‘Let me tell you what to think’: Discourse and the Limits of Democracy

The German pollster agency TNS Emnid recently broke the news that the majority (57%) of East German respondents among the total 1,208 Germans in all 16 federal states asked about their views of the bygone German Democratic Republic (GDR) agreed with the statement that the GDR ‘had more positive than negative aspects’ and that although ‘there were some problems, one could live there rather well.’

8% of East Germans even agreed that ‘the GDR had predominantly positive aspects’ and that ‘one lived a happier and better life there than in reunified Germany.’ Thus almost two thirds of East Germans polled for this survey indicated mildly or strongly favorable views of what in official political language is commonly termed the ‘Unrechtsstaat’ (State of Injustice).

The reaction followed promptly. This “misty-eyed view” among East Germans of the GDR had to be countered with more effective public education and awareness campaigns, a member of the German federal cabinet argued, agreeing with a state-level minister who posited that the results demonstrated an “emotional anti-position to the present.”

This outrage at yet another indicator of a strong ‘Ostalgie‘ (nostalgia for the East) may not be surprising to those who have been following the persistent social and economic divisions between the ‘new’ and the ‘old Laender’. Yet to me it came as a strange reminder of a series of assertions that another prominent regime change was, in fact, justified.

Think Iraq. Former Foreign Secretary Rice is notorious for defending the second US-led invasion. Former President Bush never moved an inch from this position either. His deputy even bothered to air his unrelenting view of the matter after the administration that he co-led had already imploded amid the weight of botched political decision-making.

Another telling example of a discourse designed to mute alternative views comes straight from the European Union. Here, a machinery of well-heeled bureaucrats in Brussels promotes a vision of an intertwined and de-facto united Europe – never mind persistent public skepticism against a European Constitution in important EU member states such as France or The Netherlands. Fearing similar public rejection, German politicians cowardly opted for a closed parliamentary process rather than a referendum.

Why is it that in democratic systems, which supposedly encourage public participation and rule of a consensual majority, politicians see a need to claim sovereignty over interpretive airspace? Why do we so easily replace the complexities of individual realities and experiences with a monochromatic message of good or bad?

I have three preliminary thoughts to offer on this observation. While not answers to the questions posed above, they help me recognize the relevance of such discursive discrepancies for international politics more broadly.

First, I believe that they are strongly indicative of a class conflict that many have thought to be a thing of the past. Be it the economically excluded in East Germany, the target(ed) population in Iraq or those with a strong sense of national self-defense amid the recent history of European warfare, they are pitted against the more affluent movers and shakers of the global political economy.

We are also witnessing a case of media schizophrenia which is central to the processes of opinion formation in modern societies. The potential to discover and report complex realities clashes with an increasing demand for–and, as a result, supply of–simple ‘truths’.  And finally, the development of such simple mechanisms as an inherent feature of our so-called ‘modern’ democracies does not bode well for the agenda of democracy promotion in areas of the world where, as we often choose to portray it, the public is excluded from policy-making. Far from it: the challenge posed by discursive hegemonies is as real right here as it may be ‘over there’.

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One thought on “‘Let me tell you what to think’: Discourse and the Limits of Democracy

  1. Great post. As a former resident of Berlin (eastside, yo) and an urban planner, I was always fascinated with the changes in the urban landscape that were associated with reunification, especially those relating to the way memory was inscribed in the urban fabric. The way East Berlin streets changed name or whose history to remember (or forget) through preservation and destruction. I don’t much blame East Germans who have fond memories of the DDR. Even in the urban fabric, reunification was a profoundly unequal partnership.

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