Discussion – Democracy needs emancipated citizens

With the crises of our time, from Corona to the Ukraine war, democracy is facing major challenges. At the discussion in the House of History Austria Katrin Praprotnik from the Austrian Democracy Lab and Birgit Sauer from the Institute for Political Science at the University of Vienna to get to the bottom of the question of what condition it is in.

Praprotnik explained that the domestic political turbulence in 2019 had not led to a decrease in the population’s trust in democracy. The democratic mechanisms – in this case the early elections – would have worked. In the years that followed, with the pandemic and chat logs, that element of crisis resolution was missing. According to Praprotnik, this is how it happened that in autumn 2021 only 60 percent of the people were satisfied with the functioning of democracy. However, satisfaction can also recover: After a phase of dissatisfaction at the beginning of the 2000s, it increased continuously until 2018.

Both scientists see protest as a vital part of democracy. For example, Praprotnik explained that it is precisely the protesting people who are more committed overall to the continued existence of democracy. The political system must learn to deal with these more emancipated citizens who do not have any strong party ties and sometimes take to the streets.

Protest is not good or bad per se, Sauer added, but rather a sign that people are speaking out. The question is how this resistance can be linked to representative democracy.

information, reflection
and communication important

Citizens’ councils are one way of getting people involved between elections. In Austria, the climate council recently ended, and Praprotnik accompanied it scientifically. The scientist explained that it was not only possible to see that knowledge in the subject area had increased, but also that people felt more emancipated in expressing their opinions towards politicians.

But it is important that people reflect on what they know, what information and what education they have, added Sauer. This requires a controversial exchange with others, which happens in reflective, thoughtful forums such as the citizens’ councils. These should therefore not only be seen as a service in the political decision-making process.

Experts have also become more important for political decision-making in recent years. But even these only advise or deliver, said Praprotnik. The politicians have to make the decisions. For Sauer it is important that it is made clear that the production of expertise is already a political process. The fact that decisions based on scientific knowledge are often only provisional must be communicated.

Overall, both Praprotnik and Sauer are convinced that representative democracy can deal with the crises of our time, or at least contain them.

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