2024, a big year for freedom and democracy?

In 2024, democracy and freedom are at peril. Politics needs to solve systemic issues – and can’t simply throw money at every problem.

This year, about half of the adult world population will cast their vote in some form of election. This is clearly a milestone for democracy. And there’s more good news: the global “democratic recession” that lasted nearly two decades may end soon. Could 2024 be a big year for freedom and democracy?

At the same time, Europe is facing a massive political shift to the right. For the EU election in June, polls forecast that populist radical right parties will gain votes and seats, while centre-left and green parties will lose. In September, the far-right AfD is expected to become the strongest party in the state elections in three eastern German states.

Meanwhile, Germany has seen massive demonstrations against the AfD and their plans for remigration – a new word for deportations. Migration is an issue that will massively influence elections in 2024. The lack of coherent migration policy in Europe has made it a problem for both sides of the democratic spectrum. The irony is that, done right, migration would not be a problem but a solution.

With de facto full employment in many countries and the retirement of the baby boomers, migration is the way to keep the country up and running. But to achieve this, countries need to steer and control migration while integrating migrants into the labour markets. None of this works particularly well. That creates a level of anger, justified or not, that plays well into the hands of right-wing populists and their sphere.

The inflation of upset

Social media has made it easy not only to express anger, but also to amplify it. The algorithms reward content that polarises and outrages people. Everything people are angry about feeds the digital outrage machine. This puts pressure on politicians, but not in a good way. It’s quite easy to be upset about something. The inflation of upset makes it harder to find compromise and constructive solutions.

People’s ability to think things through to the end, and to connect different dots with each other seems to be dwindling. Politics and policies have become incoherent and contradictory. Attempting to solve single issues while ignoring the systemic aspects creates undesirable side effects and leads to even more outrage.

Public planners can’t seem to answer seemingly simple questions like where people will live, work and shop – and how they will travel between them. In metropolitan areas, there isn’t enough space to live. Rents are rising, and people move further outwards of the centres. This creates longer commutes, leads to traffic problems and encourages remote working, which in turn puts pressure on office space markets. For various reasons, the shopping districts are strained as well, leading to vacancies and the need for restructuring.

Obviously, there is no single, simple solution. But if politicians try to solve one problem, be it the housing shortage, traffic problems or deserted city centres, without taking the others into account, there will be unrest. And that unrest then feeds the digital outrage machine, undermines democracy and jeopardises freedom.

Welcome to 2024.

For populist parties, it’s easy to ride the waves of social media anger. Narrow-minded soundbites work well with the algorithms. It’s difficult to combat them with more nuanced statements.

The cake is shrinking

Meanwhile, Germany suffers from a stagnant or even shrinking economy. While the German population is growing, thanks to migration, the GDP is stagnant at best. This means that the average slice of cake must shrink, be it through inflation, declining wages or decreasing capital income. In reality, it’s a combination of all three factors.

For a democracy, it is hard to function if there’s nothing to distribute. This has increased tensions and resource allocation conflicts in the German government’s coalition. In 2024, the German society doesn’t look to be ready for degrowth, at least not if it wants to keep democracy and freedom afloat.

A stagnant economy makes it harder to solve problems, since most solutions require economic activity – flats and traffic infrastructure, for example, must be built. The turnaround in interest rates has made it harder to finance these investments. Not to mention the green energy transition – reaching net zero requires massive investments.

Eventually, these investments will pay off, not only in environmental, but also in economic terms. But the way forward isn’t easy, and, again riddled with contradictions. If Germany had not given up its world-class nuclear power plants, the electricity sector could already be closer to net zero. In 2001, nuclear amounted to 171.3 TWh, and the installed base was at 21.3 GW (2000).

In 2023, coal and gas combined still contributed 159.4 TWh of electricity, with an installed base of 71.7 GW. This means two things: First, Germany still needs a conventional power plant fleet that can cover almost the entire peak demand, just in case there is neither wind nor sun – which is seldom the case, but must be covered. Second, while nuclear could contribute electricity with low carbon emissions, it couldn’t cover peak demand (which is around 83 GWh per hour).

A question of power

It’s a question of power, indeed. When Germany closed the last remaining reactors in April 2023, a majority of Germans were against the shutdown. Too late, since the democratic decision to phase out nuclear before coal and gas took place more than a decade ago. Germany treated the phase-out of nuclear and coal (and natural gas) as separate issues – but they are deeply interconnected.

Phasing out nuclear first makes it harder to phase out coal and, to a lesser degree, gas later. We need some kind of conventional power plants for the transition phase. If not nuclear, then coal. And are we really going to have a gas plant fleet that large? Just this month, the government agreed on a new power plant strategy – which means building and subsidising new hydrogen-ready gas power plants.

The devil is in the details. It’s easy to be angry about political decisions and their apparent shortsightedness. It’s easy to express and amplify anger on social media, and to vote for far-right or other populist protest parties. It’s hard to come up with better solutions and implement them. German sociologist Max Weber famously defined politics as follows:

Die Politik bedeutet ein starkes, langsames Bohren von harten Brettern mit Leidenschaft und Augenmaß zugleich. Es ist ja durchaus richtig, und alle geschichtliche Erfahrung bestätigt es, daß man das Mögliche nicht erreichte, wenn nicht immer wieder in der Welt nach dem Unmöglichen gegriffen worden wäre.

Politics means a strong, slow drilling of hard boards with passion and a sense of proportion at the same time. It is quite true, and all historical experience confirms it, that the possible would not have been achieved if the impossible had not been reached for again and again in the world.

For a while, Germany could solve all kinds of problems by simply throwing money at it. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, money was cheap. This approach concealed the systemic issues, but calmed the pressure on the streets and social media to an acceptable level. In times of higher interest rates, it doesn’t work.

Now, politics needs to come up with smarter solutions, thinking things through to the end. This ability seems to be in short supply, and that’s the real danger to freedom and democracy.