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May 23, 2019
Risa Goluboff, Susan Rice, Peter Wehner, Melody Barnes (moderator)
By Christopher Tyree
You have to wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have thought about the fact that on May 23, 2019, a little more 230 years since the ratification of the United States Constitution, a group of experts were seated in Old Cabell Hall on the grounds of the University of Virginia contemplating, “Why Democracy?”
The panel discussion, led by Melody Barnes, the co-director of UVA’s Democracy Initiative, included Susan Rice, former national security advisor to President Barack Obama; Peter Wehner, White House Office of Strategic Initiatives director for President George W. Bush; and Risa Goluboff, constitutional law expert and dean of the UVA School of Law.
“I’d say the state of democracy globally, to be charitable, is anemic,” Rice told the audience. “We also have the problem of the United States, having been the world’s oldest and most prominent democracy. We are now exhibiting to the rest of the world the weaknesses and failures of democracy, and the ability of our system to yield tendencies that are authoritarian: when the leadership of the country is not telling the truth; when there is a blatant willingness to ignore the authority of Congress, calling into question the basic values of power; when there is an assertion that the press is the enemy of the people.
“These are all the things that undermine the fabric of our democracy,” Rice concluded, “and we are broadcasting that to the world and I think giving credence and impetus to antidemocratic instincts.”
Goluboff put the current situation in the U.S. and around the world in historical perspective.
“If you look over the sweep of history, you can tell a nice progressive story,” she said. Certainly the history of the United States has seen many rocky roads when democracy was challenged, as it was during the Civil War and the anti-war riots in the late 1960s, she explained. In fact, the strength of our representative democracy has waxed and waned, with even some periods of illiberalism. “Democracy is pretty fragile, actually,” Goluboff said.
“There’s a real fear about the fragility of democracy and it's something people didn’t necessarily expect to see here in the States and are certainly concerned about what it looks like globally,” Barnes added.
Wehner said he could see a silver lining.
“It’s actually good that there is concern and worry. There should be,” he said. “But the worst thing is apathy.”
Walk through a market in Poland, panelists noted, and you will see people sipping coffee and kids running around enjoying themselves while their government methodically marches towards illiberalism, slowly siphoning off their liberties. It is just one example of many, such as Hungary, Brazil, Italy, and the Philippines, that are moving away from democracy and toward authoritarianism. Citizens in these countries all voted for the strongman approach to government in much the same way that citizens in the United States voted for Donald Trump.
“I don’t know of a human from any country, any culture, any religion, any race that wants the boot of government on their neck,” said Rice. “That fundamental human yearning to be ourselves and be able to express ourselves and to live in some fundamental freedom, I think, will win out over time.”
As the panelists listed off other areas of concern threatening to derail democracy in the United States, such as the assault on truth, the demonizing of the press, lack of civic education, and extreme political polarization, it became clear that the democracy that Jefferson, Madison, and the Founders so profoundly believed in is in jeopardy.
“If we allow ourselves to be divided internally, then we are hanging up our cleats as a democracy and we’re hanging up our global leadership and we're succumbing to perpetual division and I would argue, ultimately, disintegration,” said Rice. “I think we need to be thinking of radical ways to avert that dynamic.”
Wehner suggested that we all need to become better listeners and actively work to avoid dehumanizing people we might disagree with.
Rice posed another idea. “When I think about how we much more fundamentally heal this domestic divide and this political polarization, which I think is literally the greatest threat to national security…I think we need to consider mandatory national service. The point is that is the only way I can think of that will compel Americans with very different backgrounds to have to know each other and work together.
“When you know each other as human beings,” Rice concluded, “it's a lot easier to listen and a lot harder to hate and demonize.”