Disappointed in Democracy: The Federal Republic of Germany from the 1960s through the 1980s

Abgeschlossenes Projekt

Employees (IfZ):  PD Dr. Bernhard Gotto

The goal of this Habilitation project is to pursue an approach anchored in the history of emotions as a means of achieving new insights into historical research on democracy. This method draws consequences from the change in the view of human nature, sparked by research on feelings in the fields of social psychology and neuroscience.  Feelings and rationality are not strictly divided spheres but indeed influence each other reciprocally. This means that political decisions and orientations are not solely connected to supposedly rational convictions and interests but are in fact founded in emotion.

The project focuses here on disappointment, a feeling that can be described as a type of tension between the “horizon of expectation” and “space of experience” (Reinhart Koselleck). Disappointment is the psychological reaction to a previous expectation not being fulfilled. For democratically organized and pluralistic mass societies, this tension is particularly virulent, as great expectations can be kindled in political communications as a means of generating agreement. Political actors, moreover, often link their concrete goals, such as legislative proposals, to ideals, such as liberty, justice, security, and wealth, in order to legitimize their plans. This symbolic level brings about a surplus of expectation that regularly leads to disappointment when democratic negotiation processes culminate in compromise solutions.

This project researches the collective experience of disappointment and systematically investigates how disappointment is expressed and the consequences this has. This involves five areas of investigation:

  • Discussions and reforms in social provisions for the elderly
  • The peace movement
  • The women’s movement
  • Co-determination and property policy
  • Tax reforms

The broad societal spectrum covered in this area of research includes traditional institutional actors such as parties, trade unions, and churches as well as new social movements and individuals. Beyond specific events, expressions of disappointment can also be linked to broader questions such as the ability to govern successfully, faith in progress, and opportunities to participate in party-based democracy. The analysis of disappointments thus opens up an approach, anchored in the history of experience, to long-term processes of change, which historians have discussed extensively with regard to the watershed character of the 1973/74 oil crisis.

Beyond the five thematic areas, the project poses the question of how disappointment is communicated and with what sorts of coping strategies individual and collective actors respond. Fundamental insights are to be expected on strategies used to specifically generate or weaken feelings that serve social cohesion (emotional work) as well as insights into rules applying to the demonstration of feelings in segments of society (emotional regime). Disappointment is ultimately to be analyzed as a communications code that can be employed independently of the actual emotions felt by the actors themselves.

Publications within the project

Bernhard Gotto

Enttäuschung in der Demokratie.

Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte

Berlin 2018


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