To what extent is democracy a “fragile way of life”? Does a focus on questions of style and form, as well as of democratic spaces, allow us to productively rethink the foundations of democracy? These questions were debated by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Till van Rahden at the panel discussion organised by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy on 2 March 2020 and moderated by Shalini Randeria. Till van Rahden, Associate Professor at the Université de Montréal, Canada Research Chair in German and European Studies, visited the Democracy Centre on the occasion of the international conference on “Nationalism, sovereignty and homogeneity between the two world wars”.
The panelists discussed the practice of democracy in everyday life, in order to enquire into the sense of despair for democracy that seems to permeate many contemporary commentaries on it. Professor van Rahden began by drawing on his latest book, Demokratie, Eine gefährdete Lebensform. He argued that understanding Postwar Germany’s democratic miracle helps us understand the deep roots of democracy as a practice. The example, he suggested, draws our attention to the importance of understanding the cultural and social foundations of democracy in public controversies, in democratic aesthetics, and in everyday life. Without incorporating into our analyses democratic forms and spaces that allow for democratic experiences in everyday life, we will never be able to understand the resilience of, or threats to, democratic governance. In response, Professor Mohamedou reminded us that, while democracy is a way of life, it is also an ethics. Democratic practice can often be intolerant in the name of tolerance – for example, the elevation of a particular project of secularism in the context of democracy. If democracy is to be a pluralist way of life, it must also be an ethical orientation.