Institute of Political Science

Thematic Focus

Presentism of Democracies as a challenge to Political Theory

The thematic focus belongs to the field of "Political Theory" but with the eye on the future, not the past. The history of political ideas and theories enables uns to evaluate present problems from a bird's eye. What can we learn from the rich pool of past thoughts for our present and future, especially for the shift of our present democratic system to one that is intergenerationally just and sustainable?
The fundamental dilemma of democracy is the preference for the present and oblivion with regard to the future. Hence, succeeding generations are confronted with a structural disadvantage if democracy is not improved. The pulse of democracy is the election period: 4 or 5 years in most democracies. The present demos and the elected politician prefer benefits incurred in the course of their lifetime, while costs may well be transfered in the future.
It is naive to hope that politicians will act in the interests of future generations in the same way that they do for those citizens who are alive today. The reason is not pure self-interest of today’s politicians, it rather lies in the political framework of every democracy. Every party tries to obtain votes, and therefore must concentrate on the short term perspective, that is, the preferences of the present electorate and the present interests of influential groups, insofar as politicians of all parties, who want to look further ahead than at the next election (or even the next 30 years), are disadvantaged in the competition with their short-term thinking political rivals. Hence, ambitious politicians who strive for many terms cannot act in favour of future generations if there is a trade-off between the interests of the present and future generations.
Another aspect is the limited timeframe of political careers in democracies. This is one of the great advantages of democracies. But it also means that a single politician will most probable never suffer from the short-sighted decisions she has taken. He will not have to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions and he cannot be made liable for them. A new government will be in power then.
Democracy, as it has been so far devised and implemented, seems to be in conflict with the maxim of intergenerational justice. Neither the liberal, nor the pluralistic nor the deliberative theory of democracy can really cope with the problem of political presentism. There is a real crisis in political theory as it is taught on an academic level today. The challenge of presentism will not be overcome by cosmetic reforms. Most likely, the principle of the separation of power in a legislative, an executive and a judicative branch (devised by Montesquieu 1748) is outdated. A new, fouth branch might be needed. Today's demos can influence the living conditions of any future demos much more than any former demos in history. That qualifies the principle of the sovereignty of the people as postulated by Rousseau in 1762.
It is necessary to change the framework of democracies, but this must happen in such a way that the core principles of democracy remain intact. It is absurd to believe that doing away with liberal democracy is the solution to resolve the structural problem of democracy, as described above. Democracy is one of the most important social institutions that we can pass on to future generations; for this and many other reasons its abolishment is inconceivable.

The Concept of Intergenerational Justice

The clash of interests between generations in modern society adds a new dimension to existing social cleavages – between poor and rich, women and men or different ethnic groups. In this respect, in the 21st century, what is a fair balance between generations –what is intergenerationally just – is becoming even more important.

There are two distinct macro-trends, which are both condensed in the concept of intergenerational justice. The first is the required ecological alteration of the industrial society since the 1970s, which has placed the question for justice between present and future generations on the agenda. Although our society is just at the beginning of this modification, the trend has already produced an interesting rise of new parties in different countries and a serious change of consciousness. The second macro-trend is the demographic change that will shake modern democracies to their foundations. Here, the impact on the welfare state in general and pay-as-you-go social security systems in particular are immense.

Following the triad of (i) Policies, (ii) Polity and (iii) Politics, intergenerational justice refers to the following:

(i) The specific content of politics and the related measures/activities in various policy fields, e.g. in environmental, pension, health, care, finance, education, labor market and family policy, also taking into account their interaction.

(ii) How politics takes place in a legally structured framework, i.e. in the structure of institutions, pre-structuring the possible solutions for conflicts of interest. An important aspect of the research field is the shortsightedness/presence of preference for democracy, meaning the structural problem that actors strive self-interest maximizing benefits incurred in the course of their lifetime, while the transfer costs lie in the future. The Assistant Professor’s Chair of Intergenerationally Just Policies researches institutions and mechanisms in modern democracies that are intergenerationally just and sustainable.

(iii) How generations as actors play a role in the political process and thereby articulate their interests in different arenas. The existence of pensioners and youth parties in many countries is here one example of research objects.

Research undertaken is approached in three ways: