According to the latest Report on the Protection of the Constitution, right-wing extremism poses the biggest extremist threat to democracy in Germany. However, according to political scientist Professor Lars Rensmann from the University of Passau, the threats can increasingly also be found elsewhere, namely at the heart of society: "We know from comparative political science and recent research on democratic crises that democracies are not primarily threatened by authoritarian actors, or perhaps even 'dying'. The main threat arises from the weakness of democratic institutions, actors, parties - and especially the weakness or absence of a self-confident democratic civil society."
One of the goals of the Democracy Promotion Act initiated by the Federal Cabinet this past December is to strengthen civil society. Consultations in the committees are ongoing. On 27 March, political scientist Professor Rensmann, who holds the Chair of Political Science with a Focus on Comparative Government, contributed to a public hearing of the Committee for Family Affairs in whose remit the legislation falls via a video link. In their appraisal, the experts unanimously expressed their support: "By actively promoting prevention, advice and education in the fight against the many forms of group-focused enmity, hate and brutalisation and in the struggle against the growing distrust in the legitimacy of democracy, the law can serve as a model for other countries in the EU."
By actively promoting prevention, advice and education in the fight against the many forms of group-focused enmity, hate and brutalisation and in the struggle against the growing distrust in the legitimacy of democracy, the law can serve as a model for other countries in the EU.
Professor Lars Rensmann, University of Passau
In their opinion, the law is needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the civil-society, non-state infrastructure consisting of transregional prevention centres, educational initiatives and advisory services. Many vital projects that had been commended by independent observers for combatting anti-democratic sentiments, right-wing extremism, Islamism, antisemitism and other forms of group-focused enmity have been struggling for survival year after year and are now on the verge of collapse. "Having volunteers bear the brunt of educational and prevention work no longer works. This kind of advocacy needs active promotion and structures that will sustain for the long term." Professor Rensmann believes that the government should step in and increase its efforts to promote a democratic, diverse and tolerant political culture. However, as it appears unable to take an active role itself, it should support independent third parties.
Controversial extremism clause
Professor Rensmann maintains that the extremism clause for prospective state aid beneficiaries among civil-society players, which has found its way back onto the table just recently, could scupper the law as a whole. Such a clause is highly controversial in legal terms and will likely not be deemed constitutional as it has been initiated by ordinary citizens who are no state officials or public administrators. In Professor Rensmann's view, the draft law is quite sufficient to prevent "any forms of extremism" from receiving state aid. This is not the first time that an extremism clause has been tabled. In 2019, all the democratic Bundestag factions, including the grand coalition consisting of CDU/SCU and SPD, opposed the reintroduction of such a clause – and pointed out that it was counterproductive to place civil-society representatives under general suspicion. "Experience has shown: an extremism clause will not help at all. Instead, it is important that the individual projects and their objectives undergo a knowledgeable assessment – by independent experts, for instance," says Professor Rensmann.
In fact, Professor Rensmann recommended resorting to such expert bodies and advisory bodies, especially if they ensure participation of the business sector and are kept as heterogeneous as possible, for the implementation of measures promoting democracy, diversity mainstreaming, extremism prevention and political education. Particular attention needs to go to making state aid guidelines more explicit and ensuring greater transparency in state aid decisions for civil-society organisations whose work is to be made sustainable for the long term and who are to be provided a safe environment to act in. The ministries should not be taking these decisions on their own.
The challenge of democracy in crisis
What is needed in the current global crisis of democracy – which has even affected Germany and poses a threat to the cohesion of the democratic community – is a framework regulated by federal legislation in support of active policies and civil-society actors that promote and defend liberal democracy. These days, such efforts must stand up to anti-democratic tendencies coming from what is thought to be mainstream society as well: "Not only is a war being waged against democracy – a war fed by various iterations of disinformation, hate speech, conspiracy ideologies, antisemitism, ideologies of imbalance and group-focused enmity that are being spread by actors of varying political persuasions – we are also facing a deep crisis of democratic legitimacy spurred on by the parties to this war on democracy.“ Actors seeking a radical break with democracy are capitalising on this legitimacy crisis and becoming a growing threat to social cohesion in this period marked by social-media disinformation, the corona crisis and the war against Ukraine.
About the Democracy Promotion Act
The point of the Democracy Promotion Act is to provide the federal government with a legal mandate to promote democracy and prevent extremism. As stated in the press release issued by the Ministry of Family Affairs, the objective is "to ensure a dependable and needs-based endorsement of projects in a bid to strengthen democracy and diversity in society". This includes extremism prevention and the expansion of political education opportunities. The aim is to support civil-society projects and initiatives in their work by affording them greater reliability in their planning. The federal government currently funds democracy projects on a voluntary basis.
Professor Lars Rensmann has held the Chair of Political Science with a Focus on Comparative Government since the summer semester of 2022. In his research, he studies new and old threats to democracy, including antisemitism, populism and right-wing radicalism. He is currently heading a "darkfield study" in North Rhine-Westphalia that intends to shed light on the spread of antisemitic prejudice and resentment in society. Before moving to Passau, he served as professor for European policy and society at the University of Groningen, as associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome and as DAAD assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
What new and old risks does democracy face in the digital age?
What new and old risks does democracy face in the digital age?
Professor Lars Rensmann has held the Chair of Political Science with a focus on Comparative Government since the summer semester of 2022. Before that, he served as professor for European policy and society at the University of Groningen, as associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome and as DAAD assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan. In his research, Professor Rensmann studies crises of democracy, authoritarianism, antisemitism, populism and right-wing radicalism around the world using a comparative approach. He is currently conducting a "darkfield study" in North Rhine-Westphalia to shed light on the spread of antisemitic prejudice and resentment in society.