Democracy Fatigue

Political scientist Jacques Rupnik (Paris) chaired the final discussion on issues including: How solid are democratic institutions such as independent media, human rights and minority rights, and civic society twenty years after November 1989? What are the greatest threats to these institutions? Is it the resurgence of old and the emergence of new corruption and capitalism?

Václav Havel (Prague) believes we have not abandoned our ideals and are on the right path but we are progressing along it in a slow and laborious manner, with lots of twists and turns. A gap has opened up between politics and society with politics being perceived as something suspect. This process might be part of a general democracy fatigue but it also takes a typically Czech form – a specifically Czech perception of political parties who believe they are the end rather than the means of politics. In our world of new technologies we are losing the ability to distinguish information from truth, ideas from ideology.

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (Budapest – New York) pointed out that all revolutions end up being betrayed, the only question is how. Despite all disappointments we must not forget that we have constitutional liberties – when people shouted Havel na Hrad! (Havel to the Castle) he did get to the Castle. The problem is, we are like Sleeping Beauty who was brought back to life by a kiss from a Prince and woke up to continue in the same way as she had done before she fell asleep. And what have we gone back to? Czechoslovakia is the only [Central European] country that actually has a democratic past. It is extremely dangerous to forget – forgetting and forgiving are two different things. Now we experience the return of the repressed: nationalism, chauvinism, right-wing radicalism. We have democratic political institutions but we don’t have a democratic mentality.

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev (Sofia) believes that the obsession with normality has constrained our political life and that the elites have liberated themselves from the societies they live in. Democracy has never been the best political system, just the least bad one. In democracy you know how to deal with disappointment, in a non-democracy you just get more and more disappointed.

German writer Ingo Schulze (Berlin) thinks democracy consists of freedom and social justice but these two things have now become separated and the German society is getting more and more polarized. Everything becomes part of the economy, and the politicians do not see themselves as politicians but rather as managers. As writers and human beings we have to stand up against this economic way of thinking.

His Austrian colleague, writer Robert Menasse (Vienna) pointed out that communism fell in Eastern Europe in the same year as Austria joined the EU. While Eastern Europe had to fight for democracy, Austrians got it as a gift so they did not know what it was. The Slovaks fought for it but did not know what it was either and due to this ignorance both countries gave up democracy by joining the EU. Now they are together in the same deficit of democracy.

Polish publisher and cultural organizer Krzysztof Czyżewski (Sejny) recalled Czesław Miłosz who said: “You are the first generation that has a future”. We did not have a future before 1989 but the sad thing is that after 1989 culture and creative art have become less important. We should reclaim it as a force for social change. There is now too much focus on identity and less emphasis on what binds us together: we have turned into separate islands struggling for and defending our identity and this is less and less compatible with working together.

Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kusý (Bratislava) believes that what Slovakia is experiencing now is not a democracy fatigue but rather a democracy deficit fatigue because democracy is not working properly in his country. Many democratic institutions are not working, the citizens don’t understand them and as a result they no longer trust democracy. Milan Šimečka once said: „Once we get democracy, life will get difficult.“ The liberties that democracy has brought us have their negative aspects but we have to accept both its strengths and its weaknesses.

Photo Peter Župník