Home Museum institution American democracy is still moving in the right direction, says former secretary of state at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville

American democracy is still moving in the right direction, says former secretary of state at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville


BENTONVILLE — Democracy requires citizens to participate, communicate and give others the benefit of the doubt, Dr. Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday night at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The 66th US Secretary of State was on hand for a conversation as part of the We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy exhibit at Crystal Bridges, which combines historical documents and original artwork to offer diverse perspectives on the founding principles of the nation.

Rice said democracy is created and maintained through hard work, persistence, strong institutions and dedicated citizens. The nation has made progress over the past 250 years, she said, pointing to having been sworn in herself, a black woman, by a Jewish Supreme Court justice. But sometimes the country is still wrong.

“When you think about ups and downs, it’s very easy to think about downs,” Rice said. “But you also have to think about the fact that progress isn’t linear, it’s a bit jerky. But a lot of it is going in the right direction and so I’m optimistic about the future of American democracy, but I want to say one thing: it is not autonomous.

Rice said she doubts the founding fathers foresaw Facebook and other social media that have become so divisive. She offered several “rules” to consider, including that people should strive to speak to those with different opinions, get out of their own echo chambers, and leave open the possibility that they are wrong.

“If I could have one rule, it would be that no one in a position of authority can tweet or post anything until they’ve talked to someone else and heard their opinion,” said Rice. “If before you’ve bothered to talk to someone you might have to compromise with, you’ve already gone to improve your base, you probably won’t compromise.”

Political campaigns have become less about what a candidate wants to do if elected and more about what they want to stop the other side from doing, Rice said.

“It’s the death of democracy if, in fact, you can’t find a way to move forward together toward solutions,” Rice said. “Somehow we have to learn to speak across our differences.”

Democracy is about the nation’s constitution and institutions, but civic engagement is important, Rice said. She urged people to decide which issues are important and then work on those things.

“I bet 300 million of us do this, we could actually make progress and not just let the government do it,” Rice said. “How about going and registering with a local planning commission or a local school board. Democracy is at all levels.

Rice said local issues give people a sense of control over their lives. One of the reasons people lose interest in politics and democracy is because they think there is nothing they can do to change things.

“We have to break this down,” Rice said.

Democracy and freedom depend on each other but are not the same, Rice said.

“What the Founders understood was that giving freedom is a wonderful thing, but unless you channel it somehow, it can just be the will of the crowd,” said said Rice.

To that end, the founders were very committed to having representative government and protections like the Electoral College so everyone had a say, Rice said.

“It’s a very carefully designed system, and when I hear people wanting to take pieces of it apart, I tell them to be careful what you wish for because they’ve really thought about this, which you don’t want the tyranny of the majority,” Rice said.

Rice said political candidates shouldn’t be vessels of discontent and spend their time shouting on TV about how bad the other party is.

“Frankly, I don’t like the cults of personality that we see forming in the country. I don’t really like celebrity politics,” Rice said. “Polarization is not the problem, we’ve always had difficult people. Demonization is the problem.”

Rice said the nation can’t have the conversations needed to resolve issues if someone immediately uses the most extreme language about it.

“If everyone who disagrees with you is morally corrupt, they’re undemocratic — that language, that posturing really isn’t healthy for democracy,” Rice said. “And I think we need to be more demanding of our leaders, that they don’t engage in that, and we certainly shouldn’t reward that.”

Instead, Rice said we should make an individual effort to reach out and try to understand those with whom we disagree.

“Each person is committing to reading something or talking to someone you disagree with,” Rice suggested. “And, not speaking so that you can first persuade them, but so that you can actually hear them and then understand where they’re coming from. You might still disagree at the end of the day, but at least you have a better system established with that person, that you can have a civil conversation.”

Rice said talking to people you disagree with is not a form of surrender.

“It doesn’t mean you compromise on your principles, but again, it’s going to extremes. If it’s all about principle then we have nowhere to go. Sometimes it’s just a different principle of interpretation, and we call it a policy difference,” Rice said. “And if we could get to know the difference between a policy difference and a matter of principle, we could be a better democracy.”


We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy is on view July 2 through January 2 in the Museum Collections Galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Admission to this exhibition is free; however, due to its anticipated popularity, timed ticket reservations are required. Tickets are available on the museum’s website. Admission to the Crystal Bridges Collection Galleries is always free.

Source: Crystal Bridges