As threats to democracy abound at home and abroad, the military seems to be the only U.S. institution with widespread American support, said former Secretary of State and senior Hoover fellow Condoleezza Rice in a Tuesday panel examining the state of democracy worldwide.
‘A wakeup call’
“Can you blame people for feeling that way?” responded senior Hoover fellow Niall Ferguson, adding that he sees Americans’ distrust of politicians and the media as “a wakeup call for the institutions.”
Ferguson cited national distrust of the military during the Vietnam War as an example of this “healthy phenomenon,” saying there is more military support today because it “has done an enormously good job of cleaning up its act and winning back public respect.”
“That is what the media need to do because they have lost it, and I think they’ve lost it badly,” Ferguson said, pointing to what he sees as misleading coverage of the Mueller report and of a Covington Catholic students’ standoff with a Native American elder in February.
“We shouldn’t worry about institutions being criticized so long as they aren’t subverted,” Ferguson added.
Rice, Ferguson and Hoover senior fellow Stephen Krasner agreed that technology has joined racial division among the biggest challenges for democracy, as companies are left to regulate speech on their platforms, sometimes locking users in “echo chambers” where they do not appreciate opposing viewpoints. Rice said she has seen this herself when reading blogs and watching cable news channels on which viewers do not disagree.
Ferguson called for government to look at Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act, which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
He also complained that companies implement “opaque user agreements to crack down on anybody they think is guilty of hate speech,” adding that he feels the term is “a euphemism for blasphemy, heresy or something you just don’t like.”
Krasner said the potential impacts of technology on the workforce represent another concern for democracies, as changes in work lead to changes in the structure of human life.
“What happens in 50 years when people are working two hours a week?” he asked.
In response to a question about how the United States reconciles its democratic ideals with its support of authoritarian regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia, Rice said, “The hardest thing is to be true to your values and at the same time be true to your interests.”
“The United States is not an NGO,” Rice said. “It has values, but it also has interests.”
‘A new Cold War’
Regarding external threats, Krasner turned repeatedly to China as the biggest threat to global democracy. He qualified this with his belief that China’s current regime will ultimately fail, though he said he doesn’t know when, and has been claiming for at least 15 years that the country would in fact fail.
Rice said one advantage of China’s authoritarian government is its efficiency in enacting policies, though she noted authoritarians can also make bad decisions. For example, she cited China’s former one-child policy, which may have been responsible for 210,000 girls “gone missing,” according to a recent study by Stanford Health Policy researchers.
Ferguson said it is a “mistake” to call China capitalist. He added that a friend once told him “there are three Chinas: new, new China … new, old China … and old, old China,” with the first comprising tech industries and the latter two consisting of the profitable and non-profitable state-run sectors, respectively.
The panelists also noted that, while about 22 percent of world GDP is produced in authoritarian regimes, China accounts for most of this portion, whereas democratic nations account for around 75 percent of world GDP.
Ferguson said the biggest accomplishment of the Trump Administration has been its tendency to challenge China.
“This is not the old Cold War,” he said. “This is a new Cold War that should be talked about.”
Krasner said that, regardless of its current economic prowess, he believes China will fail because of its authoritarian nature, and potential for the “bad emperor problem” by which it could take just one leader’s slip up to doom the regime.
Ferguson pushed back when Krasner cited luck as a factor in the growth of democracy over time.
“We should never succumb to the theory of history that says it’s not about human agency.” Ferguson said.
“Institutions have to evolve to democracy gradually,” he added. “You can’t simply wave a wand and say, ‘Hold elections,’ and expect everything to work out fine.”
Rice pointed out the United States’ own struggle with reaching “the Madisonian sweet spot” of democracy over time. She cited the Three-Fifths Compromise, which treated each black person as three-fifths of a person in counting populations, as an example of America’s past failure.
Regarding the status of democracy in European countries outside of Russia, Ferguson said things are “fine.” While democracy may be on retreat in Poland and Hungary, he said, democracy is much more ingrained in Europe than before the Cold War.
He said immigration is something that complicates democracy, and that it is an even bigger issue in Europe than in the United States. He expressed confidence that, despite current concerns, the United States will prove successful in handling immigration issues, as it has in the past with Irish and Italian immigrants.
He added that he is not as worried about the recent increase in populism as he is about the prospects of fascism, socialism and communism.
To this end, and near the end of Tuesday’s discussion, Ferguson said the United States faces a “catastrophe” in which “young Americans are educated to believe that socialism is okay and free speech is a bad thing.”
“If there’s anything that can defeat the project of a free society, of American democracy, it is that,” he added. “We won’t be defeated by China any more than by the Soviet Union. We’ll be defeated by ourselves and our own failure to teach the next generation the values that, well, I guess [Hoover] stands for.”
In response, Rice said she hopes they next discuss these topics at a time other than spring break. Tuesday’s audience, while packed, consisted mostly of older white people who are not current Stanford students.
The next event in Hoover’s centennial speaker series will feature senior Hoover fellows Terry Anderson, John Cogan and Lee Ohanian, as well as distinguished Hoover fellow and former Secretary of State George Shultz. The panel, moderated by Hoover fellow Peter Robinson, will examine “A Century of Prosperity: A Review of the Standard of Living, 1919 vs. 2019” at Hauck Auditorium on April 18.
Contact Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.