Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Democracy’s Precarious Position

The opening of impeachment proceedings against President Trump offers a chance to take stock of the state of democracy. Not because of the specific accusations that Mr. Trump faces, but because judging his presidency must necessarily include all the challenges that liberal democracy faces in the 21st century — from distrust of politicians to the power of social media. It is not likely to be pretty.

That this process is taking place in the world’s premier democracy makes it critical for every other land and people. The tumult in Hong Kong, the spread of populism around the world, the agonies over Brexit in Britain, the struggle against corruption in Ukraine, the weight of colonial legacies in Africa — in every corner of the world people are struggling to determine how they should be ruled, and all will be watching how the United States emerges from its trial.

Trust is at the heart of democracy, and a central question in the proceedings will be whether the electorate still believes its representatives and institutions can withstand the acute partisan hostilities of a deeply divided nation. It is fundamental to democracy that elected leaders heed the law and the will of the people; is it certain in the prevailing climate that they will?

Will the free press, now beset by cacophony, echo chambers and fake news, be capable of providing a dispassionate view?

These are the questions that are before the contributors to this special section, and to the annual Athens Democracy Forum gathering in Greece this week. We have asked writers, political leaders, historians, journalists, business leaders and the public to consider how liberal democracy needs to adapt and change if it is to survive; how we can bridge the ethnic, national and religious chasms that seem only to grow wider with every crisis; how democratic societies should address the ever-greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few; how we can manage the dangers of new media without curtailing its benefits and its freedom.

These are not idle discussions. The current crisis of democracy, so dramatically on display in the drama of the impeachment hearings, is unlike any in the past.

But it will not pass on its own.

Serge Schmemann is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs through the perspectives of thought leaders and commentators.

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