Progressive Futures

We can change things

17 October 2017

After the German elections: Claiming agency

Hanno Burmester

Last month, the new German parliament was elected. The elections presented further evidence of eroding trust in established political parties, shown by the surge of the rightwing-extremist AfD.

I am sad to say that I was not surprised by the election results. The lack of faith in our politicians and institutions to cope with today’s challenges is evident even within ministries, within political parties. If we want to change this narrative, it is time to stop observing and start imagining. Time to stop complaining and start creating. Time to claim agency, I guess, and to boldly strive for what today may seem impossible.

The following text is an excerpt from my paper Shifting Frames: Six thoughts on Innovating Liberal Democracy.

Western democracies today, especially those that weathered the financial crisis relatively unaffected, are characterised by a paradox. In society, there is widespread feeling that things are falling apart, no matter how solid the economic growth indices are. There is a sense that we are witnessing fundamental shifts, which may change or even destroy the world as we know it.

At the same time, the political discourse seems weirdly saturated. Humanity’s self-destructive path on the issue of climate change, financial systems perpetually on the brink of collapse, the injustice of global inequality, the migration of millions: while these issues are constantly present in private discussions, the political arena seems absorbed in muddling through.

Politicians invest huge amounts of attention into whether welfare should be raised by 5 or 20 euros, how to label energy-efficient fridges, or if soccer players’ salaries can be capped. While the world as we know it collapses, politics does its best to pretend that it’s business as usual, and to find incremental solutions for existential challenges.

Doing what you usually do, even though a new answer is needed

Synergetics, the science of complex, self-organised systems, speaks of the hysteresis effect. It refers to the phenomenon of people and social systems doing what they usually do, even if the outside environment calls for completely different actions. Parts of the political system seem to be caught in this dynamic.

Psychology tells us that people, when experiencing fear or stress, tend to fall back into learned patterns of behaviour — even if these habits are counterproductive when it comes to solving current problems. When we look at the challenges we face today, we see politicians focusing on what seems doable: fine-tuning a regulation, writing a press release. Like all of us, they feel overwhelmed by the crises we face. This is understandable from a human and a professional perspective, as most political decision makers feel massive frustration at the limits placed on regional, national and even European politicians.

We must believe in our power to change things

And yet, these understandable individual patterns of dis-empowerment add up to a collective catastrophe. If those who we elect into power do not empower themselves, democracy can only fail. I have spoken to several members of the German parliament and high-ranking civil servants who were utterly convinced that they were powerless; a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, as those who believe they can do nothing will never claim the power they need to change things – a power that the public believes they have.

We must rebuild the national and international architectures of doing politics. To do this, we need individuals who empower themselves to make significant change. This takes more than political mandates. It takes individual audacity, the self-assuredness to attempt what others declare to be impossible. It requires leaders who realise that the man-made can always be changed. The biggest hurdles in our way are limiting beliefs: in a world without alternatives, in a world where meaningful transformation is nothing but a dream.

Learning from the illiberal right?

On the illiberal right, you see plenty of people who forcefully pursue the supposedly impossible. Take Donald Trump, a man who is driven by the belief that he can achieve things. However despicable his agenda, and however despicable his means of pursuing his goals — progressives can learn from his unwavering sense of agency.

We need liberal democrats who empower themselves with big ideas before they seek the democratic mandates from others to carry out major change. We need democrats who see the willingness to try spectacularly, and thus to fail spectacularly, as a noble attitude.

Whatever good ideas for democratic innovation we come up with: they are worth nothing without individuals who accept maximum responsibility, and do their best to achieve great things, for the good of democracy and of this planet.

This text is an excerpt from my paper Shifting Frames, which was published by Das Progressive Zentrum, with support of FEPS.

Image credit: Nicole S Glass / Shutterstock.com