A conversation on ‘Democracy’ with Condoleezza Rice

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So many intellectually gifted political figures are about as warm as a slab of granite in a blizzard. As we sat down to discuss her book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, I quickly noticed that Condoleezza Rice’s intellectual capacity was matched only by her warmth and genuine belief in the founding ideas of our republic.

Against the backdrop of the “America First” mantra of the Trump campaign, I asked Rice whether she believed that some people simply don’t have the capacity to accept and embrace democracy.

She rejected the notion outright. Nobody has “bad DNA when it comes to democracy.” Her comments reflect optimism toward the spread of democracy, even as so many of us see a world in turmoil. But her faith isn’t blind.

In Democracy, Rice maintains the thesis that we must have faith in the institutions of democracy and in our ability to change them without violent revolution.

Rice spent the first 11 years of her life in Alabama during one of the most tumultuous periods of our nation’s history. She views the success of the civil rights movement as hinging heavily on “the inexplicable faith in the rights enshrined in American institutions.” I asked her to explain how we could restore faith in our institutions that again seem badly broken.

She mentioned several ideas, such as “Washington behaving better,” but placed primary importance on the role of civil society—with an emphasis on “civil.” Her answer to so many of our national challenges is renewing the ethos of “citizen taking care of citizen.” According to Rice, we need to be saying “there are going to be no weak links in my democracy. I’m going to make sure that child can read, I’m going to make sure that elder has somebody to visit him or her every day, I’m going to make sure that teen mother has somebody to come alongside her.”

That care and concern must extend even to criminal-justice reform. “Obviously you want to punish wrongdoing,” she said, but “you also want to give people a chance.” She looks forward to hearing the ideas from Attorney General Jeff Sessions about improving our justice system. Rice was also encouraged that criminal justice reform is “crossing our partisan boundaries” and seems to be the type of policy issue we could take on as a unifying national project.

Yet unity has proven elusive in areas such as environmental policy. I asked Rice about the role a topic as controversial as climate change should play in the spread of democracy around the world.

She noted, “Economic growth, environmental sustainability and energy mix all work together.” At the same time she criticized environmentalists for forgetting “about the economic growth and the energy mix piece,” noting the serious negative consequences of relying too heavily on fossil fuels. “I was the secretary of State when the price of oil went to $147 a barrel,” she said. “It empowered Vladimir Putin to cut off energy supply to Ukraine. It empowered Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to try to buy elections all over Latin America. It empowered the Iranians to use their oil wealth to keep from dealing with the world on their nuclear program.”

Rice also weighed in on the controversial discussion surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments.  “My view that it’s not actually our heritage, it’s our history,” she said. “We as a people have thankfully moved on.” She explained the importance of reminding people of what transpired in America even as we don’t have to honor the purposes of people on the wrong side of history. While Rice isn’t supportive of taking down monuments or renaming streets and buildings, she makes the notable distinction of agreeing with removal of the battle flag of the defeated Confederacy.

Our discussion then turned to the role of faith in democracy. “For people who believe that there’s a higher power, every life is worthy,” she said. “You can’t leave somebody on the side of the street. You can’t leave that orphan there.” Rice believes that the role of faith needs to be clearly established. “The most important thing is to allow faith to be a matter of conscience, to be a matter of individual choice, not to try to impose it.” That’s where America has succeeded where so many other nations have not.  She observed: “When the state adopts a religion, it erodes both the state and the religion.”

On a lighter note, I asked her about her experience on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. She quipped that it was the “best committee I’ve ever been on and I’ve been on a lot of committees.” She went so far as to praise Alabama and Clemson for “two of the great championship games in history.”

While Rice hopes to renew our faith in democracy with her new book, she rekindled my belief that we must do better in our politics. Throughout our discussion, she conceded the complex nature of our political challenges, while maintaining the steadfast belief that our efforts to maximize liberty really are worth the hassle.

We must cross our partisan boundaries. We need to buttress our civic institutions, but most of all we need to recognize we live in a nation where we have the capacity to change those institutions without destroying our country. Rice reminded me that government subordinate to our consent might be difficult and messy, but it’s a privilege that so many around the world strive to attain. In the end, that’s the heart of democracy, and it ought to beat in each of us.


Image by Jeff Schultes

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