Condoleezza Rice explains the rise of nativism, populism, isolationism, and protectionism across the world and their impact on democracies.
Condoleezza Rice served as U.S. secretary of state from 2005-2009 and as national security advisor for President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. On September 1, she will become director of the Hoover Institution, where she serves as the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy.
In this interview with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, Chris Walsh, senior program manager of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, senior editorial advisor at the Bush Institute, Dr. Rice explains the rise of nativism, populism, isolationism, and protectionism across the world and their impact on democracies. A professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School Business, she discusses the tension between globalization and nationalism; the danger of weaponizing one’s identity; the importance of breaking out of social media echo chambers; and the need for a common narrative in our democracy. After this interview was conducted, she published this Washington Post essay about America needing to overcome the racism that is “still an anchor around our country’s neck.”
Below is an excerpt from her video exchange.
In your 2017 book, Democracy, you describe populism, nativism, isolationism, and protectionism as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Three years later, how do you feel democracies are faring with these four horsemen?
It’s not a good story. The COVID-19 crisis, if anything, has tended to reinforce, maybe even exacerbate, some of the trends toward isolationism. You’ve gotten a response where the sovereign state is king in response to the pandemic. It’s my citizens, my borders, my PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]. The international organizations seem to have almost been sidelined during this period of time. The underlying trend toward nativism, take care of my own, seems to be stronger than at any other time in my memory.
The underlying trend toward nativism, take care of my own, seems to be stronger than at any other time in my memory.
By the way, it is quite in contrast to the response to September 11th, or even to the financial crisis of 2008, where there was very much a sense that these were contagions that couldn’t be really contained within borders.
We’re going to have a lot of hard work to do to rebuild some sense of international cooperation as one of the important elements to responding to crisis once we are through this terrible situation. I understand that impulse, but it’s still one that I’m sorry to see.
In a more homogenous country like Hungary, populism is more of a sense of Hungary versus the world. Here in the United States, populism seems to rely more on our internal divisions, on red versus blue, on race, on religion, on native-born versus immigrant. How do we best deal with those tensions that populism has brought out in our own country?
You are very right that the response of a country that’s homogenous is around an old-fashioned nationalism: My nation against others. The United States, of course, is this odd creation. To be American is not tied to nationality, religion, or ethnicity. We come from, and our ancestors came from, every corner of the world. You couldn’t have a response like you see in Hungary.
But we are having an uncomfortable conversation about how do we define “American”? We divide ourselves into ever smaller groups, each with its own narrative, each with its own grievance, each with its own history. It becomes about whether my grievance or my narrative is superior to yours.
What has been sacrificed is the sense of a common narrative that was not based on our tribe, our ethnicity, our nationality. That common narrative was based on a belief that you could come from humble circumstances and you could do great things. That narrative was without regard to your race, ethnicity, or nationality.
What has been sacrificed is the sense of a common narrative that was not based on our tribe, our ethnicity, our nationality. That common narrative was based on a belief that you could come from humble circumstances and you could do great things.
In reality, there were barriers to that dream if you were of a certain color. I grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. To say that the American Dream was fully accessible to the people with whom I grew up was not true. Even so, we kept working toward that common narrative, toward that common idea. As Martin Luther King put it, the content of your character, not the color of your skin. Somehow, we’ve lost that sense of a common narrative.
Some of our adversaries, Russia in particular, are seeking to exploit our divisions. We know that they’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and money in things like social media disinformation. How can a free society best respond to a country like Russia that is attempting to manipulate factions and divisions within our own society?
First, it goes without saying that we have to actually help to heal the divisions within our society.
The Russians, the Chinese, and others have tried to take disaffected populations and make them even more disaffected. This is, by the way, an old playbook. It goes back to Joseph Stalin’s time, when he talked about building fifth columns within societies, which were disaffected populations that would rally to the side of the Communist International.
They would never have dreamed what a gift social media would be. Social media is so much more efficient at identifying groups that are disaffected and playing to their disaffection. Social media allows you to be within your own echo chamber, where you might only engage people who are like you, people who think like you. The ability to rile disaffected populations becomes much more efficient.
My view of this with the Russians is, first time, shame on them, second time, shame on us. We know what they did. We know how they did it. There ought to be complete cooperation between social media platforms and the government to make sure that they don’t do it again.
Some of this also is pretty ham-handed and silly. I’ve looked at some of these. People ought to be smart enough to see that these are really concocted from foreign powers. Some of them you look at and you think, that’s not an American. So calling that out is really important.
Finally, we need to get out of our social media echo chambers. If you’re constantly in the company of people who say “amen” to everything, find other company. You know what happens when you don’t encounter people who think differently? You think they’re either stupid or they’re venal. And that’s happening to us.
When elites in politics, media, business, education or other fields are distant from common people, and do not understand the anxieties that the average citizen feels, how does that threaten our politics or our culture, assuming you agree with the premise?
I do agree with the premise. Populism is not actually anti-democratic. It can lead to anti-democratic tendencies, but it is anti-institutional. And so it says those institutions, those elites, they don’t believe in you. They don’t have your interest at heart. They only have their interest at heart.
Populism is not actually anti-democratic. It can lead to anti-democratic tendencies, but it is anti-institutional. And so it says those institutions, those elites, they don’t believe in you.
You see social and economic inequality growing between elites and common people. That adds to that notion of elites who are distant. Unfortunately, a lot of the common experiences that we used to have, whether it was military service or churchgoing, or the like, we don’t have those to the same degree anymore. And elites have separated themselves further.
The other big contributor, which I believe in, is globalization. It was beneficial to us to have an integrationist narrative about the world. But those of us who moved easily around the world, who spoke different languages, who benefited from globalization, seemed to have forgotten that most people never moved more than 25 miles from where they were born. Telling the unemployed coal miner in West Virginia that globalization was good for you because you can buy cheap goods at Walmart wasn’t selling.
We forgot that while globalization had tremendous macro benefits, it left a lot of people behind. They are desperate and feel disrespected. It’s not surprising, then, that a populist can come along and say, “Those people never had your interest at heart,” and they believe it.
How should democracies respond to those who feel left behind or that they have lost their national or cultural identity?
The answer is different for the United States than for some other democracies. Europe has a real problem because they actually did try, because of their history, to push nationalism aside, to push national identity aside, and to subsume it in a European identity. This was represented by the idea that the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels were making decisions about everything from what Italy’s budget deficit could be to what constitutes cheese.
The attempt actually backfired. People said, “No, I want to be Polish. I want to be English.” Brexit was a result of that. I think Europe is going to have a very hard time repairing any sense of a European identity, particularly because COVID-19 has exposed those fissures even more.
In the United States, this lack of a common narrative has been problematic. But so has our inability to talk across cultural and ethnic lines in a way that recognizes a lot of people are suffering and that they don’t have access to high-quality education for their kids. The [COVID-19] crisis has exposed inequalities in ways that I’m not sure we even understood how much they existed.
There’s some 40, 50 percent of us for whom this hasn’t been at all disruptive to what we do. But if you have to go to the shop floor or you have to go work at a restaurant, you’re unemployed. If you’re a small business owner, you’re unemployed. And what about the kid who’s trying to learn at home with parents who don’t even speak English? This has exacerbated and exposed economic inequality in very important ways, and we have to address that first and foremost.
Then we have to address this cultural divide, where we don’t know each other very well anymore, where we live in very separate societies if you’re well off and if you’re not. I’ve been a big proponent of national service as a way to give us more common experiences.
Is there a way to combine a belief in these two forces — globalization and nationalism — so they mutually benefit everybody?
America has always believed that we are better off when the world is better off. We’ve never defined our self-interest, or at least not in the last 70 years, as just being about us. And I believe that gene is still very much alive. You see it when there is a natural disaster someplace and there’s a great outpouring from Americans, often through faith-based institutions. You see it when they say ISIS will not behead people on television. We are going to have to respond to that.
Americans, I understand, are tired. They’re really tired of the big responsibilities of leadership, but they also don’t like what happens when America doesn’t lead. They don’t like when Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea. They don’t like when the Chinese beat up people in the streets of Hong Kong. So, this is about leadership. An American president can appeal to that other impulse, which says we’re better off when others are better off.
If you look at something like AIDS relief, when under President Bush and continuing under President Obama, and now under President Trump, we took on this pandemic of AIDS that was ravaging an entire continent. Through our leadership, a lot of people are alive today who wouldn’t have been. Americans are proud of that. We’ve just got to give them more examples of why we matter in that way.
To circle back to what you were saying about tribalism, what role does identity play in some of the democratic unrest we’re seeing, not just here in the U.S., but around the world?
Identity is a fine thing, to know who you are, know where you came from, know your history, know the struggles of your people. I am very, very proud of my African American background. I have to say, American slavery is such that I have 40 percent European DNA, which says something about the way slavery was carried out. So identity is a complex thing, particularly in a country like ours.
The problem is when you weaponize your identity against someone else. My identity entitles me to things that you don’t have. My identity means that you have to step back because I have suffered more. The weaponization of identity is really the issue. If it just becomes about ethnic or racial or religious identity, that can be somewhat dangerous.
Identity is a fine thing, to know who you are, know where you came from, know your history, know the struggles of your people. I am very, very proud of my African American background. … The problem is when you weaponize your identity against someone else.
If we could just start to find commonality in our diversity, and recognize that people have multiple identities, we will realize the genius of America, which is that we aren’t of one ethnicity, one nationality, one religion. We are this incredible hodgepodge. I won’t call it melting pot. That’s a word that people don’t like anymore, because it suggests that you have to just conform. The energy comes from all of us.
The real appeal of America’s great creed is that it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going. That has allowed us to attract people from the most advanced countries in the world to lead the knowledge-based revolution, like Sergey Brin, whose parents brought him here from Russia. He would never have founded Google in Russia.
The person who comes here to make five dollars, not 50 cents, is equally energetic and equally vital in keeping us young, hungry, and working for that dream. So, identity is a terrific thing, but not if it becomes a prison. To a degree, identity is becoming something of a prison rather than something of an asset.
How might democracies best remain stable during this pandemic so they don’t give into the four horsemen of nativism, isolationism, protectionism, and populism?
One of the things that’s worked very well for us is federalism. People inherently trust government that is closer to them more than government that is further away.
Democracies are going to have to go back to first principles about things like, how do they give opportunity to as many people as possible, knowing now what we know about the divisions and the inequalities that we’ve faced. But I also hope we realize you can’t spend forever.
The amount that we’ve rolled up in national debt is ultimately going to come back to haunt us. There’s going to have to be a reckoning for some of the decisions that we’ve taken, rightly, under crisis to get back to something that is more stable and sustainable.
Democracies like the United States and Great Britain will be fine. I worry about the unconsolidated democracies, the younger democracies, where the temptation for continued authoritarianism might be even pushed further in places like Hungary. I worry about Poland. I worry about the effect on countries in Africa, for instance, or in Latin America, that have only recently begun to have democratic governments.
I was told a very interesting and heartening story by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia, who rescued her country from civil war. She talked about the work we did with AIDS relief and malaria relief and how helping them build better healthcare systems helped them manage these crises. They know how to talk to their tribal chiefs. They know how to get out to the villages. We helped to build those systems.
I hope they will continue to be robust under the strains and stresses, but it’s going to take leadership to say, “We’re going to provide security and help in a democratic way.” That means people have to have a voice.