Will elitism one day become obsolete?

Anti-people? Where does the hatred of the elites come from?

(This article has just appeared in the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung's magazine “Die Politische Demokratie”, Volume 62, No. 543, March / April 2017.)

Exactly ten days before Angela Merkel uttered her famous “We can do it”, she visited a refugee shelter in the small Saxon town of Heidenau near Pirna. When she got out of the car after her arrival, she was insulted and insulted by numerous demonstrators standing behind a cordon. She was called “traitor to the people”, a woman called “stupid bitch”. Until then, there had been no such thing. Since the Pegida demonstrations in Dresden, a block on decency has been released. A vocabulary of hatred has entered the public space that comes from deep below. On the one hand, it makes use of a terminology that comes close to the Nazi language, the "language of the monster". And it indulges in a plebeian, or rather: sub-proletarian pleasure in crossing borders, breaking taboos and fecal language.

Willy Brandt in the election campaign

All of this has always existed, what is new is that it now appears in public, leaving a name and address, so to speak. And an old interpretation of all misery is celebrating its resurrection: the conviction that an aloof elite is responsible for everything bad. An elite that is networked around the world, but despises its own people, even consciously fights them. An elite that deliberately "re-populates" Germany. And if you look at the “social media” on the Internet, which is still a mental diarrhea channel, the language becomes even more massive, even more insulting, even more folk. How far this attitude now extends beyond the conventional sub-proletariat was made clear by a Facebook entry by a lawyer that is easy to google. He was looking forward, he wrote, to the day when Angela Merkel would be driven naked through Germany and chased abroad - a high treason trial, he added graciously, would be foregone.


Why Willy Brandt was so ardently hated

Judging by the political culture to which we have become accustomed, this is new. But it's not completely new either. The emotional reservation towards elites has a long history, also in the democratic Federal Republic of Germany. It was not only since he launched the SPD's new Ostpolitik that Willy Brandt faced a hatred that now seems archaic. The excitement triggered by the planned treaties with the East was certainly also a political one that can be classified on the right-left scheme. The “right” advocates of a Germany within the borders of 1937 were opposed to the “left” advocates of an opening up to the Warsaw Pact states, which - allegedly or actually - did not particularly care about the fatherland. But that doesn't describe the whole conflict by any means.

Because Willy Brandt, the downside of his charisma, met with very emotional rejection for a variety of reasons. He was an illegitimate child who had the chutzpah to pursue high offices in Germany. He had been in exile. And last but not least: although he was a thoroughly conservative social democrat for a long time, he stood for a modern lifestyle: a Norwegian wife, contact with critical writers and, despite all the melancholy, a tendency towards hedonism, as evidenced by the many affairs that have been said of him, as well as the asbach - ancient mocking name that was added to it: "Willy Weinbrand". Willy Brandt, Horst Ehmke, Karl Schiller and others: To many, they looked like a troop of arrogant and cocky innovators who were fresh to work and pretended to know exactly what was good for Germans. Precisely because Willy Brandt was so respected among intellectuals and not least in the whole wide world, those who were less agile and somehow indulged in the old mistrusted him. Because he stood for the end of an old order, because he was considered the figurehead of a change in values ​​open to the unknown and a self-confident, often avant-garde progressive elite, he was sometimes met with glowing hatred. Quite a few who were against him at the time would have considered a coup to be the appropriate means of getting rid of this elite.

Another example of the fact that elites are sometimes viewed with disgust, even in good times, is the revolt of 1968. At that time, the elites were only called differently: the establishment. It cannot be overlooked that the rejection of the establishment at the time also drew from murky sources. The state, police, institutions, parties and the whole crowd of politicians: They were seen as a syndicate that held together like bad luck and that conspired to act for their own benefit and to the detriment of the masses. Differentiation was not required, the liberal social democrat Carlo Schmid was just as much a part of it as the really very conservative Heinrich Lübke. It is true that - also because it was essentially a student movement - this furor quickly subsided and the anti-system movement ultimately provided an impetus to invigorate democracy. What remains, however, is the - basically puzzling - fact that hundreds of thousands of well-educated, well-nourished young people, who grew up without war or misery, were briefly susceptible to the delusional idea that the elites are avowedly incorrigible enemies of the true interests of the people.


The fear of the new

The hatred of the elites is not the exception, but a constant companion of modern societies. Not long after her appointment as British Prime Minister, Theresa May tried to make a name for herself as the advocate of the common people at the Tories' congress - which, incidentally, is also a widespread phenomenon: it is often members of the elites who spark or fuel the hatred of the elites. The British Prime Minister has those people who are Donald Trump real people called, juxtaposed with the cosmopolitan: those who feel at home everywhere and who therefore, according to Theresa May, have no roots, consequently without ties and are not obliged to anyone, especially not to the common people. The citizens of the world be in truth citizens of nowhere. From here it is not far to the recommendation that such rootless people do not belong to the community and should therefore be expatriated. From this point of view, the elites are not the hierarchical counterpart to the common people. You don't belong to the people. Whoever belongs to them is an illegitimate being per se.

Pierre Poujade

Those who hate the elites see themselves on the defensive, feel surrounded and controlled by others. The hatred of elites is particularly popular when something comes to an end and something new begins, which no one can yet know in its outlines and consequences. It is a reaction to open situations, to times of upheaval, which often offer opportunities, but which also cause fear because old securities become obsolete. France is an example. When it unexpectedly found itself again as a victorious power after the end of the Second World War, it quickly became inevitable that the country - at best half a colonial power - would have to reorient and modernize itself. The post-war era was a time of new beginnings, but therefore also a time of fundamental uncertainty. This gave impetus to a new movement, Poujadism. Named after its founder, Pierre Poujade (1920-2003), Poujadism emerged in the early 1950s as a protest movement of small traders and business people who stood up for “old France”, turned against modernization and the associated concentration of capital, and in part was openly anti-Semitic. She rejected the established parties and the particularly ostentatious elites in France who disdain the France profonde practically ostentatiously displayed. In the parliamentary elections in 1956, the party won 11.6 percent of the vote - one of its MPs was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who later became the Front National founded. The Poujadists saw themselves as the party of the battered common people who rose up in self-defense against the elites, who - actually or allegedly - did not care at all about the common woman and the common man. The protest against the elites often arises from the feeling that the elites are neglecting their duty of care and care.

Another very illuminating example is Italy. When Mussolini's fascism was in fact already fought down in 1944, the journalist and writer Guglielmo Giannini (1891-1960) founded the magazine "L’Uomo Qualunque". In German: Everyone. To a certain extent, the magazine fought on two fronts: In the name of the little man, it rejected the politics of declining fascism, which always relied on the mobilization of the masses. The citizen, so the demand, should be left alone. At the same time, however, the newspaper also fought against the new that was emerging: the emerging system of parties and the conflict. This only benefits the elite, not the common man. Representative democracy rejected the magazine because, with its complicated ways of communicating, it was the ideal breeding ground for the emergence of an "anti-people" elite. A movement soon emerged from the magazine, the Qualunquismo, and then also a party that won 5.3 percent of the vote in the first parliamentary election in 1946. The party was extremely conservative, even reactionary - but it also contained a subversive impulse. Against all Italian tradition, which was characterized by the consistently clientelistic elite rule of the church, the patrons and the aristocracy, she called for a political order in which everything revolves around the real people should turn.

Mario Barth, not Jürgen Habermas

After Donald Trump's victory, opinion leaders started taking a lot of guesswork: How did it get this far? Have we not understood the signs of the times? Have we not understood what is going on in the “people”? Of course not. It is an old mistake of opinion-forming elites to believe that in principle they speak for everyone. This is less a presumption than a grotesque overestimation of oneself. On May 23, 1979, exactly 30 years after the proclamation of the Basic Law, Dolf Sternberger published an editorial in the FAZ with the programmatic title “Constitutional Patriotism”. He noted with serene joy that the majority of West Germans, initially skeptical to negative, had meanwhile accepted the Basic Law and thus the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Germans would have adopted democracy, the separation of powers and the party system. Sternberger did not mean that the majority of Germans had become active democrats: the approval was friendly, but entirely passive.


The oversized number of voters who are aware of their power at the ballot box also maintains that there is simply the common people and “those up there”. For them, the latter represent their own biotope, in which their own language is spoken and in which other things are important than outside the biotope: everyday life, not politics, direct life, not writing, hits, not Brahms, Mario Barth , not Jürgen Habermas. Opinion-forming elites who lose sight of this do not understand the world. That's why they fall from the clouds when Donald Trump doesn't succeed although he lies and is vulgar but rather because he is vulgar and lies. The anger against the elites, fueled by the highly elitist Trump in his own way, is always lurking in every modern society. Increasing complexity is quickly (and not without good reason) perceived as an imposition. And that nourishes the longing for the reduction of complexity, for the simple, for simple solutions and the return to a fictitious good old days.


The net encourages abandon

When does the reserve turn to hatred of alleged or actual elites? Even if the social question plays a role, it is wrong to see social disadvantage as the main reason for the blaze of hatred of the elites. Just as xenophobia is often particularly strong where there are hardly any foreigners, there does not have to be any real downgrading in order for people to feel excluded and react to it with destructive hatred. The new hatefulness certainly has something to do with the media, especially the new media. Part of the responsibility lies with those media that are dedicated to criticizing politics and society. In more than 60 years they have painted a very crooked picture of the Federal Republic. Anyone who has read the “Spiegel” every week for decades and is receptive to its mocking tone must have almost got the impression that politics is a dirty business and the Politicians are a detached, corrupt and incompetent caste. That did not exactly encourage trust in the largely reliable system of institutions in this country. The journalism of the general suspicion is momentous.

The internet and new media have also strengthened and accelerated this considerably. In the "social media" everyone can swing themselves up to be a judge and also an executioner. The line from criticism to injury, insult and vulgarity is quickly crossed here. Like a competition to outdo themselves, many users indulge in the protection of anonymity in breaking bridges and wallowing in verbal rubbish. The net enables those who are filled with hate and sit in their chamber to team up with many other haters and generate a raging background noise. Thanks to the internet, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, xenophobia and the hatred of the elites, which for a long time remained behind closed doors, have the opportunity to go public, to form a partial public and to strengthen themselves further and further. The internet has also started a revolution that - as long as there are no binding and punishable rules - threatens to devour its children: those who do world wide net and considered his supposedly communicative “social media” to be the perfect form of freedom.


The hatred is for strong, not weak institutions

After all, it was no coincidence that Dresden became the place where the new hate speech took off. The citizens of the Federal Republic got decades to familiarize themselves with a complicated, but in the end effective political order and to make friends. So it happened that older, authoritarian and ethnic ideas gradually dissolved and gave way to a republican attitude. The citizens of the GDR did not get this chance, although they were declared socialist winners in history overnight, but otherwise were not forced to change their mentality. When the GDR imploded in 1989, most of them were still the old ones. And they are - also because this time on one reeducation was waived - often stayed. This is the reason why terms that are taken directly from the Nazi language and its annihilation habit are still used here today with an increasing desire for self-disinhibition. And that the call for system change and disempowerment like expulsion of the elites is ringing louder than in western Germany.

The Austrian philosophy professor Peter Strasser recently published an article in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” (January 9, 2017) with the headline “Mass, Meute, Mob”. Towards the end there is a sentence of leaden gravity: “You don't say it openly, but it is becoming more and more obvious: All efforts of the post-war era to incorporate and transform the hate potentials always available in people in a civic discourse, a democratic culture of debate, are slowly arriving their end. ”So was it all in vain? Has the mob, kept down for more than half a century, recaptured the political scene? Is the varnish of civilization shattering again? Seriously believing this to be safe shows a terrible lack of trust in more than six decades of democracy, civil society and the community's ability to learn.

The political system of Germany is not attacked by the haters because it - like that of the Weimar Republic - is so weak, but because it is so strong, so firmly established. Because it cannot be called to order or even undermined by a few excited people. So many decades without an opposition that relies on the potential for hatred that is actually always available and wants to push “the system” into the orcus was not the rule, but the exception. Now the republic has to show that it is defensible and armed against internal enemies. With more than 80 percent approval of the parties that do not rely on hatred, that should be possible.