What are the foundations of democracy

Democracy concept

Democracy is a complex term with different access options. The understanding of democracy as a form of rule, society and life shaped Gerhard Himmelmann in particular.

Democracy as a form of rule

Viewed from a politological perspective, democratic rule is based on political equality and political participation rights of the adult population (popular sovereignty) and focuses on the state, its functions and tasks. Most Western democracies are representative, the voters choose their parliamentary representation; Switzerland and individual US states, which give the population (semi) direct democratic say (referendum, initiative), are an exception. The unhindered participation of political parties with different orientations in political negotiation processes and their participation in elections are prerequisites for democratic states. Core democratic goals are freedom, equality, justice, security and welfare, which includes the recognition of human and civil rights, popular sovereignty with elections, parliamentarism, parliamentary control of power and the separation of powers. In order for citizens to actually be able to exercise their political rights and duties, the state must guarantee them basic social security.

Democracy as a form of society

Understood sociologically, democracy also includes a social dimension. The emergence of “young” European democracies and increasing globalization, which has an impact beyond the borders of existing states, have shown that democracy cannot simply be seen as limited to statehood. Because only social anchoring and handing down of democratic principles enable the functioning of political democratic systems. This requires a strong civil society in which pluralism and social difference have room and conflicts are settled peacefully. Economic competition, carried out under fair conditions, should also be possible in such a democratic civil society. A free and diverse public, supported by broad civic engagement, is a further prerequisite for democratic societies.

Democracy as a way of life

From the perspective of political cultural research, a third understanding of democracy was geared towards everyday life, towards the culture of social coexistence. In recent years, educational psychology, philosophy and political education (PB) have taken up this approach by asking about the individual and socio-moral foundations of the political understanding of democracy: How can democracy be made tangible, and how can such experiences grow? It is about the micro-level of democratic culture, for example in the family or at school. It is seen as the basis of democratic political engagement and democratic societies in general. According to this point of view, anyone who grows up in an environment characterized by tolerance and fairness, understands the diversity of lifestyles as an opportunity and is brought up to solidarity and self-organization, has good prerequisites to act democratically within society and to participate democratically in the political system.

Democracy in school

In relation to school practice, these three different understandings of democracy are to be conveyed at the appropriate level. Building on the child's and adolescent development phases and the respective experience horizon, learning democracy as a way of life can begin at the entrance level and in primary school. Based on the personal behavior of the children, the focus here is on strengthening the ego competence (individuality, self-esteem), as well as practicing socially cooperative, responsible and tolerant behaviors and learning to renounce violence. Even at the higher school levels, teachers should take up this learning based on experience in the everyday world again and again.

The understanding of democracy as a form of society can also be awakened at primary level, but the main focus is on lower secondary level. The focus here is directed away from the individual towards social learning and the strengthening of social and societal competence. Because an awareness of democracy as a form of government requires systematically acquired abstract knowledge, political knowledge of democracy should mainly be imparted at upper secondary level, combined with strengthening the ability to make political judgments, criticize and act.

Gerhard Himmelmann (2001, 2002) in particular advocates a concentration of PB on learning about democracy under the three approaches mentioned above. In contrast, Bernhard Sutor (Sutor 2002) states that Himmelmann's definition of democracy is didactically correct, but does not contain a coherent political definition. This outlines two opposing basic positions, which, particularly in Germany, have led to a broad discussion within the PB about learning about democracy versus learning about politics.

Peter Massing (2002) understands Himmelmann's understanding of democracy as a continuation of approaches that closely connect democracy and PB. The citizen concept of the democratic theoretical discourse is based on the question of how the willingness to participate in politics can be promoted and ensured in the face of the effects of globalization that endanger democracy . John Dewey (Dewey 1993) asked how democratic lifestyles could be strengthened in the face of individualization, urbanization, expertise and commercialization. He understood school as a state on a small scale ("embryonic society"), which allows social and political learning and experience opportunities and understood participation as an element of PB and social learning.

Yvonne Leimgruber, FHNW University of Education


John Dewey (newly edited by Jürgen Oelkers) (2004): Democracy and Education. An introduction to philosophical pedagogy. Weinheim: Beltz.

Gerhard Himmelmann (2001): Learning Democracy. As a form of life, society and rule. Schwalbach / Ts: Wochenschau-Verlag.

Gerhard Himmelmann (2002): Learning democracy as a form of life, society and rule. In learning democracy as a task of political education. Schwalbach / Ts: Wochenschau-Verlag, 31-39.

Peter Massing (2002): Learning Democracy or Learning Politics ?. In learning democracy as a task of political education. Schwalbach / Ts: Wochenschau-Verlag, 160–187.

Bernhard Sutor (2002): Learning Democracy? - Learn politics democratically! On the theses of Gerhard Himmelmann. In learning democracy as a task of political education. Schwalbach / Ts: Wochenschau-Verlag, 40-52.

Dudenverlag (2005): Schülerduden. Politics and society. Mannheim: Bibliographical Institute & F. A. Brockhaus AG