Eric Liu: Repair Our Civic Culture To Turn Back Authoritarianism and Lessen Civil Strife
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Eric Liu, who is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University. He also directs the Aspen Institute's Citizenship & American Identity Program. He is the author of several books, including The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker, his 2017 workYou’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen; and his most recent book, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy, a New York Times New & Notable Book. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic. Our interview took place on December 6, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): You co-founded Citizen University in 2012 with your wife, Jená Cane, and its work is more crucial than ever. Can you talk about its mission as it stands in 2021?
Eric Liu (EL): Our mission is to foster a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship, with an emphasis on culture. Institutional change, policy change, legal change, are all supported by culture, by which we mean the norms, values, narratives, assumptions about what's okay in everyday community life. And that ends up defining the frame of the possible.
A lot of our work is really about what does it take to foster a healthy civic culture rather than one that is either hyper individualistic or nihilistic or simply authoritarian.
RBG: Culture is the right frame to use, because we see before our eyes how values and behaviors are shifting. Things that were until recently viewed as immoral or illegal are now rewarded, certainly by today's Republican party. And the new culture that comes out of this is reinforced in institutions and other structures.
EL: It is a feedback loop: once institutional change happens, that can reinforce the culture that gave rise to it. You see this on all kinds of issues, but what's top of mind right now, for instance, is guns. As we speak, there's a little controversy about a Republican Congressman (Thomas Massie, R-KY) who shared a holiday card photo in which every member of his family is wielding a semiautomatic rifle, with big smiles on their faces.
Now, nothing about that is illegal. I presume that everybody in the photo is licensed to carry. But it's a matter of norms. Not too many years ago, that would have been seen as bizarre. Today it seems normal.
I remember a comparable image a few years back of a hardcore Second Amendment advocate walking into a Kroger store with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder and taking a picture of himself to say, I'm exercising my rights. It was laughable at that time, and now it's normal.
RBG: What's interesting about that Kroger example is that the person is not just showing his dominance and idea of freedom, but also saying that he no longer cares about how his behavior is making others around him feel. Many people, including children, might find it a frightening sight. It's not only aggression but a lack of caring.
How do we deal with this? You write about the importance of curiosity --the quality of wanting to know how others see and experience things.
EL: Curiosity is central. We have this equation that we use sometimes in our work, which is that power plus character equals citizenship. To live like a citizen requires you to be fluent in power, to understand how things happen and who makes them happen. Not only to be able to read that map of power, but to learn how to rewrite it and write yourself into that map of power.
But that's only half the equation, because you might become very good at manipulating people, money, ideas, and social norms, but you have no ethical core. You have no sense of being situated in a community that extends beyond yourself. And then all you're doing is becoming a very skilled sociopath.
We have seen this kind of casual, intentional sociopathy over the last years, trickling down from the White House, but also bubbling up from people all around us during the pandemic. And so we define civic character not in terms of individual virtue, but character in the collective.
Living in community recognizes that it's not all about you expressing yourself, it's not all about you and your rights, but rather that your rights are set in a context of your responsibilities.
To return to the man in the Kroger store with the AR-15, he is saying that no one's needs but his matter, no one's fears but his matter. And that he will impose his hopes and fears and mindset on everybody else.
I'm not saying that that person's hopes, fears and wants are per se illegitimate. It would be very interesting to sit down and talk with that person and see what in his life has shaped the sense of security and place and identity that requires him to do this. I would want to learn that.
That's a way to engage that person. Finding out how I can actually approach that person and say, I'm not here to win a debate. I just want to understand why and how you came to see the world the way you do. That's not possible all the time, but it is definitely possible much more of the time than we may think.
RBG: In your latest civic sermon you talk about cynicism and how it's a response to fear and a way of avoiding the acknowledgement of feelings of loss and grief.
EL: If you look through the lens of the human heart, you appreciate that everybody's hurting one way or another during a pandemic and everybody's scared one way or another. Pre-pandemic, we were living through some of the most severe and radical wealth concentration and income inequality since just before the Great Depression.
In a period like this, the system does tend to tip over, and before it tips institutionally, it tips over normatively. People stop seeing themselves as attached to one other, they stop seeing themselves as "in it together." It's that unwinding that makes possible the dehumanization that leads to both authoritarianism and civil war.
RBG: That's true. We are at a turning point. And It's always easier to feel anger rather than sadness or shame. So, what can people do to recapture this sense of the civic bond and the ability to dialogue?
EL: My general answer is: join a club. It's so elementary, and yet so few people actually do it. The act of joining, the act of entering into a realm where it's not just about you, where you've got to figure out common goals, a common agenda, common purposes, across diversity. It can be a civic club, a political club, or some interest of yours, like gardening.
The joining muscle is the thing that has atrophied in American life, and the pandemic in many ways has accelerated that atrophy.
Then I have a couple of specific things, like searching out different ways to engage and learn with other people as we try to make our way in community. The civic sermons are part of a program we run called Civic Saturdays. These civic gatherings are happening all across the United States. And we are training people in a civic seminary program to lead these gatherings.
I run another project out of the Aspen Institute called Better Arguments. It unfolds in a variety of public settings, like libraries, community spaces, and educational spaces. The idea is that, as polarized and toxic as our politics may be, we don't need fewer arguments. We just need to recognize that it's okay for us to argue.
The project encourages ways to engage in debate that are humanizing rather than dehumanizing, using arguments that show that we are conscious rather than blind about our own power and privilege and aware of the context of history and what brought us to this point.
Rather than avoid discussion or presume common ground, Better Arguments acknowledges that at end of the day we may still hold deeply irreconcilable views on guns or abortion or whatever, but we will be able to maintain an underlying commitment to stay in union. That underlying commitment to unity is what is endangered right now.