Why are people so divided

Corona virus
Health protection with side effects

The meaning and legality of the restrictions to contain the corona pandemic are still being disputed. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / AA / Abdulhamid Hosbas

The ongoing discussions as to whether the restrictions were justified during the Corona crisis show the weaknesses of the biopolitical decisions of the federal and state governments. Historians Hedwig Richter and René Schlott argue about the consequences for a democratic society.

Ms. Richter, Mr. Schlott, society in Germany is divided: for some, the danger prevention in the corona pandemic justifies the far-reaching measures, for others the state is too restrictive and inappropriately restricts freedoms. One of their worries is that the rulers will be reluctant to give up their once acquired power. Do the measures to contain the virus therefore also pose a threat to democracy?
René Schlott: In Germany I see less of a long-term threat to democracy and more of a high risk to social cohesion - not to mention the economic consequences. The long-term consequences of the measures were not taken into account and cannot be estimated. The month-long failure of school operations and the abolition of compulsory schooling, as Baden-Württemberg has already announced for the coming school year, will, for example, create an educational gap that will further increase the injustice of origin in the German educational system. This crisis also brutally reveals the social division in the country. We see it in the current outbreak, which focuses on socially disadvantaged areas and precarious working and living conditions. We erect construction fences around the quarters and lock people up. This deepens the social division.
Hedwig Richter: I don't see a divided society. On the contrary. According to surveys, a large majority were behind the government in times of the strictest measures to protect society from the pandemic. When the easing began, the willingness to take strict measures decreased at the same time. And now there is still a majority for rather than against the existing restrictions. It is minorities who see government actions as an unlawful acquisition of power. Overall, people take the crisis situation seriously and behave sensibly. The logic is captivating: Because of the danger that I potentially pose for other people, I have to restrict my own freedom - and the state has an obligation to demand that. So I share the majority opinion here. There is no evidence whatsoever that the federal government, for example, wants to gain additional powers. So I don't think the pandemic is a threat to democracy. Our democracy has even proven to be particularly effective because, all in all, politics has succeeded in convincing the population and taking them along.Prof. Dr. Hedwig Richter was appointed professor for modern and contemporary history at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich in 2019. She studied history, German and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, Queen’s University Belfast and the Free University of Berlin. | Photo detail: © privateParliamentarism may work. But what about civil society: Young people defend themselves against paternalism, citizens against an imposed quarantine. Isn't the state going too far here?
Hedwig Richter: Surveys tend to show that young people are very willing to stick to the measures out of solidarity. Some surveys show that they are even more willing to do this than older people. Doesn't it make it clear here that concern for democracy is a somewhat artificial discussion, sometimes with very little convincing arguments?
René Schlott: Mistake! The Infection Protection Act, which hardly anyone knew until March, has proven to be a security hole in our democracy. Parliament has given up many powers to the executive, and that is still true even though the disaster has not materialized. For a few weeks we had completely suspended the basic right to freedom of assembly. This is a serious encroachment on fundamental rights, to which others were added. Some have now been corrected by the courts because some citizens opposed them. There were strong state interventions in religious freedom, in the freedom of trade, in the freedom of art and science. The right to freedom of movement in the federal territory was temporarily obsolete. There were executive excesses, such as the closing of playgrounds and the Bavarian ban on reading a book on a park bench, restrictions on freedom of travel and the basic right to asylum. In the last few weeks, trust in the state and its institutions has been lost because the restrictions on fundamental rights - the most massive in the last 70 years - were based solely on regulations of the federal states, which were initially not even limited in time and where it was not clear which specific one Goal should be achieved with it.Hedwig Richter: Apparently, most people have understood that the government's options for action have changed again and again because knowledge about Covid-19 was initially very low and it only gradually became clear what the problem was. Why are the approval rates so high when there is so much loss of trust? The CDU, which is identified with the measures, has higher approval ratings than it has been for a long time. But the AfD, which is most likely to criticize the measures, is in a particularly bad position. And as far as freedom of assembly is concerned: In the age of the Internet, it is by no means as restricted as it used to be.
René Schlott: The Internet cannot replace the demonstration on the street, as the last few weeks have shown.Dr. René Schlott studied history, politics and journalism in Berlin and Geneva. He received his doctorate in modern history at the University of Giessen in 2011, worked on various research projects in Berlin, Giessen and Potsdam and had lectureships at the universities there. He is the initiator of the “Basic Law a casa” initiative, in which citizens are invited to read articles from the Basic Law at home. | Photo (detail): © Angela AnkerDoes Germany then perhaps need something like a biopolitical council that balances the interests of the generations with regard to the protection of life?
Hedwig Richter: So far, the existing institutions seem to me to be working well.
René Schlott: That's true. We have enough competence. But there needs to be a stronger balance between interests. Politics cannot subordinate itself to a single interest, even if it is people's health. We have accepted that the health of other people will be jeopardized in favor of fighting the pandemic because people with other diseases have not been treated or have been driven into loneliness.
The corona restrictions have changed the behavior of many people. There is more solidarity and a return to family and friends. The economy trimmed for efficiency and globalization is also being questioned. Isn't this an opportunity for society?
René Schlott: This question amazes me. I can't see that there was a strong return to family and friends. What I noticed first, were hamster purchases that were completely unsolid. There was even the call of state organs to denounce, that is, to report if the neighbor violates the conditions. It's scary. Also with regard to the economy, I cannot see any positive learning effect. The state is promoting the economy with many billions. But I don't see that there is a will to rebuild the system and make it fairer. All nurses were promised a bonus payment of 1,500 euros. To this day, it has not been paid out to everyone.
Hedwig Richter: I think that people can always learn from history - and often they have. You can see that after wars and after severe crises. After the Second World War, for example, people systematically built international institutions to prevent wars. We will certainly learn from the pandemic how we can protect ourselves better and react more quickly the next time. I see a real sticking point in the gender issue. That is much more obvious than an alleged problem of democracy: that women have to do the care work, that they now do their gainful work much less and much more - we have to do all this better next time.
In the pandemic, politics follows the advice of science. That would also be desirable in other areas such as climate change. At the same time, there is the risk that democratic decision-making processes will be prevented by referring to the experts' insights without alternative. Do we need more or less technical expertise in politics?
Hedwig Richter: In modern societies, politics and science are two system areas with different logics. As far as I can see, this principle applies to both the pandemic and the climate crisis. Both areas do not act autonomously, but are dependent on each other, but there cannot and should not be a one-to-one transfer from science to politics, and also not the other way around. For our democracy this means: Politicians have to balance how much they can expect the population to do and what burdens the other functional areas such as the economy, families or the health system can bear. In doing so, they sometimes make compromises when it comes to scientific advice. There can be no supposedly alternative, purely science-focused politics because science itself has no alternative concepts, but rather competing views in many areas - and also has to correct itself again and again.
René Schlott: We agree on that. Politics should of course listen to science. But scientists usually only focus on their own specialist area. Christian Drosten may be an excellent virologist, but he is not an expert on social cohesion. Decisions are a matter for politics and their institutions, which must incorporate as much scientific knowledge as possible into them. There are no alternative decisions in an open society.
What should democratic society learn from the crisis so far?
René Schlott: We should learn that no crisis justifies such great restrictions on fundamental rights. We must never again subordinate all the freedoms hard-won over the past centuries to the primacy of the epidemiological curve and play off freedom against health.
Hedwig Richter: If the course does not take a completely unexpected direction and the economy does not have to be severely restricted again, I see one positive lesson above all: We can stop talking about the crisis of democracy. Because even this highly complicated crisis, which had to touch human fundamental rights, has mastered our democracy and has not divided our society. As far as capitalism is concerned, there is also the not entirely unfounded view that there is a connection between a strong social market economy, which always contains capitalist elements, and a good health system.

  • Print article