Review of freedom in democracy by rene rhinow

Numerous guests and VIPs celebrate the vernissage of "Freedom in Democracy" in Liestal. Plea for a humane liberalism".

Saskia Schenker, author Rene Rhinow, Laura Zimmermann and moderator Georg Kreis at the panel discussion concluding the vernissage at the Cantonal Library of Basel-Landschaft

Saskia Schenker, author Rene Rhinow, Laura Zimmermann and moderator Georg Kreis at the panel discussion that concluded the vernissage at the Baselbieter Cantonal Library.

Rene Rhinow can certainly not be accused of inactivity and laziness of thought. Even in its 80. Year of life not. Barely three years after the autobiographical notes in "Everything with Measure", the former FDP member of the Council of States from Basel-Landschaft and emeritus professor of constitutional law presents an overview work on the concept of freedom, liberalism and the two-way linkage. Rhinow’s new book "Freedom in Democracy" celebrated its vernissage on Tuesday evening at the Cantonal Library of Basel-Landschaft in Liestal. A second public presentation will follow on Thursday in Zurich.

The 232-page work, published by Hier und Jetzt, bears the subtitle "Plea for a Liberalism Worthy of Human Dignity" and is just that: a soothing appeal to common sense in the face of societies drifting apart in agitation. However, equally history of ideas and guide through the jungle of liberalism definitions.

What is now considered a dirty word in countries like the U.S. and France is at least ambiguous in Switzerland. In a street survey, no one would probably succeed in defining liberalism as the search for ways "how different people can live well together in freedom and realize their freedom to the greatest extent possible". Rhinow describes such a view as the common denominator of all interpretations.

The concept of freedom seduces to anti-democratic abuse

However, exactly these catchwords "freedom" and "self-realization" are insidious and full of treachery. Rhinow quotes Basel philosopher Annemarie Pieper on "how the idea of an unlimited right to self-realization has contributed in no small way to people discriminating against each other and exploiting nature". Possibly even the anger of frustrated and neglected people can be located in unfulfilled expectations of unrestrained self-realization. Populists would then have an easy job of agitating against the supposed authors of the restriction of freedom: against social elites and what Rhinow calls a "constructed political class". Freedom then becomes an agitational fighting term for the mood-mongering against legal orders and strangers.

The Basel-Landschaft constitutional law expert leaves no doubt as to where the limits of liberalism lie if it is to be put into practice in a humane way. Surely Rhinow also has the vaccination discussion in Corona times in mind when he writes:

Rhinow cites compassion, humility, respect, tolerance and fairness as core liberal values. Like a compass, these would indicate the direction toward an authentically liberal society, but would leave different paths open. While the nation-state has to move the national into the background and the constitution into the foreground in order to integrate its different population groups, liberals have to seek access to disconnected strata and discuss their problems seriously and without prejudice in their language.

Finally, Rhinow warns against false basic expectations of political liberalism:

In the same breath, the author emphasizes the importance of the thought-provoking impulses that culture is able to contribute: "The achievements of culture for the basic consensus of an open, liberal and diverse society can hardly be overestimated."

Large crowd at the vernissage in Liestal

All well and good, and important, according to Basel-Landschaft FDP politician Saskia Schenker at the panel discussion that concluded the Liestal vernissage. But if quick opinions and decisions are required in everyday politics, there is a great danger that one’s own liberal attitude will fall by the wayside. This leads the former FDP cantonal president to the interesting thesis that it is precisely the claim to a constantly questioning, reflective liberalism that weakens the liberal state, because in the media-fueled polarization, the quiet, deliberative position is hardly heard anymore.

The young Bernese FDP politician and activist Laura Zimmermann, co-president of Operation Libero, also pointedly criticized the gap between liberal thought and action, which she attributed in particular to "certain older gentlemen" in her party. Operation Libero was born out of frustration with such contradictions. But before the panel discussion took on too much of the character of an internal FDP directional retreat, the author pulled the ripcord: "I haven’t written a book on party programmatics," Rhinow clarified. Rather, "Freedom in Democracy" is a stimulus for discussion, representing the basic thesis of understanding liberalism not as a political doctrine or roadmap, but precisely as a compass in weighing decision factors – beyond party lines.

Already for many years he had pursued the desire to summarize the idea of a humane liberalism in a larger framework "and to incorporate insights as well as experiences in constitutional law, practical politics and humanitarian organizations. The liberal world of ideas has fascinated and haunted me since the 1970s," Rhinow writes in his foreword. Rhinow answers the question of moderator and history professor Georg Kreis, why this book was written just now, with the coincidental concatenation of the emergence of the various freedom currents during the pandemic and the reflection on the relationship of the FDP to environmental protection – keyword eco-liberalism – in an earlier essay. In the bz interview last December, Rhinow already expressed the view that the pandemic will promote liberalism rather than harm it:

The fact that the former member of the Council of States for the Canton of Basel-Landschaft has lost none of his social prestige, in addition to his alert mind and political sensibility, is proven by the large crowd at the Cantonal Library in Liestal this Tuesday evening. Well over 100 guests accepted the invitation, "full house" announced host and cantonal librarian Susanne Wafler with pleasure. The imposing parade of political dignitaries is led by Basel Cantonal Councilor Maya Graf, her predecessor Claude Janiak, Education Director Monica Gschwind, Finance Director Toni Lauber, and National Councilor Eric Nussbaumer.

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