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Democracy needs separate branches of government

For 20 years, I’ve been the editor-in-chief of D+C, and democracy promotion was always part of our mission. Successive German governments expressed their faith in people’s self-government, the rule of law and reasonable global governance based on – preferably democratic – nation states.
Trump supporters attacking the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021. picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com/Carol Guzy Trump supporters attacking the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021.

The rhetoric has changed, however, so it is now common to speak of defending rather than promoting democracy.

Democracy is indeed under attack. That is so even in prosperous western nations where its roots were believed to be strong. Right-wing populism is on the rise. Its top leaders typically claim to represent “the” nation directly and exclusively. They pretend that it consists of a homogenous community which supports them. Everyone else is accused of being a traitor, elitist, corrupt, criminal, naïve et cetera.

This is an international phenomenon. Donald Trump is the most prominent example. Unfortunately, there are too many others to list in a short editorial.
Once someone like Trump gains power, they try to perpetuate their rule by changing the institutional order. The good news is that populist governments nonetheless sometimes lose elections. Even where that happens, however, the institutional order tends to be damaged.

In the US, there is no evidence of the 2020 elections having been rigged, but Trump supporters believe they were. Fortunately, the judiciary did not fall for the “big lie”. Trump appointed many judges, however, including three on the Supreme Court where the solid right-wing majority is passing judgements – on abortion, for example – that most US citizens disagree with.

Many people believe that democracy is primarily about electing the top leader. They miss an important point. For elections to be fair and take place regularly, a country needs constitutional checks and balances. Otherwise, any incumbent government will be tempted to bend election rules in order to stay in power. An independent judiciary is therefore of crucial importance. Only it can guarantee that elections are not rendered meaningless over time. And that is precisely why it is problematic that the US Supreme Court has become politicised and is losing people’s trust.

Checks and balances are necessary to keep the administrative leadership from twisting everything in its favour. Constitutions must clearly define the roles of separate branches of government – executive, legislation and judiciary but also national and subnational – and spell out people’s unalienable rights. Good constitutions make abuses of power much more difficult, though not impossible.

The separation of powers, moreover, is the basis for what sociologists call functional differentiation. It means that social systems – markets, academic research, civil society, media discourse, technology develop­ment et cetera – are not subjected to the whims of the top political leader.

The systems operate according to their own requirements, which makes them more dynamic. The political system must provide and enforce sensible regulations in a transparent manner to ensure that the systems stay integrated and do not undermine one another. 

For example, it should not allow economic growth to destroy the environmental basis of society. Democracies’ track record in this regard is less than perfect – but Trump-like people tend to undo ecological progress if they can

A well-designed democratic order ensures basic liberties at many levels, but it does not grant people in positions of power or great wealth the freedom to simply do as they please. The health of society thus depends on a good constitution. As history shows, dictatorship is rarely benign, but normally unchecked and unbalanced.

Hans Dembowski is the editor-in-chief of D+C/E+Z.

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