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  • Writer's picturePhilip Ammerman

Using examples of democracy to … condemn democracy

Matthew Karnitschnig published a logically absurd article in Politico on September 8th. Entitled “Putin's attack on democracy is working. Just look at Europe”, Karnitschnig maintains that in allowing democratic protests and public opinion in Europe, European democracy is failing.

Karnitschnig's argument at the beginning of his article can be summarised as follows:

  • A municipal government in Europe authorizes a demonstration;

  • The demonstration is implemented, peacefully, with a few thousand people expressing their constitutional right to free speech and free assembly;

  • Therefore, European democracy is failing;

  • Therefore, this is evidence that Putin is undermining European democracy

This makes no logical sense at all.

In any democratic nation state, there will be differences of opinion. The fact that these differences can be freely expressed, using legal procedures, is a testament to the strength of democracy, not its failure.

Let’s look at what Karnitschnig writes:

“NATO has managed to do everything wrong in connection with Ukraine and Russia that one could do wrong,” said Gregor Gysi, the former leader of the European Left party, to enthusiastic applause in Leipzig.

The gathering storm is confronting Europe’s leaders with the difficult truth that even as Russia struggles on the battlefield against Ukraine, the Kremlin is holding its own in its long-running war against Europe’s democratic foundation.

How does one go from a quote from a former European politician, Gregor Gysi, speaking at a municipally-sanctioned rally, to implying this is a Kremlin success in undermining Europe's democratic foundation?

Aren't the rights of free speech and free assembly a core aspect of any democratic foundation?

That rally in Leipzig attracted 4,000 participants. Germany has a population of 83 million.

Let’s look at the argument as well. Is the argument that NATO has threatened Russia incorrect? Professor John Mearsheimer said much the same in his 2014 Foreign Affairs article Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.

Do I agree with Mearsheimer. No, I do not.

Does Mearsheimer have every democratic right to express his opinion in a scholarly journal? Yes, of course he does. And I will fight for his right to do so.

That's what free speech means. Especially as expressed in a peer-reviewed journal. Mearsheimer isn't misusing free speech by proclaiming conspiracy theories or stirring up sedition. He is expressing a reasoned opinion. Extending Karnitschnig's logic, this is a Russian success against democracy.

Let’s look at some more quotes:

In countries with strong populist movements, the anti-sanctions front has been gathering steam for weeks. In Austria, where the pro-Russia, far-right Freedom Party is a powerful force, 40 percent of the population doesn’t support EU sanctions against Moscow, according to a poll released in late August. Even the ruling center-right People’s Party is split, with powerful regional leaders openly questioning the federal government’s continued support for the measures.

Let’s parse this paragraph for a second. The Freedom Party of Austria polled 16.4% in the most recent elections and fell from power. This fact is not stated. What is stated is that 40% of the Austrian population does not support sanctions against Russia in an opinion poll.

I find it more than strange that the sentence structure conflates a small political party with 40% of the population in an opinion poll. This seems almost like deliberate misinformation.

But let’s assume it was an honest mistake. Let’s focus on the facts. Forty percent of the population expressed its opinion that sanctions on Russia were a mistake.

Is that a crime?

Is that evidence of Russian misinformation?

Is it evidence that European democracy is threatened?

No. It is the result of a sample of 817 people in Austria responding to an online opinion poll in August carried out on behalf of Der Standard.

Nothing more, nothing less. It is their democratic right to express their opinions. And Austria has taken no measures to undermine international sanctions against Russia.

Moreover, if you look at the poll results, you will find a much more diverse sense of opinion that the one-sided result Karnitschnig wants to to believe.

For example:

  • 78% of the respondents said that Ukraine should be provided with humanitarian assistance;

  • 74% said that refugees should be supported;

  • 55% said that the armed forces should be re-equipped;

And let’s look at the closing arguments:

Yet so far, most European leaders, including Germany’s Scholz, are failing to keep the public convinced of that argument.

If Europeans really believed their own security was at stake, they wouldn’t be pushing for peace or demonstrating against the war. They’d be asking their leaders to send Ukraine more weapons.

That’s a full pivot from:

  • A minority of voters in some countries protest in legal demonstrations;

  • A large number of opinion poll respondents in some countries favour ending sanctions;


  • Most leaders are not convincing their voters of their policies in Ukraine, and

  • European security demands we send more weapons to Ukraine.

This is a vast and alarming leap in logic. It is not born out by any facts expressed in the article.

The title of the article itself suggests that in any case, any European democratic opinion expressed is the result of manipulation by Putin, not a democratic outcome.

And finally, it implies that the only regulator of correct opinion is … Matthew Karnitschnig.

Both Karnitschnig and Politico, and the owner of Politico, Axel Springer, are of course free to publish what they want. That is also their privilege and their right in a democratic society.

It is, however, a pity that they cannot exercise their democratic rights without very overtly trying to take away the rights of others.

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