When photos count more than actions and any factual debate about the dispute is outrageous, our democracy is in danger. This presents enormous challenges for the media and readers.
Does anyone remember the Schulz train? In early 2017, it accelerated like a catapult from zero to a hundred to get off the track in a few weeks and reach the finish line like a lame duck before being pushed on the sidetrack. Ascent and descent were unreal: Schulz could not do as much good as was initially credited to him as a savior, and he did not do as much wrong as was written then.
Even if this was an extreme case, it raised a fundamental question: How do you want to make informed, cohesive and reasonably prescient, i.e. appropriate, policy in highly differentiated societies on such a rollercoaster of media hype?
Photo series with 13 photos
Andreas Rödder, born in 1967, teaches contemporary history at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. The historian is a member of the CDU, his latest book is entitled “Conservative 21.0. An Agenda for Germany”
Angela Merkel has proven herself to be a virtuoso of this mountain railway, whose extraordinary ability is to let nothing tickle her but to run the day’s affairs with a steady hand while digging the water of the nominal political opponent. The price of this method lies, of course, in the abandonment of a substantive strategy and in the permanent readiness for an abrupt turnaround. And even Merkel isn’t free from the ups and downs of attributed popularity: In February (then, before Corona …) she was quite in the favor of determined opinion before soaring to new heights in the crisis.
Beautiful photos, but no content: during the Chancellor’s visit to Herrenchiemsee, the press felt Merkel’s dedication to Söder as chancellor. But it never came. (Source: Peter Kneffel / Reuters)
Now her successor in the CDU presidency and thus the not entirely unimportant question is who could with any probability lead the German government of the 1920s. But instead of asking which candidate has which political strategy for the country, the media audience is concerned with glossy pictures of Herrenchiemsee, individual phrases from talk shows, and immediately certain popularity values, which one only wonders if they are. Factual argument goes.
Initially, Armin Laschet was on the Schulz train. When the pandemic broke, he was said to be practically untouchable in the race for the CDU presidency. Then his position became stylized as an opposition to Merkel, who had regained his opinion, he responded unscrupulously to a talk show, and things went downhill.
Meanwhile, Markus Söder rose like a rocket. He presented himself as a strong man on the side of the Chancellor, with whom he presented himself in Herrenchiemsee as Franz-Joseph and Sissi (if the Bavarians allow this historically incorrect comparison). And at Herrenchiemsee and shortly after in Düsseldorf, the media only kept an eye on whether the Chancellor dropped an oral handkerchief to show her special favor to one of the pretenders – as if she could appoint her successor in the chancellery. Democratic competition and political substance? Nothing.
Trivial comments are livened up to breaking news
Instead, the laws of attention economics dictate that the wheel spins one more revolution. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer once rightly complained that after an interview, she felt good about explaining complex issues in a differentiated way – until a sub-complex sensational headline ruined everything. And how often are trivial statements made by politicians in response to the latest news. Political professionals take advantage of these effects and stage themselves accordingly – until they eventually fall out of saddle. Exception: Angela Merkel, see above.
Historian Andreas Rödder: “Political arguments are powerless compared to opinion polls.” (Source: Sven Simon / image images)
But does the public really want to see this political rodeo? Or do you prefer serious politics? What the public supposedly wants is determined by surveys that are constantly conducted on everything and everyone. Too often the questions are pathetically sub-complex, if not biased. This applies not least to its infamous popularity values - images and moods that have little to do with political content. But they do politics, or at least are ahead of politics: political arguments are powerless compared to polls. Journalist Markus Feldenkirchen reported in his “Schulz-Story” on the 2017 election campaign from close quarters how politicians are driven by the near-daily polls.
In any case, what the polls say about voters is not good for democracy. The worst part is the phrase, “Voters don’t like arguments” – this is true across the board, whether it’s personal mud fights or disputes. Under the laws of attention economics, any actual disagreement about the “dispute” is a scandal because it is newsworthy.
Unity harms democracy
The logical consequence of the politicians is to call for “unity” – and through this call for peace in the cemetery, build up the dispute, which when in doubt shifts from the political scene to the margins and beyond the parliaments, see refugee policy and corona demonstrations. The reflex of politicians’ unity, driven by opinion polls, damages democracy.
A vibrant democracy that thrives with the public must therefore engage in breaking this vicious circle. The agora is not the place for serious-silent unity, but lively controversy. Sensible debates in which different opinions and arguments grapple with each other for a better outcome – this is the idea of democracy and the legacy of the Enlightenment, waiting for release from the clutches of the dysfunctional mechanisms of today’s attention economies.
Iconic photo of the G7 summit: but what were the issues raised by the heads of government? (Source: Adam Scotti / Prime Minister’s Office / Reuters)
This is the task that everyone faces: a policy that does not constantly focus on media effects; the opinion poll, which does not constantly flood the opinion market with under-complex figures; Journalists who do not narrow every disagreement to a scandal, but welcome them as an element of democratic opinion – and an audience that is not what the opinion polls think they are, but who prefer to distinguish very precisely between personal disputes that no one needs and more factually Confrontation, the elixir of democracy.
Democracy is facing a test
Europe faces strategic decisions and basic challenges. It competes with political systems that do not take into account the norms of liberal democracies. Some are playing with the Chinese system because it is so beautifully effective, completing airports that are still not open in Berlin; or they understand the mighty authoritarian Vladimir Putin – no matter what happens to Uyghurs or dissidents.
In the 20th century, democracy resisted all the challenges of supposedly more effective totalitarian systems. But that was and is not an automatic mechanism. If the “European way of life” is to assert itself in the 21st century, then democracy does not need sub-complex “unity”, but rather open debates about concepts and strategies for the further road. New information is needed – and everyone needs it: politics, media and public.
The opinions expressed in guest contributions reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chillreport editors.