Is our democracy in danger? Adam Schiff tackled this difficult question on Thursday night in Cahn Auditorium during the 30th annual Richard W. Leopold Lecture, outlining his concerns about American democracy as the 2020 election approaches. A Democratic Rep. for California’s 28th Congressional District, Schiff is currently serving his 10th term in the House of Representatives and is the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

In recent days, however, the public has been buzzing about Schiff’s instrumental role in the House’s recent decision to continue an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. He is reported to have received an early account of Trump’s abuse of power involving Ukraine prior to the release of the whistleblower complaint that prompted the inquiry. He has also been involved with leadership in foreign policy and national security issues since his induction into Congress in 2001.

Adam Schiff speaks at Northwestern about current threats to Democracy. Photo by Sumin Woo / North by Northwestern 

Here at Northwestern, Schiff entered the room to a warm welcome, to which he responded, “if I knew I was going to get a standing ovation I would’ve come a lot sooner.” He told a few more jokes before beginning the lecture with a disclaimer: “The challenge to liberal democracy did not begin with Donald Trump and it won’t end with Donald Trump. This is a global phenomenon that has many roots and causes.”

Schiff also addressed his concern about the infrastructure of the 2016 presidential elections, noting that his worry will not go away in 2020. He credited much of this anxiety to a new phenomenon called deepfake technology, artificial intelligence that can be used to produce fraudulent video, audio or photo. This advancement is basically foolproof, and can easily manipulate the election process by swaying people who are more likely to believe that something is true without testing the validity of this “evidence.” Schiff then discussed Trump’s ignorance toward this national threat. Instead of addressing this danger, Schiff said, Trump recently called on China to investigate potential Democratic nominee Joe Biden, just as he did only a few weeks ago with Ukraine.

“We go into this next election with all too great of vulnerability,” Schiff said.

This vulnerability, according to Schiff, may also stem in part from the means by which individuals obtain information. He called it a “driver of the rise of authoritarianism,” and blamed the concept on social media. According to Schiff, it's no longer the case that all information can be completely controlled. With social media, individuals often hear or see news without explicitly seeking it out, fostering a culture of fear and anger, a combination Schiff described as “a combustible mix.” Now, more than ever, journalism is scrutinized if it does not align with a certain viewpoint. Donald Trump is at the forefront of this scrutinization, Schiff said, which is a threat to democracy in and of itself.

Finally, getting back to the topic on everybody’s mind, Schiff pointed out that he was hesitant to follow through with the impeachment inquiry, and that it should not be taken lightly. However, Schiff also said that it is time to hold Trump accountable.

“One of the things that has our democracy trembling right now is not the president’s conduct alone,” Schiff said. “But the fact that members of the president’s party are so utterly unwilling to confront him, no matter how repugnant his conduct.”

Schiff went on to remind the audience that the America’s  previous role as a champion of democracy and human rights means that the world is always watching. He gravely highlighted that America is very much in danger.

“It is important that we assert who we are as a nation, what we stand for,” Schiff said. “What this president represents is not what America represents.”