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Rarity of the German coup plot is a triumph of democracy

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Yes, he is called Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss. Yes, he wears a jaunty cravat. But don’t infer from the alleged figurehead of the foiled German coup that it was a harmless and baroque caper. The federal republic tends not to send thousands of officers on more than 100 raids to arrest mere eccentrics. It tends not to involve Austrian and Italian authorities on a whim.

What we are allowed, if not a chuckle, is a question. It is not one I have seen asked since the news broke last Wednesday. Why are such reactionaries so rare? Why is the anti-republican Reichsbürger movement thought to number 21,000 (in Europe’s biggest nation) and not something nearer a million? Think of the mental shift that Germans have had to make in a few generations: from violent dictatorship to near-pacifist democracy, from an electorate of white Christians to a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional one. Even with the best civic education, there “should” be more people who are irreconcilable to the change. There should be more in Italy, Spain, Japan and other nations that democratised at speed.

It is important to take note of what doesn’t happen in life, not just what does. Almost all of the time, in almost all of the west, there is no active revolt against or even principled objection to democracy. Populism doesn’t quite count. Its very name flatters democracy. Even when Donald Trump lies that his opponent stole votes, he isn’t saying there shouldn’t be votes. Genuine reaction, the belief that rule by the people is wrong, even profane, hardly exists.

This is a quiet miracle. Whatever its Athenian pedigree, democracy, if we date it from universal suffrage, is about a century old. That is a split second in historical time. To adopt it, most nations had to conquer or deny much deeper-rooted parts of their culture: church, army, nobility. Even the US only enfranchised all of its adult citizens as late as the 1960s. The whole democratic system should feel rickety, provisional and besieged.

Instead, we have movements like Reichsbürger: sinister in intent, an understandable headache for the security services but also a rounding error of the national population in number. Almost no western political party of note makes the explicit case for pre-democratic values. When I once floated what the economist Garrett Jones calls “10 per cent less democracy”, it was met with what I will call less than universal reader assent. Whether France should remain a republic was an open question (and one that was for long stretches answered in the negative) for a century after its revolution. There is nothing like the same sense of democracy being fundamentally contested in the west.

I sometimes wonder if liberals, in cursing the waves that have rocked the ship of state since around 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, have missed the oceanic calm of the larger picture. The human brain is better at registering events (such as a coup plot) than non-events (such as the general absence of coup plots).

There is no way of making this case without incurring the accusation of complacency. Readers will refer me to surveys of the young that have uncovered some alarming openness to non-democratic rule. But people say all sorts of things to pollsters: look at the professed scepticism of Covid-19 vaccines in France just two years ago. It would soon become a highly vaccinated country.

It is better to be too vigilant about the enemies of democracy, perhaps, than too relaxed. But not by a huge margin. Vigilance has costs of its own. For one, it can be self-fulfilling. In talking up the dark side of politics, well-meaning people might enhance its recruiting power. Crucial to the failure of anti-democrats has been the hunch among potential supporters that theirs is a hopeless cause. Some voters must go along with democracy less out of love than a belief that it is the only system in town. Be careful about granting to reaction the status of coming force.

Another cost of vigilance is hasty social reform, the better to “save” democracy. In the panic of 2016, people who didn’t much like capitalism in the first place argued that it had to be tamed to avoid an all-out people’s revolt. It was a shallowly materialist account of public anger: lots of prosperous people voted Brexit or Trump, not just laid-off auto workers. But it carried the day. You can draw a line from that discourse to the industrial protectionism of 2022.

One day, someone will dramatise the German coup attempt in the style of The Day of the Jackal. No one will dramatise the general absence of such events. Of these two stories, the less filmable is the more profound.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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