A Time of Unease and Challenge for Democracy

Crisis is also opportunity. Democracies may be shaken, but a stirring in them of resolve and new ideas is palpable. The European Union has been galvanized by war on its doorstep and by the Covid-19 pandemic to advance toward a more federal Europe in which fiscal, defense, energy and foreign policies are better integrated. Progress will be slow, but the direction seems set.

Among the students at the forum a passionate engagement in rethinking democracy and a strong commitment to save the planet were evident. It is clear to them that the nation-state cannot be the framework for addressing the core problems of our age, chief among them climate change, which has no respect for borders.

Three students — Michel Castrezzati, Elena Vocale and Larissa Möckel — from the International Youth Think Tank outlined an initiative to repurpose economics to establish broad well-being rather than growth as the measure of a successful society. Carsten Berg, a political scientist and fellow of the Berggruen Institute, cited Ireland as an example of the way citizens’ assemblies, formed of randomly selected citizens, can restore a sense of participation to democracies whose institutions seem remote. If juries function, why should such assemblies not?

There is a theory that autocracies have the edge in staying in power at times of crisis because they are not subject to the winds of political change. But slow to anger, democratic societies are capable of fierce resolve.

Karolina Wigura, a Polish historian and sociologist, suggested that pessimism about the future of democracy, in her own country and elsewhere, was overdone. The situation was not “black or white, it’s more like a zebra,” she said.

Nuance is not much favored in this age of declamation, of all or nothing, of presumption of guilt, of refusal to compromise. But most of life lies in the gray zones. Democracies are clumsy but adaptable. They are not monochrome. Perhaps Poland, even in its illiberal turn, is indeed — like Italy and Sweden — on the difficult road to a society where there is less contempt of one faction for another.

Isaiah Berlin wrote in “The Crooked Timber of Humanity” that “no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.”

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