Eric Liu, Founder and CEO, Citizen University, Executive Director, Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program
In an article for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, you talk about how literacy and knowledge are power for American citizens. What do we need to know?
Civic literacy, to be capable and powerful participating citizens in this country, is the point of the whole endeavor of civic engagement. To that end, there are so many important moments in our country’s history that we must know and understand deeply. To name a few, in no particular order: start with understanding the Constitution; Equal Protection, the 14th Amendment, the Holocaust; what led to the Holocaust.
Reconstruction, the attempt and failure after the Civil War to remake the Union in an inclusive way; failures that we’re still reckoning with today.
Every American today should understand McCarthyism, what that societal moment was, and what happened then, and how the fever broke, eventually.
I think there’s a theme that runs across all three of these periods, actually, and that’s the notion of bystanders. This is a good question to ask in American civic life: What are the obligations of a bystander? What does showing up in civic life obligate you to do, more than simply being a bystander?
If you do show up, and you’re motivated to do something, but you don’t know where to begin, what’s your advice?
My three word answer: Start a club. Really. Start one or join one. It can be an explicitly political club, but it need not be.
We have gotten to this [political] place we’re in now because of a multi-decade atrophying of citizen muscles; we have a democratic culture that has gotten out of shape. People haven’t made the commitment to organize themselves and others, to formulate their thoughts in public, to be proactive in persuading and listening to different points of view.
What’s your advice for engaging civilly in the online space?
Get offline. Face to face matters most; more than online interactions. Face to face debate and disagreement can be stressful; when you join a club and have to practice being face to face, that’s irreplaceable work. That’s what we have to restore; it’s a multi decade project. But I’m incredibly optimistic right now. We are in the midst of a great citizen surge.
Do you think that the “citizen surge” is sustainable?
Millions of people, for the first time ever, are running out onto the playing field of civic engagement and at a certain point, it’ll hit them that they are out of shape. But now is the time to start training for the long game, to build up our civic fitness.
For anyone who is worrying about sustaining the political energy we’ve seen in the last few months, recognize that if you get in shape, and you keep your ears and network open, there’s so much going on that doesn’t require you to be the one running the show. Focus on a piece of the project, any piece. Pick anything, just start.
In your bio, you mention the “opportunities and obligations that come with citizenship” What are they?
This is a “both/and” response: bottom up citizen organizing, re-learning civics and the importance of government, and naturally, voting. There is no such thing as not voting, by the way. Because when you give up your vote, your absence will let someone else dictate your decision for you. We need to get literate about who gets elected to what, and how they go about making their decisions on our behalf.
One of the most important things about civic power is that it’s a gift; we often give it away, unwillingly. No one takes our power unless we give it.
I mentioned earlier that to sustain one’s ability to engage on civic matters one needs to train for the long game, and that could be local. If you get involved in your town or city council, and you start paying attention to state legislature, issues of access to reproductive health, taxes—you begin to realize, ‘wow, I can decode this, and have a huge amount of voice and influence.’ You begin to realize that though we operate on majority rule, really, it’s minority rule. Particularity on the local level, you can change the balance of power in any majority.
Figure out how to inject yourself into decision-making bodies and processes and see how your own ideas and values can get baked into public policy.
You’ve made your career thinking about these issues (civic engagement, among others). Still, has your work changed in light of our current political climate?
My work has changed in terms of intensity and purposefulness, but it’s almost not changed at all, too. Citizen University is about building the capacity for power and the civic character that must go with it, for the medium to long-term revival of the body politic.