Democracy in Question? – Through a Soft Authoritarian Lens
In this comment, Jens Adam reflects on episode S2E5 of the podcast series “Democracy in Question?” featuring Till van Rahden. Once in power, soft authoritarian politicians strive to dominate public institutions and don’t shy away from dismantling democratic procedures. But as examples from Poland show, everyday encounters and interactions in public spaces might provide signs of hope and a potential for democratic counter movements.
Parliaments and independent courts are indispensable, but not enough to keep democracies alive. In this episode Till van Rahden brings home to us that something more is needed: “democratic virtues” practiced and cultivated by citizens in their everyday encounters and interactions. From this point of view families, schools and other public institutions are of major relevance for the flourishing of a democracy. They can provide opportunities to nurture and enact democratic ways of life on a regular basis. And parks, playgrounds or swimming pools are more than just sites of leisure. Here citizens can acquire the capacity to navigate diversity, conflicts and dissent. To keep a democracy alive, we don’t have to agree on each controversial question, Till von Rahden argues. But we need sites of encounter and forms of interaction that allow us each day to experience and to get along with difference. That’s why pools, parks or schools are so essential: they are components of the “democratic commons” that enable a “never ending controversy over the idea of the public good”.
Can we analyse counter movements and undercurrents persisting on democracy as a “form of life” once we focus explicitly on everyday interaction and public spaces?
Currently we observe shifts towards more authoritarian modes of rule in many nominal democracies. How could van Rahden’s reflections about “democracy as a fragile form of life” contribute to a better understanding of such transformations? A critical examination of the gradual dismantling of independent courts or electoral procedures by soft authoritarian governments or their attacks on media pluralism is rather well established. This episode suggests that an extension of our inquiry towards daily encounters and public infrastructures could make sense. By doing so we could ask: Do we find evidence here of a reverse process that questions or replaces once appreciated “democratic virtues”? How can we best study the potential disappearance of the capacity to navigate diversity and controversial issues? Or could we instead analyse counter movements and undercurrents persisting on democracy as a “form of life” once we focus explicitly on everyday interaction and public spaces?
Poland is a fascinating case to reflect on these questions. It stands out as a society that established its democracy in a long struggle against authoritarian state socialism. As part of a broad protest movement Poles created strike committees and underground media, self-organised circles of critical intellectuals and the first independent trade union of the former Eastern bloc. They used church congregations as secure meeting spaces for mobilization. And they established the “round table”, which has meanwhile become an iconic setting, to peacefully negotiate a fundamental system transformation. In other words, multiple and creative forms of everyday interaction and encounters were generated in a wide-ranging societal struggle for political change – forms, in which democratic virtues were forged, cultivated and practiced.
Schools and universities played a major role in establishing democratic virtues in post-war Western Germany. A comparable story could be told about Poland’s educational sector after 1989.
Against this background, it might come as a surprise that some of the most prominent politicians and journalists that push forward a soft authoritarian agenda today have their political roots in this very protest movement. Indeed, the governing party – just as its liberal opponents – appeals strongly to narratives of the heroic anti-communist struggle as a source of legitimacy for its stances and policies. At least two conclusions can be drawn from this: Firstly, the participation in a democratic struggle and in the creation of forms to practice and cultivate democracy under an autocratic regime seem not to immunise in each case against the temptations of authoritarianism. And secondly, the entanglements between authoritarian and democratic political practices in Poland are manifold and obviously older than the more recent developments.
We may also ask about the consequences of soft authoritarianism for schools, museums and other public institutions. Poland offers instructive material to discuss this question too. As Till van Rahden reminds us schools and universities played a major role in establishing democratic virtues in post-war Western Germany. A comparable story could be told about Poland’s educational sector after 1989. Remarkably, since the PiS-led government has come to power (2015) it has focussed its attention consistently on cultural and educational institutions. The public TV station was transformed immediately into a partisan propaganda channel. The directors of some of the most important cultural institutions were replaced, the permanent exhibitions of outstanding museums modified according to the new ideological orientation. The government also created a couple of new cultural institutions and festivals closely aligned with its own historical narratives and so-called patriotic values. Profound changes in school curricula, textbooks and reading lists that the educational minister announced more recently point in the same direction. According to these changes pupils should be taught an exclusively positive vision of Polish history. The teaching of heteronormative family values, for example, is presented as one remedy against Poland’s demographic crisis. It remains to be seen to which extent these reforms will affect daily interactions in these institutions or the ways in which democratic virtues are practiced and cultivated in these spaces. But if we follow Till van Rahden’s appreciation of the capacity to navigate diversity, ambivalence and deeply divisive issues one is forced to note that the current changes seem to point in the opposite direction.
A focus on playgrounds, public pools or parks might lead us to a more hopeful picture. Municipalities play an important role in this regard. Since PiS came to power local administrations have proven to be a persistent countervailing force against state-centred, soft authoritarian policies. Above, cities are in charge of planning and maintaining a big part of Poland’s public infrastructure. Keeping space open to all and designing it in a way that it enables encounters in diversity could be a strategy to protect and cultivate democracy as an everyday form of life.
The riverside of the Vistula in Warsaw represents an illustrative example for this. Over the last years the banks have been transformed into a variegated urban landscape, composed of park sections, viewing platforms, cultural institutions, bars and restaurants. Beach volleyball fields, outdoor gym equipment and skateboard courses invite sportspersons to exercise in public. Sitting spaces along the Western bank attract a varied crowd, especially during the summer. Bike lanes and walkways are popular among families for their weekend excursions. In brief, Varsovians encounter a diverse urban community on these sites. And here they do have to navigate difference and ambivalences, deal with minor conflicts and perhaps even more fundamental controversial issues. Such spaces might not protect the freedom of courts, the fairness of election procedures or the independence of the media. But they can contribute to nourishing democracy as an everyday practice and cultivate it as a form of life.