Condoleezza Rice: Democracy is easy to take for granted until something breaks, and then it’s too late

Dr. Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state,

“Democracy is always on this kind of knife’s edge between chaos and authoritarianism, and the sweet spot is democracy.” Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and now the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson senior fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, took part in a conversation at Brookings about her new book, “Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom” (Twelve, 2017). Joining Dr. Rice on stage was Leon Wieseltier, the Isaiah Berlin senior fellow in Culture and Policy at Brookings. Highlights of their conversation are below. Full video and audio are available on the event’s webpage.

Wieseltier opened with a question that referenced German writer Thomas Mann’s 1938 lecture, “The Coming Victory of Democracy,” in which Mann argued that democracies should put aside the “habit of forgetfulness.” Are our democracy and Western democracies characterized by self-forgetfulness? Wieseltier asked. They can be, explained Rice, because democracy is more than just freedom and liberty; it must include the institutions in which these values are “encased” and thereby practiced. Watch:

When Wieseltier turned the conversation to the matter of the complexity of democratic government, and the inefficiency of democracy, he noted that its slowness means that “citizens find their governments emotionally unsatisfying.” Rice observed that “if you want efficiency, then have an authoritarian government.” Watch:

Rice and Wieseltier also addressed the problem of polarization in American politics, and how that contributes to gridlock in Washington. “Sometimes I wonder whether hatred of big government and the strategic creation of gridlock,” Wieseltier suggested, “wasn’t in fact partly responsible for the alienation of so many people in America from the some of the democratic workings of our system.” The two debated the merits, and degree, of strong government, and Rice offered that federalism is “an answer to gridlock at the center.” Watch:

“But the key thing is we must never speak about government in a way that alienates our citizens from our democracy,” Wieseltier argued.  “Or public service,” Rice added.

The discussion of democratic institutions and democratic practiced necessarily turned to how American voters behaved in the 2016 presidential election, especially the widespread populism that delivered the White House to Donald Trump. Rice (quoting a friend) called it a “do you hear me now?” moment, wherein populists have changed the conversation in the U.S. and abroad. Wieseltier shared an anecdote about how he came to better understand populists in the United States:

The conversation continued to focus on populism, with additional emphasis on the role of institutions in mediating democratic impulses, and the challenges to that. Wieseltier explained that he saw no significant difference between populism and direct democracy. “Insofar as the system that we have here, that was created here, requires deliberation,” he said, “there is a sense in which the more emotion [‘however warranted by circumstance’] that gets injected into our constitutional political process, the more our representative democracy begins to look like direct democracy.”

Rice replied that “Democracy is always on this kind of knife’s edge between chaos and authoritarianism. And the sweet spot is democracy.”

And that means that we all agree at some level that we are going to funnel our concerns, our cares, our grievances, our differences through these institutions. We’re going to elect people if we don’t like the ones that are governing us. We are going to go to court if we think we’ve been wronged. We will go all the way to the Supreme Court if we think you violated my rights.

And so we have always channeled these grievances and differences through these institutions.

That’s what makes democracy. And by the way that is why liberty and democracy and freedom are not the same thing.

So when we are doing that, democracy works.

Rice noted that the “rapidity and atomization of information” is a challenge to this system, because it creates impatience with a system that is, by design, slow, and which becomes very “un-Madison like” in the sense that it becomes about defeating one’s political opponents rather than getting to the next round.

Condoleezza Rice, as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, was intimately involved in the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” an initiative to assist emerging democracies worldwide to build their institutions and strengthen their democratic systems. During the conversation, Rice made both a moral case and a practical case for democratization in American foreign policy, and explained why the Bush administration’s policy should be viewed as more than its association with Iraq and Afghanistan. Watch as she explained the moral case:

During the conversation, Wieseltier noted that “democracy is also the most taxing and demanding upon the individual citizen of all the political systems.” Agreeing, Rice quoted Tocqueville, who observed that citizens of democracy must engage in “ceaseless agitation” to keep their democracy and, Rice added, “in democracy without that kind of spirit of constantly using your institutions, testing them, pushing them to the next level they start to wither.”

Learn more about the event and watch the complete video here.