A warm welcome to all of you from Berlin! I’m very glad to open the “Restoring Public Trust” conference set up by The Thomas Mann House and the Villa Aurora.
Public trust is the basis of our democracies. Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Accordingly, state institutions are no end in themselves. They are meant to ensure the rights and dignity of every citizen. But this can only work, if there is public trust in these institutions.
Among the Western World we have seen public trust erode over the last years. Polls suggest that two thirds of Americans think their democracy is in a deep crisis. According to a study by the Körber-Stiftung only every second German has complete trust in democracy. Anti-vaxers call the state a dictatorship. And autocracies such as Russia try to stir up this feeling with fake news.
Democracy is never for granted. The Weimar Republic perished for many reasons. But the lack of public trust in democracy was certainly one of them.
Back then, many democrats had to flee from the prosecution of the Nazis. Among them were the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger and Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann. They found a safe haven in the United States. The Thomas Mann House and the Villa Aurora are reminders of the support the US gave to them as well as to many other Germans at this terrible time.
Today, the homes of Mann and Feuchtwanger have been transformed into venues where intellectuals, artists, and politicians come together to strengthen the transatlantic bonds and to reflect on what was so dear to their name patrons: the future of democracy.
The Restoring Trust conference follows this tradition. And it comes at a time of an unprecedented challenge.
We are seeing a war in the Middle of Europe unfold before our eyes. This war has many victims: the Ukrainians in the first place, but also Russian intellectuals, journalists, scientists and artists who have to leave their own country because they are not allowed to express their opinion. Russians who stay are being cut off from independent information.
Everyone can see now, what is the big difference between democracies and authoritarian systems: Democracies need active and critical societies, autocracies are frightened of them.
And yet, why is it that nevertheless public trust in democracies and institutions has declined so strongly both in Europe and in the US? And what can we do to restore it?
I think: We have to prove that democracy is capable of fulfilling its two big promises also in the 21th century: prosperity and liberty.
After the Second World War one reason why democracy quickly gained a foothold in countries like Germany surely was the broad participation many people enjoyed from the economic boom. Democracy created upward mobility.
Today, autocratic states such as China and Russia try to disseminate the narrative that their political system is better placed to achieve prosperity. We must prove them wrong. We have to show that democracies are able to master the big challenges ahead: the green transformation of our economies, the necessary energy transition, digitization, good and fair jobs.
And at the same time, we have to make sure our democracies live up to the promise of equality and justice, transparency and human rights. If constituencies are tailored in a way that makes sure one party always wins, people lose trust in elections. And if people have the impression their voice is not heard because of their gender or their ethnic background, they will not get engaged.
We have to make sure everyone has the possibility to be heard and get engaged. And at the same time, we have to take action against fake news and misinformation, also by better regulating social media and digital platforms.
All of this entails difficult trade-offs and a weighing of arguments. But it is the very strength of democracies to embrace such an open and public exchange of arguments. Participation is no weakness. It is our big strength.
With our international cultural policy we want to provide a platform for this kind of public deliberation. We are facing similar challenges on both sides of the Atlantic. And we can only overcome them together.
Frido Mann recently wrote a book. Its title takes up a famous saying by his grandpa Thomas: democracy will win. And yes, I am sure our democracies will prove capable of fulfilling the twofold promise of prosperity and liberty in the 21th century.