Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd as she is applauded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after an event in Chicago on Wednesday. (Jim Young/Reuters)

CHICAGO — With the Republican Party roiling after the surprise defeat of the second-ranking House leader by an insurgent candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday bemoaned the state of U.S. politics and said the unwillingness to compromise threatens democracy.

The former secretary of state stepped forcefully into the country’s domestic political debate here Wednesday morning by sharply condemning the mission of many conservative leaders and their followers.

“Don’t vote for anyone who proudly says they are against compromise because they are fundamentally saying they are against the American experiment in democracy,” Clinton said during an appearance at the Chicago Ideas Week to promote her new book, “Hard Choices.”

“Without compromise, you don’t have a democracy,” Clinton said. “You have people who believe that it’s their way or the highway. You have people who point fingers at anybody who deviates one small inch from what the perfect is, who think they have a direct line to the divine. And that is not the way a democracy works. That’s a theocracy, that’s an autocracy. That’s not a democracy.”

Clinton shared the stage here with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a supporter and longtime ally, who moderated a question-and-answer session. Clinton appeared more at ease here in her hometown than she has during other appearances on her book tour and media blitz. She and Emanuel discussed weighty topics such as climate change and income inequality, but also exchanged playful banter and reminisced about their days in the White House together two decades ago.

Clinton — who would be the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 if she runs — acknowledged how difficult it can be to reach compromise in a divided government. “In Washington itself, it is not a simple task to try to find some common ground, but it is a necessary, neverending task,” she said.

Clinton was careful not to mention the tea party or any politicians by name, some of whom, like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), could be potential 2016 rivals — but she said the past few years have been “deeply troubling” to her.

“I see a lot of these people running for . . . office who are giving these stem-winder, podium-pounding speeches about how they’ll never compromise, they’ll go to Washington and they’ll get it straight and all of that,” Clinton said. “And that’s not the way you solve problems. That’s not the way you move the country forward.”

Emanuel asked Clinton about the wave of anti-establishment sentiment both in the United States and other democracies and asked how anyone can govern in a time of angst.

“There is a sense of anxiety, despair, disappointment, even anger in a lot of democracies, where people have played by the rules, as my husband famously used to say, and they used to get ahead and their kids did even better but now they doubt that’s going to happen,” Clinton responded. “This is not just about our economy. This is about our democracy.”

Clinton said it is the responsibility of elected leaders to set clear goals and “bring people along” through constant conversation and by rebutting policies that are made in what she dubbed the “evidence-free zone.”

With Emanuel’s help, Clinton tried to clean up from some of the stumbles she had at the launch of her book tour. Referencing Clinton’s remarks Monday to ABC News about the debts she and her husband faced upon leaving the White House in 2001, Emanuel asked, “Hillary, ‘Dead broke?’ Really?”

“That may have not been the most artful way of saying that Bill and I have gone through a lot of phases in our lives,” Clinton said with a laugh.

Later in the program, Emanuel posed a question from a member of the audience, who wanted to know what Clinton’s biggest accomplishment was as secretary of state. Clinton — who did not have a clear answer to that question in her ABC interview — said she was most proud of “helping to restore American leadership.”

Clinton also offered thoughts on three domestic issues sure to be a focus in the 2016 presidential campaign: climate change, immigration and income inequality. She said she was “really proud” of President Obama for new environmental regulations limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

On immigration, Clinton made a forceful case for comprehensive reform. “One of our greatest strengths is that we are a nation of immigrants and we would give that up at our peril,” she said.

Clinton also said income inequality is “a real problem” and that her travels as secretary reinforced that America needs to rebuild “a broad-based middle class that thrived on inclusive prosperity and innovation and entrepreneurial energy.”

When Emanuel asked whether Clinton sees feminism as something in the past, she said she disagreed.

“Look in the dictionary,” Clinton said. “A feminist is someone who believes women should have equal, political, economic, social cultural rights. I don’t see anything controversial about that.”

Clinton and Emanuel sometimes were at loggerheads in the White House in the 1990s, when Emanuel worked as a top political aide to her husband. But the pair showed few signs of disagreement during their hour together on stage here Wednesday, and during one exchange reached out to high-five one another.

At the end of their conversation, Emanuel told Clinton, “This stage is usually graced by the elegance of ballet dancers, and I would say it’s never been graced like this moment.”