Eroding norms and political transformation: A new chance for liberty?

The Hammelsprung

Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.

But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.

First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.

Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.

How the parliament works

At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.

These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.

A battle against norms and the establishment

The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.

How norms foster social cohesion

But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.

Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.

It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.

A liberal response?

In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.

First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.

The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.

What the future will bring

The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.

Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.

Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy

Understanding how political parties function is an area where recent research in political science has contributed major insights. Political parties are a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 19th century, there were factions and loose groupings – the Optimates and Populares in Republican Rome, Tories and Whigs in late 17th century England, and Girondins and Jacobins in the French Revolution – but not organized parties. They were looser groupings that centered around dominant individuals – a Marius or Sulla, a Lord Shaftsbury, or a Brissot or Robespierre; but not parties with structured platforms and a deep well of local support.

I recently reviewed Daniel Ziblatt‘s recent book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy for the Journal of Economic History (gated and ungated). Ziblatt provides new insights into the key role played by conservative parties in the formation and stabilization of democracy in Western Europe. Ziblatt’s thesis is that where conservative parties were able to become entrenched and organized political forces, the prospects for liberal democracy were fairly good. But where conservative parties remained weak, democracy was likely to remain poorly institutionalized. Under these circumstances, elites simply had too much to lose from acquiescing in universal suffrage.

Ziblatt contrasts the fate of England where a popular conservative party did take on solid roots in the late 19th century with that of Germany. As I write in my review:

“The central insight Ziblatt emphasizes throughout is game theoretic: the absence of a party to organize around meant that economic elites lacked the ability to strategically defend their interests and hence became willing to ally with any forces that might help them protect their property. While in Britain, the well-institutionalized Parliamentary Conservative party moderated and sidelined the more reactionary and xenophobic elements in British life, the absence of such a strong party meant that in Germany, the right tended towards antisemitism and other forms of extremism . . . “

“. .  . Stable and lasting democratization required “buy-in” from old regime elites and this buy-in can only occur if there are institutional mechanisms in place that are capable of assuaging their fears and moderating the influence of extremists. In late 19th and early 20th century Europe, strong professional conservative parties served this purpose. In the absence of such a party the transition to democracy will likely be temporary and unstable.”

Do read the full review.