Loyalty, distrust, “those up there”: When are we going to cuddle up with politics?

Ms. Frevert, you talk and write about feelings — how do you feel today?

What is going through my head is what is going through the mind of all of us, probably above all members of my generation. What will become of Europe, what will become of the world if this war in Ukraine continues and what the outcome will be.

As a scientist, you dealt with the feelings between citizens and politicians, among other things. What’s so exciting about that?

What interests me most about the relationship between politicians and citizens is how and why it has changed so drastically in the last 200 years. Loyalty was the emotional link between the king and his subjects, thought primarily from the subjects’ side. And that has changed massively since the French Revolution and its results in Europe. That we are no longer talking about loyalty as what holds these two political actors together, but that the focus is on the concept of trust and, of course, mistrust. And then a great many strategies are developed by both sides, how to court trust, how to gain trust, what to do when trust has been lost.

One might think that our feelings towards politicians, both in the past and now, have been one of a mixture of distrust and relinquishment.

I actually see it the other way around: It’s not so much a transfer into other hands, but rather an increase in agency. It didn’t just fall into our laps either, but was conquered bit by bit for the first time, so that we have a multitude of opportunities to get in touch with politicians. And what we expect from her has changed massively. And also what we expect from their representatives. In the beginning, above all, they should offer security, they should be as unemotional and factual as possible. Then there was the time with Willy Brandt, when one suddenly began to almost idolize such young chancellors, not exactly adore them, but was also happy about this fresh breeze and felt enthusiastic and admired for politicians then were also very difficult to treat. Then we had a chancellor that we could touch, who very consciously presented himself as someone who pretended to be someone like you and me. Then we had a chancellor who acted rather unemotionally and when she conveyed feelings, she was sometimes severely punished for it.

Prof. Dr. Ute Frevert
… conducts research on social and cultural history in the recent past, e.g. on the subject of gender differences or the history of emotions. The historian is a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. She has been a member of the Leopoldina since 2004.

Society punishes politics even when it distrusts it. Where does that actually come from?

Distrust arises when one has the impression that something remains hidden. As a citizen, you want to be very well informed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to let things get to the point of watching politicians think and act. The expectations that have been formed in this field are that politicians communicate their decisions very well, that they also show what they found difficult about this decision, why they gave certain aspects less weight than others. And to be involved in that process as much as possible and not just get a smooth performance delivered. In this respect, I find it interesting to observe again how a Vice Chancellor like Robert Habeck, who allows himself to be seen quarreling and hesitating, but also when acting and making decisions, arrives in this population in the long run.

Anyone who caters to this resentment today – ›they do whatever they want up there anyway‹ – has not understood the idea of ​​democracy.

Prof. Dr. Ute Frevert

Well, if he takes too many bucks over the course of a term in office, he’s likely to be one of “up there” quickly, no matter how much he struggles.

If you try to beam yourself back to the eighteenth century and imagine that there was a king or a prince: Of course he was “up there” and we were “down there”. As subjects, we were the recipients of orders and were, so to speak, modeling clay in his hands. Anyone who serves this resentment today – “they up there do whatever they want anyway” and “we can only nod down here” – still has the idea, the concept and the practice of democracy – also as an emotional practice of trust – to this day not understood.

You said earlier that we had to fight hard for this democracy. Will she stay with us at least forever?

Historians are not futurists, and I wouldn’t believe futurists either. But I would guess that there is no going back to an authoritarian variety of politics, even though we’ve been observing that in Russia for about 15 years. But in the European countries, which are at the same time very much at risk from populist and right-wing populist movements, I could imagine that this critical distance from politics will remain. That the desire for citizen-friendly communication of political decisions will grow. And the political class has been responding to this for quite some time: There is probably no other area where there are as many communications consultants as have been hired there in recent years.

I would assume that there is no turning back to an authoritarian variant of politics.

Prof. Dr. Ute Frevert

It is a well-known fact that good communication is a fundamental part of good friendships. So, when will politicians finally become our friends?

There should be no friendly bond between citizens and politicians. Friendship is something very private. They search very carefully and see which people I can get as a girlfriend or boyfriend. If I vote for someone who represents me in the Bundestag, then I don’t necessarily want to be friends with them. I don’t think that’s a category of the relationship between citizens and politicians.

Mrs Frevert, thank you very much.

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