The Health of Democracy


The Health of a Democracy 


Amongst the principal facets of the liberal world order is the value of democratic governance. The notion finds its way into discourse often, but there exists a lack of unanimity in its definition. In Book VI of his Republic, Plato lay out an allegory of establishing democracy, describing a keeper “in charge of a large and powerful animal, (who) made a study of its moods and wants.” The keeper is emblematic of a political administration; its electorate an untamable beast. Democracy is what occurs in between: the continuous process of trying to placate and appease a populace whose human caprices stand in the way of their contentment. How does one gauge whether the keeper is successful? How can we measure the health of a democracy? We start by defining barometers and holding them up against a regime built on the promise of liberal democracy: the Weimar Republic. One measure to consider is the strength of the Weimar constitution, but charter will not always reflect reality. Two integral benchmarks for democratic soundness are participation, and pluralism. It’s easy to look at the Republic’s political and economic inheritance and to say that it stood no chance of survival - but sidestepping the arrogance of hindsight to evaluate more closely might yield a better understanding of what caused the Weimar democracy to eat itself.


Here we identify the constitutional elements necessary to underpin a robust democracy. The first is accountability; defined in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Universal Declaration on Democracy as “the right to petition government and seek redress.” [1] But a populace cannot hold leaders to account without transparency; affairs of ministry must be lucid and unconcealed. Finally, a democratic constitution must embrace the value of representation, which forms the fundament of democracy in practice. Aristotle was amongst the first philosophers to rank the codes of government; in Politics, he advised absolute representation, but representative tradition has divided scholars since. Plato advocated rule by a philosopher king, suggesting that governance in by the masses is a recipe for failure. Representative values manifest in more ways than one, but their existence is vital to a democratic constitution.


The Weimar constitution promises to represent well: Article 21 affirms that “Members of parliament represent the entire nation… they are not bound to instructions.”[2]The constitution diverges from Aristotelian thought, but autonomous delegates and democracy are not mutually exclusive. The next article enfranchises; awarding suffrage to everyone over the age of twenty. The document adopts proportional representation - in ink, this is the epitome of representative governance, but in practice, it was a knife in the back of the Republic’s democracy. Coalition governments formed, and decisions become harder to reach - or they would have, were it not for the chink in the armor of the Constitution. Article 48, the Emergency Decree, was the undoing of transparency in German politics, dictating that when the state cannot fulfil its responsibilities, “the Reich President may use armed force to cause it to oblige.”_[3] Leaders made heavy-handed use of the Decree, and the government was in the unlikely position of having power spread too thinly within the Reichstag, and concentrated too sharply in the hands of the President. The auspicious principles of representation were undercut by the lack of transparency that came with a single, crucial article. By 1922, the decree had been used over a hundred and thirty times, and Reichstag “parties began to abdicate their responsibility for monitoring governments.”[4] Accountability, the final bulwark against the breakdown of democracy, had collapsed.


There is a clear disparity between the strength of the constitution and the health of Weimar democracy. The former borrows from an optimistic palette, whereas the reality was marred with chaos and corruption. An alternate yardstick to measure the health of a democracy is participation. Hobbes noted that no action can be “called the action of the multitude, unless every man's hand, and every man's will, have concurred.” The Weimar period saw a public so politically engaged that the longest government survived only two years. Even as disillusionment set in, ballots were cast; the only catch being that many Germans were voting for parties opposed to democracy altogether. A final characteristic of a healthy democracy is pluralism, which materializes in the form of conflict and culture. In Discourses, Machiavelli praises social conflict between nobility and populace in Rome as a preserver of liberty, and by that touchstone, democracy in the Weimar Republic was alive and well. 1919 began with the Spartacist uprising, led by radical Communists, and mirrored by the right-wing Kapp Putsch the next year. Between 1918 and 1922, the Republic saw no less than 376 political assassinations. Dissent and conflict, whilst detrimental to political stability, stood as indications of the health of German democracy.


The republic thrived culturally as well, and cities such as Berlin and Frankfurt became spaces for intellectualism and art. Walter Gropius developed the “utopian craft” of Bauhaus[5]; expressionist cinema flourished with works such as Metropolis and Nosferatu; and cultural theorists produced ground-breaking work. One significant example is the Frankfurt School, comprising scholars such as Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer. Their ideology, derived in part from Marx, critiqued capitalism for its focus on monetary equivalence over essence, and they advised wariness against positive culture. At the other end of the spectrum lay the Wandervogel. These orthodox youth groups regarded themselves as warriors of tradition and spent their time hiking through the German country, their rendition of teenage rebellion in the face of modern society. The coexistence of the Frankfurt School and the Wandervogel is testament to the cultural diversity of Weimar society, and suggests that pluralism is far more useful than a constitution in measuring the health of a democracy.


The health of a democracy cannot be said to rely on a single factor. In the Weimar Republic, the constitution enshrined a number of democratic institutions into law, but the document fell short of promising meaningful democracy. Instead, the manifestation of democratic spirit in the form of a culture fortified with participation and pluralism was far more indicative of democratic strength. The regime inherited a moribund economy and a society shaken from war and political upheaval. One could argue that Weimar democracy was stricken with terminal decline - a fate only exacerbated by the rise of cancerous Nazi ideology at its fringes. Why were none of the indicators damning enough to foreshadow ruin? The answer lies, once again, with Plato, who wrote, “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” We may be able to examine republics and draw conclusions about the health of their democracies, but we cannot develop prognoses. It’s possible no one could have predicted the fate of the Weimar Republic - as Plato suggests, the cause of its demise lay in the peak of its success.


Mariam Hasan



[1] Inter-Parliamentary Union. (1997). Universal Declaration on Democracy.

[2] Deutsches Reich (1919). The Reich Constitution of August 11th 1919. Weimar.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Skach, C. (2005). Borrowing Constitutional Designs: Constitutional Law in Weimar Germany and the French Fifth Republic. Princeton University, p.52.

[5] "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." The Bauhaus, 1919-1933. Accessed November 15, 2015.