The Populist Demand for Freedom of Speech is a Distraction—Nothing More!

Even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, calls for freedom of expression in Germany have not ebbed. The rise of autocratic regimes in Europe and throughout the world should make the freedoms of a liberal democracy particularly evident. So why does the assertion that freedom of expression in Germany is restricted remain so robust?

The Populist Accusation of Limited Freedom of Speech

Six years ago, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, claimed at a campaign event that freedom of speech is non-negotiable, set in stone.

Well, she was right and wrong at the same time. Freedom of expression in Germany is based on a broad social consensus and anchored in the Grundgesetz. In the 2018 ranking of freedom of the press by the NGO Reporters Without Borders, Germany ranks 15th. Nonetheless, demands for freedom of expression continue to flare up. Let’s zoom in on that.

These calls for freedom of expression are not the invention of the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In 2010, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician Thilo Sarrazin published the book Deutschland Schafft sich Ab (“Germany Is Abandoning Itself”) and painted a gloomy scenario for the future of Germany, which would result from the combination of a declining birth rate, a growing underclass, and immigration from predominantly Islamic countries. Sarrazin was harshly criticised for his theses. When the debate reached its climax, BILD printed the headline “Das wird man ja noch sagen dürfen!—BILD kämpft für die Meinungsfreiheit” (That’s something you are still allowed to say!—BILD fights for freedom of opinion). But the book was never in danger of being censored. On the contrary, more than 1.3 million copies were sold, and it made the author a millionaire.

The accusation that freedom of expression is limited is based on an intentional misunderstanding. Every form of critique is willingly misinterpreted as a limitation to one’s own freedom of speech. This gives the accuser the advantage of not having to justify his or her position. The accusation of violating freedom of expression becomes a tool for not having to deal further with criticism. Moreover, any criticism can be interpreted as an attack on basic democratic values.

The allegation that mainstream parties are making important subjects and arguments taboo is an integral part of populist strategies. In its strategy paper for the 2017 Bundestag elections, the AfD assumed they would get elected because they were addressing issues that were not important enough or too unpopular for the “established” parties, or to which mainstream parties did not have answers. It would therefore be crucial for the AfD to cultivate the impression that they are a party that breaks taboos. He who claims his opinion is taboo manoeuvers himself into the role of the resistance fighter for freedom of speech and gains sympathisers. The concept of taboos is widely rejected and activates collectively shared narratives and frames. Increased media attention for the argument is a welcome side-effect. But the party that breaks the rules and taboos of politics also gets a unique selling point: they automatically position themselves as the only ones who can solve the problems no one else dares to address.

The Reality of Germany’s Debate Culture

The populist accusation of restricted freedom of expression seems to create resonance among the population. According to the 2017 Freiheitsindex published by the liberal John Stuart Mill Institute, just 63 percent of respondents believe that they can freely articulate their opinion in Germany. Forty-three percent of the respondents also stated that politicians serve particular interests rather than voters. Only one in four believes that politicians are interested in the concerns of citizens at all.

However, these numbers have nothing to do with the state of freedom of speech in Germany, but rather with the current debate culture. The real problem is that many political debates fail to create resonance. A significant number of people do not feel represented in societal discourse and believe that their opinions are suppressed. Many political debates have nothing to do with a mutual process of exchanging opinions, but instead are primarily used as a platform for self-representation and to discredit the political opponent.

The democratic principles that no political opinion can be set as absolute and that conflict is necessary in politics are increasingly questioned. Political opinion is not seen as something that can be debated, but as a personal identity, and thus any criticism of it becomes a personal attack. As soon as a person perceives his or her own view absolute, he or she is vulnerable to confirmation bias. Anyone who does not agree is wrong from the outset. The counterpart does not simply hold a different opinion, but prevents the enforcement of a perceived absolute truth. If there can be only one “truth”, the representation of another opinion is already a restriction of basic rights.

What Needs to Be Done

In a democratic society, everyone can demand his opinion to be heard. To be heard, opinions need to generate resonance in a way that provides serious feedback. Especially those who hold conflicting opinions must be invited to discussion and debate, not simply because one wants to convince them, but to maintain a common bond beyond political opinions. Populists, just like everyone else, can make correct points, put important topics on the agenda, and have good arguments. This even applies to illiberal enemies of freedom. If this is not acknowledged, it becomes extremely hard to integrate them in a discourse about any issue. As long as populists do not violate any laws, they must be tolerated in an open society. Excluding them from social discourses only makes them stronger.

One example of the productive integration of opposing opinions is the “Germany speaks” format, in which strangers with different opinions discuss political topics. Participants answer a few yes or no questions about political issues and get in touch with other participants whose answers differ. This offers participants the opportunity to discuss views outside of their filter bubbles and to become part of the societal discourse.

But the democratic invitation for debate comes with a price: There are certain criteria which have to be met. Being heard obligates the speaker to accept criticism. Every effort should be made to weaken the attractiveness of anti-freedom attitudes by all means of civilised conflict. What is needed now is a passionate confrontation with these positions and their content. They must be taken seriously, which also means that every effort has to be made to disprove them.

With autocratic tendencies increasing all over the world, it is important to recognise debate as the core of every democracy. There must be no monopoly on the right attitude and neither does one have to accept any opinion without criticism. If a debate culture functions according to this standard, then the populist argument of limited freedom of expression has no persuasive power and becomes recognisable as a distraction. Populists do not fight for their own freedom of expression, but against that of their opponents. To counteract this, confrontation with them is needed.


Andrea Römmele is the Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group “Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere” and a Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School of Governance.

Nils Napierala is a Research Assistant to Professor Andrea Römmele at the Hertie School of Governance and a PhD student at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.