the political discourse,” and added that click baiting, or twisting headlines to make them more appealing, were fuelling polarisation. Steffen Mau agreed with Schmidt, though he noted that the majority of the population is not as polarised as one might think: “The fringes are very noisy; the middle is very quiet,” he said.

Römmele and Mau also commented on the diminishing role of political parties in guiding voter behaviour. “In the 60s, 70s and 80s, up to 80% of people actually had a party identification,” Römmele remarked, “that party identification […] has diminished tremendously. In the eastern part of [Germany], it has never been that high.” Mau, for his part, argued that “the major parties are not as distinguishable anymore,” and while parties used to be similar to a “family” in western Germany, today, voters often change their party support.

Mixed feelings about elections in East Germany


Concerning the 2024 eastern German elections, Mau said he was “becoming a pessimist” due to “frightening” developments, including external shocks to the democratic system, long-term structural changes, new cultural wars, and the growing complexity of political decision making. He was especially worried that the political establishment does not know how to deal with the AfD winning in local eastern German elections. He observed a “vicious circle” in which poorer and less educated people hardly vote and in turn do not feel like the political establishment represents them.

Lilli Fischer was less pessimistic about the upcoming elections. She argued that eastern Germans want the political establishment to take them seriously. Speaking of her home state of Thuringia, where the AfD is polling especially well, she said that “Thuringians want to participate more in politics”. In her view, political parties have to come closer to the people and listen to their problems. “Sometimes the mountain has to go to the prophet,” she said.


Watch the recording here:  

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