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«The previous right-left scheme in German politics is largely dissolving»
Richard David Precht. Bild: Keystone/Laif/Maximilian Mann.

«The previous right-left scheme in German politics is largely dissolving»

Philosopher Richard David Precht would like to see a more nuanced approach towards parties on the political fringes. He criticises journalists for seeing themselves as the creators of public opinion.

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You recently revealed in your podcast «Lanz und Precht» that your best friend when you were young sympathised with Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). How many friends of yours vote for the Alternative for Germany (AfD)?

As a rule, I don’t talk to my friends about which party they vote for. I have a wide range of friends from left to right. I certainly don’t find that everyone has exactly the same political opinion as me.


In that podcast you also said that you are prepared to discuss a wide range of things. Where does this range end?

If someone is a convinced National Socialist, if someone denies the Holocaust, if someone spreads very strong racist stereotypes. But I don’t socialise with people like that. It’s a different matter to have friends who are massively dissatisfied with current government policy – they exist –, or people who fundamentally want alternatives to the way politics is currently conducted in Germany.


When does tolerance become dangerous? You mentioned National Socialists and right-wing extremists. What is the right way to deal with them?

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all way of dealing with them, but I would like to see more differentiation. We’re not doing that very much at the moment. We draw a line like the established parties: between established parties and new parties. The two new parties – the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the one hand and the Sarah Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW) on the other – are very different. The Wagenknecht Alliance does not represent any right-wing positions and is not in touch with right-wing extremists. As a result, we can no longer maintain this line between established parties – the ‘good’ ones – and the new parties – the ‘bad’ ones – in the traditional way. The political topography that we have had up to now is getting pretty mixed up. In fact, the previous right-left scheme in German politics is largely dissolving.


You have portrayed Germany as a «mediocracy», a system in which politicians score the most points by abandoning their basic positions and adopting the policies of their political opponents – which is what Chancellor Merkel has done. In your book «Die vierte Gewalt» (The Fourth Estate), you write: «The smarter politicians adapt to the zeitgeist determined by the media, the more intolerant they become of those who are not in the centre.» Now, let me ask you a heretical question: Is there a cartel of established politicians in Germany?

Cartel is a term I wouldn’t use. But of course, the established parties hold the levers of power, and they have been doing so for a very, very long time. This has been the case for the CDU since the founding of the Federal Republic, and for the SPD and the FDP for a long time too. It is clear that those who hold the levers of power are extremely sceptical of new parties and political alternatives. The Greens also had to learn this, and were massively opposed when they rose to power – Franz Josef Strauss even wanted to have them banned at the time. The Left Party had to experience the same, which in the first years of its existence (as the PDS) was labelled as old Stalinists and communists who had not learned anything. The same thing happened from the very beginning with the rejection of the AfD, even when it did not yet hold any clearly right-wing positions but was a Eurosceptic party. Those within the inner circle are very reluctant to let anyone new in. After all, their own voters could migrate to the new parties.


What do you think about banning a party, such as the AfD? Isn’t that also an expression of intolerance?

Above all, it is an expression of nonsense, because it won’t work. The fact that there are convinced right-wing radicals in the AfD does not make the AfD a radical right-wing party. You can’t ban a party because it has a few radical members, you have to ban it because its orientation is fundamentally radical and anti-constitutional. If it comes to a dispute in court, it will take many years and I suspect that it will ultimately end in favour of the AfD. The established parties seeking to ban the AfD would be shooting themselves in the foot.

«The fact that there are convinced right-wing radicals in the AfD does not make the AfD a radical right-wing party.»


In Switzerland, the SVP, a party with similar positions to the AfD, ascended to become the strongest party in the 1990s. Back then, many also expressed fears that it would drift into fascism. But that never happened. On the contrary, the SVP has become an explicitly democratic party. Is democracy in Germany strong enough today to tolerate a party like the AfD?

Perhaps it is. But I also believe that democracy in Germany is in a difficult situation. Many surveys show how much people have lost confidence in the parties, institutions and the media. The history of the Federal Republic of Germany shows that parties that started out on the fringes show a very strong tendency towards the centre – this could be seen with the Left Party, which has renounced communism, with the Greens, who have gone from being a pacifist party to the party that is most strongly behind arms deliveries to Ukraine.


Are things different in the case of the AfD?

It initially went in the opposite direction. If you trace the party’s path through its leaders from Lucke, Petry and Meuthen to Weidel, I don’t see an attempt to move towards the centre, but rather further to the right. And here in Germany, with the history of National Socialism in our bones, we are aware of the dangers surrounding a party that was rather underestimated and which then actually achieved everything it had promised. The latter party pursued a criminal, radical right-wing policy that many had not believed it capable of.


Leading media and top political figures do not make it easy for voters who disagree with Germany’s migration policy. Basically, anyone who speaks out against it is labelled a racist xenophobe and a fool.

I take a completely different view: Leading German media are now very critical of migration. Under their pressure, the coalition government has changed its migration policy considerably. There are hardly any differences between the parties on the issue of migration. There is an absolute consensus that there should be less unqualified migration and that migration should be contained and channelled accordingly. Everyone is pretty much in agreement on that. There is no party in Germany that is in favour of more unregulated migration. We are light years away from the «welcome culture» of 2015.


You portray journalists in the leading media as opportunistic and intolerant. Your book states that they were against a general coronavirus vaccination requirement in summer 2021, almost all of them were in favour in autumn and winter 2021 and almost all of them were against it again in spring 2022 – and always with the urge to expose anyone who doesn’t go along with them.

That’s exactly what happened, there was massive marginalisation. How angry and aggressive people in the media were against people who, for whatever reason, still hadn’t been vaccinated! They were virtually portrayed as enemies of the people. It shows impressively how opportunistic our media are and what an excessive amount of moralising they engage in. A self-critical debate in the media about their behaviour in the coronavirus era is sorely lacking.


In my view, the reason why people in Germany are not good at dealing with other opinions is because they have a very precise idea of what is right and what is wrong. People who think differently don’t just have a different opinion, they have the wrong one. That’s why they always feel the need to correct others.

That is probably the case. Behind this lies a change in self-image: Journalists in leading media outlets are no longer primarily needed to inform people – after all, anyone can inform and disinform themselves as much as they like on the internet. They see their role more as creating opinions and attitudes – which is a new image of themselves. But someone who forms opinions on a daily basis in constantly changing constellations can only be an opportunist. They adapt their opinions to what Harald Welzer and I have called the «cursor of perceived decency.» So you always have to stand exactly where, opportunistically speaking, you morally have to position yourself. The biggest problem that results from this is not injustice or the fact that someone is unfairly attacked. The biggest problem is that politicians can no longer make long-term policies because they are constantly dependent on the moral standpoints set by the media.


You have identified a particular one-sidedness with regard to the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine.

The majority of the media narrative was to put pressure on the Chancellor to supply Germany with Leopard tanks and aircraft. There was a fairly large, if not completely unanimous, consensus in favour of this. However, the population was much more uncertain on this issue. Of course, it is not the job of media outlets to reflect the prevailing mood exactly in their opinions. But here the asymmetry was very noticeable over a long period of time. Nothing has changed to this day.


You write: «The leading media in Germany are not executive bodies that manufacture state-approved opinions. But they are the executive producers of their own opinions.»

This is a core principle: journalists do not write their articles primarily for their readers, but for their community, i.e. for other journalists. Leading political journalists write so that the other twenty to thirty right sort of people can read it. They orientate themselves within this community. The idea – which is particularly prevalent in right-wing circles – that politicians pull the strings and journalists jump accordingly is completely wrong. This utterly misjudges the balance of power.

«Journalists do not write their articles primarily for their readers, but for their community, i.e. for other journalists.»


When Friedrich Dürrenmatt described Switzerland as a prison, this was criticised, but his integrity as a writer remained untouched. Nowadays, someone like him would certainly be labelled «controversial». What is the problem with this label?

Such people used to be called «disputatious» – a quality that I would also ascribe to myself. But nobody would describe themselves as a controversial person. Because «controversial» is not a character trait, but a judgement made by others: a label that could also mean «questionable,» «tricky» or «problematic». Someone who is labelled as «controversial» has a pretty big problem in society. Unlike «disputatious», it is a negative label.


The attribution of negative labels represents an exercise of power on the part of journalists.

The question is who actually has the power of interpretation in Germany, i.e. who is the most influential influencer. The competition, particularly between the Berlin scene of editors-in-chief and commentators against all others who offer their interpretations of politics, is fierce and is fought out with elbows. From the point of view of leading journalists, there is obviously no longer any need for public intellectuals, and so the Frischs, the Dürrenmatts and, if you like, the Zieglers are becoming fewer and fewer, because they are not being replaced. Germany also had many critical intellectuals, from Theodor W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas to Margarete Mitscherlich, Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Ulrich Beck; today there are almost none left. The public intellectual is dying out, and people who are in the public eye as philosophers or humanities scholars have to think very carefully about whether they really want to comment on politics. There is a strong narrowing of public discourse going on.


Tolerance is often confused with acceptance. Where do you draw the line? Many people say that you have to be tolerant. But they actually demand that you accept or even adopt their views in full.

Indeed, acceptance and tolerance are not the same thing. If I were sitting opposite Hans-Georg Maassen, for example – with whom I probably disagree on all political issues – then I would say that I do not accept his view of things, but I tolerate it as an opinion. After all, it is not the job of a liberal democracy to filter people according to their opinions. Nor is it about my personal sensitivities. In Germany, it’s only about whether someone or a party stands in opposition to our Basic Law or not. Our political spectrum has to tolerate everything that is constitutional. Whether opinions are accepted is another question.

«It is not the job of a liberal democracy to filter people according to their opinions.»


Is it the duty of a tolerant person to confront an unpleasant point of view?

Of course, it’s not a duty. The fundamental question is whether you want to become smarter or not. I believe that a considerable proportion of people are not interested in becoming smarter, but rather in being right. But if I want to adopt a truth-seeking perspective, then first and foremost I have to deal with those opinions that don’t agree with mine.

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