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Norman Eisen’s love letter to democracy

35 minutes
Norman Eisen

As we’ve previously discussed, there are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written a book in the vein of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die or David Frum’s Trumpocracy, but chose to go in a different direction.

In The Last Palace, he tells the story of the Petschek Palace, where he lived while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. The palace and its residents sought to defend liberal democracy throughout both world wars and the Cold War. The book, which one review calls a “love letter to liberal democracy,” also shows the ways in which ambassadors do the hard work of democracy abroad.

Eisen describes the cycles of democracy that occurred as public support waxed and waned over the years. He says that we are now an inflection point that will determine support for liberal democracy moving forward. Ever the optimist, he’s confident that democracy will come through this seemingly dark period to triumph once again.

Eisen is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Prior to becoming ambassador, he advised the Obama administration on ethics — a job that earned him the unofficial title “ethics czar.”

Additional Information

Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House

Discussion/Reflection Questions
  • What do you think is the role of an ambassador?
  • What impact do you think corruption has on democracy?
  • Where do you see democracy being harmed by corruption around the world?
  • There have been claims that corruption is harming democracy here at home. Do you agree?
  • During the interview, Norman Eisen spoke to the ability of democracies to be strong and fight back against corruption. Do you think the United States is in a good position to be able to fight back against efforts to undermine our democracy both at home and abroad?
  • What do you make of the large number of vacant ambassadorships currently in America?
Interview Highlights [5:20] What made you want to tell the story that you tell in your book The Last Palace?

Eisen: There were multiple objectives in wanting to tell this story. Before even arriving, I heard so many stories about the residence itself. I continued to collect such stories while I was there, and I thought these would be something people would like to hear. However, I also thought there was a larger story about democracy itself in this place over the last hundred years. I wanted to tell that story as well. So the book is really a story of five people, an amazing house, and the history of transatlantic democracy itself.

[6:00] There is a quote on the back of the book of a love letter to liberal democracy. Was that your intention with this book?

Eisen: I didn’t realize the story of democracy that would come out of the research of past ambassadors and the unique residence. By the time I finished the book, yes, I intended it to be a love letter.

[7:40] In your book you take about the ebb and flow of democracy over time. Where do you think we are at right now?

Eisen: We’re at an inflection point. There have been three great surges of democracy in the past century. One was the post-WWI boom that included the founding of the League of Nations. The second was after WWII when the modern security structure of NATO was established securing Western Europe. The third was the post-cold war era. We had hopes after this third boom of greater growth of democracy into Eastern Europe and maybe Russia itself. However, unlike following WWII, we didn’t create anything like the Marshal plan to ensure growth of democracy into these new territories. Also, the United States looked away. One of the key stories of this century is when the United States looks away, trouble brews. That is where we are now with Putins rule and his partner Donald Trump.

[10:02] Your book tells the stories of ambassadors who have lived in the Petscheck Palace. What lessons can we take from their stories?

Eisen: One story is that democracy has endured in the face of much greater challenges than we face today. However, another important takeaway is that we can’t assume this will happen on its own. Over the last hundred years, it makes all the difference when the friends of democracy fight for democracy. We need to continue to fight that good fight if we want democracy to succeed.

[11:40] Has our ability to fight for democracy become weaker than that of past generations?

Eisen: In the initial days of the Trumps administration, those same tools of social media which he utilized to win office served as a vehicle to bring people together. Hopefully, these tools will lead to greater oversight of the president with the new Congress. Our polarization is no worse now than it was following the Civil War.

[14:00] We currently have many ambassador positions that are not filled. What impact does that have on the role of promoting democracy that ambassadors do?

Eisen: The fact that this administration has failed to at least nominate people for some of the most important ambassadorships does lead to a democracy deficit. It is incredibly important to have some sort of head executive, confirmed by the Senate, who can work on the behalf of our values and democracy in a foreign capital city. They are there to speak up for our Wilsonian post 1918 idea of western values. Having an ambassador established in a foreign nation enables us to work with civil organizations to promote all of the core tenants of a democratic society.

[16:00] What is the relationship you see between authoritarianism and corruption? How does that impact democracy?

Eisen: It is a problem that authoritarians, including our own president, always see it as part of their initiative to get control of the public’s purse. We’ve seen this through world leaders such as with Mr. Putin who some have said has become the worlds riches man through corruption. We’ve also seen this with President Trump who has tried to benefit himself and his family. That is a sign of autocracy.

We are heading the first ever case in which a judge has found a cause of action for accepting forbidden government cash benefits relating to the president. This has helped established a climate in the public where people are now keeping an eye on these issues. Another key part of this effort to control corruption is the Muller investigation. We are now awaiting his report as to whether the president obstructed justice or not. I think the rule of law system is working as it should.

[19:30] In your book, you show how you’re more optimistic while your mother is more pessimistic. Do you think democracy works better when both points of view are represented?

Eisen: Perhaps if we had been a bit more pessimistic following the Cold War we would have put in place some sort of Marshal Plan for Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time we have to be aware of the profound difficulties we’ve overcome. It all fits in together. I try to lay out this balance in the book.

[22:00] Can you expand further on the dangers posed to democracy by corruption?

Eisen: Corruption in a democracy infringes upon the voting freedoms as well as others that are critical in a democracy. You can see this playing out here in the form of campaign contributions. The special interests have more money to spread around than average people. They spend more on elections, they get people elected, then they call in favors of those they helped get elected. This is legal corruption.

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