Constitution Day 2022: Condoleezza Rice on Democracy and American Institutions

America’s birthday is commonly regarded as July 4th, and despite Independence Day’s popularity, another holiday deserves the attention of all American citizens: Constitution Day. In 2004, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia included key provisions in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2005 designating September 17 of each year as Constitution Day. All educational institutions that receive federal funds are required to hold a Constitution Day educational program each year on or near September 17th. This year, the Stanford Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School (SLS) hosted Secretary Condoleezza Rice on behalf of the university.

After a short introduction by Stanford Law Dean Jenny Martinez and Stanford Law Professor Michael McConnell, Secretary Rice took the stage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Speaking to approximately 500 students, faculty and other Stanford community members, Rice shared her views on why the U.S. Constitution is the key ingredient to the country’s successful democracy and is looked to, in many corners of the world, for an understanding of how to organize a democracy.

Why Democracies Succeed

Tapping into her experiences as U.S. Secretary of State, Rice reflected on the different governments and regimes she saw succeed and collapse around the world. “During my years as Secretary of State, we often tried to help new democracies establish in places coming out of conflict. And, I’ve been asked over the years ‘why do democracies fail?’ But, I think a more pertinent question is, why do they succeed?” said Rice.

Rice went on to describe the view that democracy is the institutionalization of freedom and that the U.S. Constitution has provided a framework for that institutionalization that has worked for more than 200 years. 

Constitution Day 2022: Condoleezza Rice on Democracy and American Institutions

“Under a democracy, people channel their passions, their interests, their desires, their concerns, and organize themselves and place faith in institutions,” said Rice. “Our founding fathers, in drafting the constitution’s fundamental principles, set an expectation that our institutions would be evergreen. That, even though the Constitution was brief and leaves a lot to interpretation, it would serve generations.”

During her presentation, Rice discussed the need for institutions to acquire normative power and for the people to accept the “essential rightness” of institutions. She went on to describe how democracies must rest on a common identity and acknowledged that it can be difficult for American’s to trust the Constitution’s abstractions and the institutions of the land as they try to address historical grievances and issues of individual rights vs. the group. “Common identity is hard to achieve at times,” said Rice.

Constitution Day 2022: Condoleezza Rice on Democracy and American Institutions 1

Rice ended her presentation with a message of hope. “I’m an optimist…not because I have rose-coloured glasses but because of my experience. I was born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. When I became Secretary of State, I was sworn in under a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. I wondered what ol’ Ben would think of this. That I, a black woman, will defend the Constitution that was developed when my ancestors were slaves. And, I was sworn in by a female Jewish judge (RBG). To me, that is proof of the evergreen nature of the Constitution. I have unshakable faith that we will be celebrating Constitution Day for many years to come.

About Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice is the Tad and Dianne Taube Director of the Hoover Institution and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy.  In addition, she is a founding partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, an international strategic consulting firm.

From January 2005 to January 2009, Rice served as the 66th Secretary of State of the United States, the second woman and first black woman to hold the post. Rice also served as President George W. Bush’s Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (National Security Advisor) from January 2001 to January 2005, the first woman to hold the position.

Rice served as Stanford University’s provost from 1993 to 1999, during which time she was the institution’s chief budget and academic officer. As Professor of Political Science, Rice has been on the Stanford faculty since 1981 and has won two of the university’s highest teaching honors – the 1984 Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 1993 School of Humanities and Sciences Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

About the Stanford Constitutional Law Center

The Stanford Constitutional Law Center focuses particularly on the separation and scope of legislative, executive, and judicial powers; the structure of constitutional democracy; the freedoms of speech, press, and religion; and the right of privacy, including the privacy of personal data in a digital world. Founded in 2006 by former Dean Kathleen Sullivan, the Constitutional Law Center is currently led by Faculty Director Michael W. McConnell, Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.