by Jonathan Movroydis

The following is based on an interview conducted by Murdoch Distinguished Policy Fellow Peter Robinson with the Hoover Institution’s new director, Condoleezza Rice, on Hoover’s flagship broadcast, Uncommon Knowledge, on September 11, 2020.

In this interview, Rice discusses Hoover’s mission in the twenty-first century, the role of think tanks in crafting public policy, her views about the current geopolitical situation regarding Russia and China, and her personal thoughts about the national conversation currently under way in the United States about racial relations and how we look back at the country’s founding and history.

Why did you decide to take the position as eighth director of the Hoover Institution?

Before I decided to take the position as director, I asked myself, “Am I happy about the current state of America and the world?” The answer was “no.” Our world has serious challenges that keep piling up. These problems include restrictions on basic individual freedoms and impediments to societal prosperity. Most importantly, in our nation, there are obstacles of providing its citizens equality of opportunity.

These challenges to the governance of free peoples suggest to me that we need really good answers to the problems we’re facing. We need solutions based on sound research of data. I can think of no better place to provide this need in our society than the Hoover Institution, a public policy center based on the notion that free people, free markets, and prosperity and peace are to be sought, going all the way back to the wishes of President Hoover himself. If I can help lead and organize our fellowship around those objectives, then this seemed like a good time to do it.

You had mentioned that one of the issues you would like to explore is America’s challenge of “late-stage capitalism.” What do you mean by this phrase?

I am using this phrase as a challenge to us to be provocative in our thinking about how to get to the core of what is currently ailing the greatest economic system that humankind has ever created. If people are incented for their labor and smartly mobilize resources and capital, the whole of society will be better off. I believe in free markets. I believe in free enterprise. I believe in the private sector. I believe in small government to make sure that the private sector is free to the degree that it can be to efficiently provide quality goods and services.

However, I also recognize that those who don’t believe in that are making some very serious charges where capitalism is failing. If our answer is that “we’re actually growing the economy,” then they will say, “What about all of those people who are left out?”

What should be our answer to the following? “Capitalism is inherently unequal because markets will reward some people and not others.” We accept that premise. We don’t get angry because Yo-Yo Ma makes more money playing the cello than I would have made playing the piano. I don’t get mad because LeBron James makes more money than I would playing basketball.

What should actually grate against our sense of justice is inequality of access and opportunity. Today, there is what I would call a “politics of jealousy.” Many people feel that they are not getting a fair shake, and therefore they want to take from others no matter how hard they work or shape government in a manner that redistributes wealth and resources. 

One of the organizing questions you’ve discussed about Hoover’s role in the national policy conversation is, “What is America’s role in the world today?” Today’s dominant foreign policy issue is China. Why didn’t economic growth lead to democracy in China?

China has not faced a reckoning about the essential contradiction between economic well-being and political repression. Perhaps they never will. However, I will not yet concede that they will not eventually have to deal with that contradiction. Look at the way President Xi Jinping is behaving. We are seeing even more frantic attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to control the message about their political affairs. They are using the internet as means of political control, and issue social credits to people for complying with the party’s goals.

If Chinese citizens act in a manner that the party does not like, they don’t get points toward a ticket on a train that takes them to work. This is not confident leadership. This is perhaps leadership that knows that there are inherent contradictions in their system of government.

The problem with authoritarians is that they know that there is no peaceful way to transition power in the system that they created. Whatever people say about how messy democracy can be, at least the countries that adopt this form of government change power peacefully. Authoritarians fear their own citizens and thus impose greater repression. Eventually something has to give, so I would not yet rule out the possibility of the liberalization of Chinese politics.

I remember Hu Jintao telling me when he was president that, one year, China had 186,000 riots. These riots were caused because a party member expropriated a peasant’s land. China does not have a system of courts where issues like this could be adjudicated, so the peasant and his friends started riots. Today, the Chinese are studying whether or not they need a neutral court system where citizens can have recourse against the government. Now you start to see the camel’s nose under the tent, of expectations about property rights. I would not be surprised if Xi’s experiment with greater repression, with greater ideological purity, with going back to something that looks like the Little Red Book and the red ballet, is a sign that they're actually worried.

What can Hoover do to establish the intellectual groundwork of challenging a country of 1.3 billion people?

One of the things that I would like to see Hoover do is be true to its heritage by sourcing the treasures in our Library & Archives and supporting historical analysis that can inform policy issues. We have great historical materials. We have people who want to donate their papers to us because they know they will be preserved. The truth can be told from our more than six thousand collections that largely cover the history of the twentieth century.

Let's start by really bringing the best young historians of China and India. History is being practiced in the academy in a way that's not really very inspiring. History departments ask much narrower questions than in years past. When I was a young faculty member, I remember sitting at a first faculty meeting with Gabriel Almond, author of The Civic Culture, and Seymour Martin Lipset, who had written the Political Man. These were historians who explored big questions.

The Hoover Institution today also has great historians. However, we want to attract more historians who will ask big questions. Regarding China, let's help to get the history straight.

One of our fellows, Larry Diamond, is taking the lead on a project called China’s Global Sharp Power. The Chinese Communist Party has effectively created a global narrative that favors their own ideals and ambitions. They are interfering in elections and promulgating falsehoods about America’s political affairs and policies.

You wrote in an email to the Hoover fellows and staff on your first day as director, September 1, 2020, “My life and career path have led me to this moment.” Why has it been that all of your life, whether it’s mastering figure skating and the piano, developing fluency in Russian, and serving in high levels of government and academia, you have been drawn to things that are difficult?

It kind of starts with how I grew up and watching my parents and the people surrounding them. If you grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, when I did, there was hope on the horizon. Rosa Parks had already refused to sit in the back of the bus, and Brown v. Board of Education Topeka [1954] had already been decided in favor of desegregation of schools. Dwight D. Eisenhower had insisted on the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

If you grew up in Birmingham, when my parents and grandparents did, I don’t know how you woke up every morning and decided that despite the difficulties, you are going to raise a family, educate your children, put food on the table, go to church, and make the world better. But that’s what they did. I feel so fortunate to have landed where I am from where I came. I feel so grateful that I grew up in an America that was changing in ways that allowed me to reach my potential that my parents, mentors, and role models saw in me. I just don't think I have an option to shrink from challenges. I also think that you're better if you're doing hard things.

One of the pieces of advice I give to students when they're starting a major with me or whatever, I'd say, “Look, all of us love to do the things that we do well, and just keep doing them over and over, because it's wonderfully affirming that I do that well. But if you never try to do things that are hard for you, then you will never understand and believe that you can overcome things that are hard for you.” I say, “If you love math, do more reading and writing. If you love reading and writing, do more math, challenge yourself every day, and you're going to be better for it.”

This is also a message for the country as a whole. Just because something is hard doesn't mean that it can't be done. If that had been the case, the United States of America would never have come into being. How did we defeat the greatest military power of the time when a third of George Washington's troops came down with smallpox on any given day? Do you think that wasn't hard? People crossed the Continental Divide in covered wagons. Do you think that wasn't hard? You think it wasn't hard to survive a civil war, brother against brother, and come out a better, more perfect union? So yes, it's really hard. But if you only do what is easy, you won’t achieve very much at all. I think I like to try to do things that are hard. I'm not always so good at them. I was not really that good of a figure skater, but I kept trying and working at it.

You grew up under Jim Crow, and yet here you are director of the Hoover Institution, which Herbert Hoover, in founding the institution, stated as axiomatic the fundamental goodness of the United States and its founding institutions. What does Condoleezza Rice say to people who reject that premise? How does she explain why she believes the United States of America is still worth the trouble?

I say first and foremost that human beings aren’t perfect. The founders were imperfect men. However, they gave us institutions that allowed us to become better. It is absolutely true that we have a birth defect of slavery. Do I wish that John Adams and others who refused to be slaveholders had won this score and we rejected slavery? Of course, my ancestors suffered as a result. My ancestors are both slaveowners and slaves themselves. I understand the depth of that wound that was slavery.

What's remarkable to me about this Constitution of the United States, is that it once counted those slaves as three-fifths of a man in order to make the compromise to create the United States of America. And yet, it would be the courts and legislatures that are defined by that very constitution, where the descendants of slaves would appeal to and eventually find justice.  Whether it's the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s or it's the court cases that Thurgood Marshall and others won, like Brown v. Board of Education, the institutions were good enough to make progress on the most awful of wounds, slavery. That is a remarkable story in human history. That's why I believe these institutions are not just worth preserving, they're worth fighting for, and they're worth using. They're worth accessing, they're worth insisting that they continue to bring that progress.

On the day when I stood in front of a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, to take the oath of office as secretary of state, taking an oath by the way to that very constitution that once counted our ancestors as three-fifths of a man, I stood there sworn in by a Jewish woman, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I remember thinking, I've said this several times, what would old Ben have thought of this? Well, he couldn't have imagined it. It was because people kept believing in the institutions and kept pushing the institutions. As someone said, we should expect the United States to be what it says it is, not anything different. That's a much stronger grounding than if you never had those institutions in the first place.

Finally, I'll just say that those of us who are fortunate enough to have made that progress that we have, owe it to those who keep fighting. I would say to all of those young people, don't give up. The United States of America is a pretty remarkable experiment that's still unfolding.

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