Condoleezza Rice: Why Democracy is Worth the Effort

A Conversation with Condoleezza Rice, Former U.S. Secretary of State

An accomplished musician, Dr. Condoleezza Rice recognizes the power of art.  As former secretary of state, she also recognizes the power of democracy and the thrill of watching people gain control of their fate while building a democracy. 

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to reporters outside the West Wing at the White House on January 2, 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Condoleezza Rice’s latest book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, explains the thrill of seeing democracies take shape and the hard work that goes into creating and sustaining them. The former secretary of state elaborates in a conversation with Catalyst Editor William McKenzie on both points, while commenting on the health of democracy at home and abroad.

You write, “There is no more thrilling moment than when people finally seize their rights and their liberty. That moment is necessary, right, and inevitable. It is also terrifying and disruptive and chaotic. And what follows is hard -- really, really hard.”

Let’s start with the thrilling part. What makes the birth of a democracy so thrilling as well as so necessary and inevitable?

The excitement and thrill comes from seeing those moments in the streets when people are trying to express that they too want to say what they think and worship as they please and be free from the arbitrary power of the state. Most importantly, the thrill comes from seeing they are determined that those who are going to govern them have to ask for their consent. That’s what is thrilling: the confirmation of these universal values. 

The thrill comes from seeing they are determined that those who are going to govern them have to ask for their consent.

What makes moments like that necessary, right, and inevitable?

They are right because if you believe that these are universal values endowed by our Creator, then there's no question that there should be no man woman or child that lives in tyranny. That’s the right part.

 The inevitable part is that people eventually don't want to be afraid. You see it all over the world. People eventually just say, “enough.” It’s not a matter of western values; it's not a matter of American values; it's a matter of universal values. People want to control their own futures.

It’s not a matter of western values; it's not a matter of American values; it's a matter of universal values. People want to control their own futures.

You talk about the thrill of when you go to vote. Why is that so personal and meaningful?

The vote is the expression of the principle that those who are going to govern you have to ask for your consent. Many times people confuse this and say, “They had an election, so now they have a democracy.” No, democracy is a much harder process of institutionalizing these rights and getting people to express their desires and concerns through institutions rather than in the streets. That's democracy and that's much harder.

But the election or the vote is a necessary part of that. I can't figure out any other way to ascertain the will of the people. Voting is a moment when people can say for the first time, "I now control my fate because I control the selection of the person or people who are going to govern me." That’s just remarkable.

Voting is a moment when people can say for the first time, "I now control my fate because I control the selection of the person or people who are going to govern me."

Now, the hard part. What makes the birthing of a democracy so terrifying and why is the aftermath so hard?

It's terrifying because you unleash all of these passions that have been pent up for such a long time, and sometimes it can go bad. We saw after the French Revolution that it was so violent, chaotic, and out of control that it produces a counter-reaction.

That moment is terrifying because the institutions aren’t there yet to channel those passions. If you read the American Declaration of Independence, you think “Who were these people?”

It starts with high-minded rhetoric, but pretty quickly deteriorates into name calling of King George and what we will do if he doesn’t give our rights.

When human beings are freed, it isn’t the moment when they are at their most rational necessarily about what lies ahead. The freeing of those passions is terrifying.

When human beings are freed, it isn’t the moment when they are at their most rational necessarily about what lies ahead. The freeing of those passions is terrifying.

You write about institutions like political parties, the courts, parliaments, and the press being so key to stabilizing a democracy. Could you elaborate upon that?

If those passions just remain unleashed without something to channel them, you’re going to get a backlash and the revolution is going to fade. The task is to quickly channel those passions so that people begin to believe they can exercise their rights through these abstractions that we call institutions, such as the Constitution and the rule of law.

People then begin to trust the Constitution or the courts to carry out their desires and rights. If their rights are violated, they no longer rely on their clan, their family, their religious group, or violence in the streets. That’s the moment when democratic institutions start to take hold. People test the process and it works.

I read about an Afghan woman who was raped by a cleric, and she took her case to court. Imagine that in Afghanistan. And she won. He got 20 years in prison. The human rights advocates were saying, “Oh, only 20 years in prison.” But I’m thinking, she took him to court and she won. Afghan women will now say, “Okay, maybe the courts work; I don’t have to go to my male family members and ask them to engage in an honor killing.”

This is why these institutions are so important.

If their rights are violated, they no longer rely on their clan, their family, their religious group, or violence in the streets. That’s the moment when democratic institutions start to take hold.

What is your assessment of Russia’s failed, or at least aborted attempts at glasnost and perestroika? Are those concepts now merely ones that scholars will study in the future?

Russia had four revolutions, and only the third failed. The first one, the [Mikhail] Gorbachev revolution, was kind of a reform of the communist system. At least, that’s how we thought about it. But toward the end, it was starting to create some institutions that might have been the backbone for a democratic transition. But it was too much and was overrun.

The second revolution was when [Boris] Yeltsin comes to power and the democratic institutions get set up. They don’t last because they get set up amidst so much chaos in the economy and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The third revolution is when Yeltsin starts to rule out of decree, creates an extremely strong presidency, and the other institutions are sort of shoved to the side. A strong presidency in the hands of Gorbachev was one thing, a strong presidency in the hands of Vladimir Putin is quite another. Step by step, Putin subsequently destroys all of the independent institutions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin attend an inauguration ceremony for Putin on May 7, 2000. (Newsmakers)

So, the Russian story is a longer story than just what happened with Gorbachev or what happened with Yeltsin. It’s important to say that because some of the seeds are possibly still there. In the clearly fraudulent election of 2016, for example, Putin didn’t win Moscow. In local elections, his party lost 11 or 12 seats.

Also, people are different in Russia today than they were in the Soviet Union. They travel more widely and they study abroad. The situation looks pretty bleak right now but it doesn’t make sense to give up on the Russians. You have to isolate Putinism without isolating Russia.

People are different in Russia today than they were in the Soviet Union. They travel more widely and they study abroad. ...You have to isolate Putinism without isolating Russia.

China is growing a modern economy without true democratic institutions such as a free press and competing parties. What are we to make of this case study?

One of two things is true. Either China is unique, which is possible, or China has achieved all it can achieve with its model.

When you have the low cost of labor, the heavy export policy, their kind of government investment in the economy, all of that accords with a top-down political system. But being top-down doesn’t work so well when you start wanting a more innovative economy and free-market forces.

China is now neither fish nor fowl. Reforms keep getting rolled back because they’re afraid of the political implications of those reforms. I’ll give you one example: A couple of years ago China had 186,000 riots, as reported by the Chinese. Most of them were because a peasant's land was expropriated by a party leader and a developer. 

What you need is a court that person can go to rather than rioting with his friends. But when you start to get independent courts, you start to get an independent judiciary. Before long, you’ve got one of the institutions that liberalizes a political system.

The jury is still out on where China will end up on this spectrum.

A couple of years ago China had 186,000 riots, as reported by the Chinese. Most of them were because a peasant's land was expropriated by a party leader and a developer.  What you need is a court that person can go to rather than rioting with his friends.

You write about two upheavals occurring simultaneously in the Mideast.  What are those and how could they affect democracy taking hold there?

First, the whole state is under challenge. The map at the beginning of 2000 basically looked like it did when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and states like Iraq, Syria, and even many of the Gulf States were sort of drawn on the back of an envelope.

Those borders are now beginning to shift. Nobody knows whether there’s ever again going to be a single Syria. And the Kurds are pressing for independence from Iraq. The borders and the state system are under a lot of pressure. 

At the same time, people in places like Egypt are saying “enough,” just like they did in Tunisia. In most cases, these are autocratic regimes that weren’t delivering to their people.

There are two ways this could go. One is you continue to have revolutions like they did in Syria, or in Iraq, where we helped to set off a revolution. Or you could have reform.

Syrian Kurds wave the Kurdish flag in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on September 27, 2017, during a gathering in support of the independence referendum in Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region. (Delil Souleiman SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In some cases, particularly with the monarchs, they are trying the reform route. I don’t think that anyone thought that Saudi Arabia would move as quickly as it has on things like women’s issues. It’s still in the dark ages on human rights and women's issues, but you have the young monarch saying he’s got to modernize Saudi Arabia. More than 50% of the students in the University of Saudi Arabia are women.

You’re going to have a clash of cultures, so perhaps reform is still possible for the Middle East. No one is suggesting these places have to look like Jeffersonian democracy. I am suggesting they have to come to terms with basic rights, such as people want to say what they think. The form it takes will look different from place to place.

Democracy is only as good as its ability to deliver, as the saying goes. What does our own democracy need to deliver both for us as citizens and for our own democracy’s strengthening?

First, the good news. The institutions the Founders set up have weathered many storms well. Checks on executive power are still weathering the storm well. For example, courts are responding, and I don’t just mean to President Trump. They responded when they felt like there was an overreach from President Bush on the War on Terror. And they responded to President Obama.

Federalism is continuing to work in the United States. States are getting far more done than the federal government could ever get done because states are closer to the people. That was always the design of federalism.

We are starting to have some challenges with the underlying societal strength that comes with the pursuit of happiness. People want to make their lives better and to make the lives of their children better. The failing K-12 education system for the poorest of our kids is right at the heart of that. The mismatch between job skills and available jobs are another big piece of this.

Unless we can find a way that people again believe that it doesn’t matter where you came from, that it matters where you're going, then we’ll have a lot of unrest. The United States is unique in that we are not bound together by ethnicity, blood, nationality, or religion. We are bound together by this aspiration that you can come from humble circumstances and you can do great things.

The United States is unique in that we are not bound together by ethnicity, blood, nationality, or religion. We are bound together by this aspiration that you can come from humble circumstances and you can do great things.

That’s mostly been true in America for a long time, and it's been truer for group after group after group. If you were black, it wasn't so true in segregated Birmingham in 1960. But, if you look at where we’ve come, it’s become truer. We’re going to lose that aspiration if large portions of the population are not able to access it.

What does America need to do to help democracy grow in places around the world where it is struggling? You write, for example, about “working with what is there.”

First, people tend to associate democracy promotion, or I prefer democracy support, to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those were security issues that we dealt with, and then we believe that we ought to give the people a chance for democracy.

The one thing the United States would never want to do, and I’d never advise the president to do, is try to bring democratic change by military force. It’s a terrible idea. But what you try to do is support democratic green shoots, which are emerging in practically every country. That might be supporting women’s rights and girls’ education, or training civil society groups in how to make an impact on politics, or providing electoral support.

President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrive on the South Lawn of the White House November 17, 2008 from Camp David. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

There are a couple of really important points here. One, providing democratic support is not that expensive. It’s a little less than 1 percent of the federal budget that we give to this kind of work. Secondly, there is a moral cause. If you believe in the universality of these rights, then it can’t be true for us and not for them.

But the most important thing is such assistance is practically important. Democracies don’t fight each other. This is known among political scientists as the “democratic peace.” Democracies don’t traffic human beings in the sex trade. They don’t invade their neighbors. They don’t  harbor terrorists.

[Assisting democracies] is practically important. Democracies don’t fight each other. This is known among political scientists as the “democratic peace.” Democracies don’t traffic human beings in the sex trade. They don’t invade their neighbors. They don’t  harbor terrorists.

We have a practical reason to want to see the number of democratic states grow. We will have a more peaceful, prosperous world.

You write about the threat of illiberal elected leaders. How do you define such a leader and where do you worry most about them?

These leaders don’t make blood run in the streets. They are not tyrants in that sense, but they hijack the institutions of democracy.  I would put Putin and [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan in that category. And I may put Hungary’s [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in that category. In Poland, the jury’s still out.

The threat usually comes from too strong an executive and an opposition that doesn’t coalesce. Slowly, but surely they squeeze the life out of countervailing institutions and increase their rule by fiat.

They are illiberal in part because their constituencies are real. They aren't just governing by fiat. They tend to have constituencies that are more rural, less educated, and more desperate. People also call them populists, which for the most part is true. 

But they’re not completely lost and you don't ever know how much life there is left in some of these institutions.  In Turkey, for example, Erdogan only won his referendum by 3%. That says something about the Turkish people. 

You have to keep working with them and trying to push these leaders in the right direction.

Where are you most optimistic about democracy taking root where we might not think so today?

I’m optimistic about Africa. You have more governments that are trying to govern wisely. You have fewer presidents for life. And you have increasing middle classes.

I’m actually pretty optimistic about Latin America, where I think democracy is consolidating. Even when democracy runs into trouble, like in Brazil, people go through the democratic institutions to try to resolve the issue. They go into the streets but they’re calling for constitutional change.

And I haven’t given up on Ukraine and Russia. Developing a democracy is a long process but if anybody should be patient it’s Americans. We have had a long process of our own.

Developing a democracy is a long process but if anybody should be patient it’s Americans. We have had a long process of our own.
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