Is democratic citizenship in crisis?

Panelists (left to right) Condoleezza Rice, Jonathan Holloway, and Pamela Karlan spoke with moderator Josiah Ober about actions Stanford student undergraduates can take to strengthen democracy and make the most of their studies. (Image credit: Bowen Jiang)

That was the topic of a recent roundtable discussion for Stanford undergraduates enrolled in COLLEGE 102: Citizenship in the 21st Century, the second of three required courses in the newly restructured undergraduate requirement, Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE).

The consensus on the panel of leading experts, which included Stanford scholars Condoleezza Rice and Pamela Karlan and Rutgers University President and Stanford alum Jonathan Holloway, ’89, was that no, American democracy has stood up well amid challenges of recent elections – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about some of the pressures on democratic processes.

Democracy as an institution is hard and it takes a lot of work, they all said, each speaking at length about the effort and skills – especially that of active listening – that are needed to help a democracy thrive.

“Democracy is not an easy job,” said Rice, who served as the 66th Secretary of State of the United States between January 2005 and January 2009 and is now the Tad and Dianne Taube Director of the Hoover Institution. “That is because we’re actually asking human beings to do something that is not natural: We are saying, ‘Trust your desires, your security, your concerns to these abstractions called institutions.’”

What does concern Rice is the consistent polling that shows Americans are increasingly losing confidence in institutions like Congress, elections, the military, and the media. Such distrust can lead to political violence, Rice said, referencing recent riots in Brazil.

Rice urged students to understand institutions, from how they came to be to how to use them and how to promote change through them.

The importance of a historical perspective

The importance of understanding history and the ways in which democratic change evolves over time was also underscored throughout the event.

The value of having a historical perspective was something Karlan in particular highlighted.

“Although the story of American democracy – and maybe the story of your 11th grade history class – was of endless improvements, in fact, this country has gone through a series of cycles on democracy,” said Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director of the school’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic. Karlan recently returned to Stanford after a leave of absence to serve in the Department of Justice.

Having a grasp on that history can help students contextualize contemporary issues and problems.

For example, Rice reflected on the change she has seen during her own lifetime, growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, when her own parents had to persist in their pursuit of their right to vote.

“We have had continuous improvement in American democracy,” she said, acknowledging there is still work to be done. “But if you try to negate the progress of the past, then not only do you lose your sense of optimism, you also negate the experiences of the sacrifices of [those who got us to where we are],” she said.

How to help democracy thrive

Emphasized throughout the discussion, moderated by political scientist Josiah Ober, was how the future of democracy should not be taken for granted.

“Democracy is not inevitable,” Holloway said.

Similarly, Rice recommended students take a class about a civilization that rose and fell.

While democracy is an abstract concept, there are many things students can do to ensure it does not reach a state of crisis.

“A commitment to democracy means a commitment to your fellow citizens,” Karlan said.

Karlan, along with Rice and Holloway, shared the many ways students can show that commitment beyond voting on election day or pursuing a career in public service.

It begins through civil society.

“It is when individual citizens take responsibility for each other,” Rice said.

Being a good citizen is about being a good neighbor and community member, Holloway also pointed out.

Holloway urged students to find common ground with people they may disagree with. He noted that while there may be things he and Rice disagree on, there are also ideas and beliefs that they share.

Moreover, people have more in common with one another than they may realize; it “is very often there,” said Rice. Holloway said it can be found through liking the same sports team, dessert, or song. Or even just being a Stanford student.

“Just be curious,” Holloway said.

Another way to find common ground with people, Rice said, is through listening – something she said she practiced with frequency as a diplomat when working with adversaries.

“Please explore, explore, explore,” Rice urged.

All panelists encouraged students to have an open mind with each other and with themselves and their studies.

Karlan suggested students “shop” courses. “Take some courses in subjects you know nothing about simply because when you go to that class for the first time, the professor draws you in and makes you think, ‘I need to know more and this is somebody who can help me know more,’” she said.

Both Holloway and Rice reflected on how their careers are not related to the subjects they initially pursued when they began their undergraduate studies. Holloway said he wanted to be a sports orthopedic surgeon; Rice, a concert pianist.

Rice recalled that during her junior year at the University of Denver she realized she was not destined for a career in music, and that she had difficulties picking a major to pursue midway through her undergraduate studies. It was only when she took a class taught by the Czech American diplomat Josef Korbel, father of future secretary of state Madeleine Albright, that Rice found a new direction and pivoted to international relations and political science instead.

Reflecting on Martin Luther King

While speakers encouraged a willingness to be open to new perspectives and points of view, they also acknowledged the importance of remaining firm in one’s own convictions about democracy, freedom, and justice.

The event, held on Jan. 12, was a few days before the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and a holiday weekend, an occasion that offered speakers an opportunity to celebrate his legacy and commitments to advancing racial equality.

For Karlan, one salient quote associated with King is “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

That arc is bending because there are people pulling on it, Karlan said. “Part of your job is to be the kind of people who pull on that arc and bend it toward more justice, more liberty, more equality, and more dignity for people,” she added.

Rice acknowledged another important figure and democratic activist, Nelson Mandela.

Rice closed the event by encouraging students to emulate that same kindness and compassion Mandela cultivated, and to also reach out to new and different people, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and work toward the common good each and every day.

Ober is the Markos & Eleni Kounalakis Chair in Honor of Constantine Mitsotakis and professor of political science, of classics, and, by courtesy, of philosophy in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and senior fellow, by courtesy, at the Hoover Institution.

This story is part of an ongoing, in-depth series by Stanford Report exploring the COLLEGE program.