This year’s Independence Day marks the 243rd birthday of the United States—a country that today has a population of around 330 million people from all walks of life.
Our growing diversity, combined with an increasingly polarized politics, challenges us to imagine what a modern American civic identity looks like. America is not the same country it was decades ago, so it makes sense that our view of what it means to be a citizen in today’s America would evolve, as well.
Eric Liu is a prolific author, civic activist, and former Clinton administration official who founded the organization Citizen University (CU) in 2012 to help reinvigorate Americans’ sense of civic identity. CU does not define the term “citizen” by legal status—it is a wider conception of Americanness that encompasses everyone who lives in the United States.
CU promotes civic identity with a slate of programs such as Civic Saturday. During these events, community members gather for 90 minutes of discussion and activities, including civic sermons designed to make them think about how to be engaged citizens.
Greater Good’s Bridging Differences Writing Fellow, Zaid Jilani, spoke with Liu about his new book, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy, which is based off some of the civic sermons Liu has delivered. In our interview, Liu discussed how we can improve our civic life in America and engage productively across our political differences, as he did with right-wing radio host Glenn Beck, and what it means to be an American.
Zaid Jilani: American civic life is under stress—people don’t feel like they’re part of the same communities, they don’t feel like they can engage civilly in discussing political and social issues. What are the big stressors that are challenging our civic community and our civic ethos that Citizen University is addressing?
Eric Liu, cofounder and CEO of Citizen University
Eric Liu: One is . . . the profound level of income inequality and wealth concentration in the United States right now. When you get this degree of clumping, hoarding, and inequality and concentration of not just wealth but of voice and opportunity and self-reinforcing opportunity to participate, you begin to cut away at the very foundation of the idea of equal citizenship. It’s really hard to sustain a notion of equal justice and equality under the law when conditions are this unequal and where inequality is self-reinforcing.
A second great stressor is that we’re undergoing a tectonic demographic shift right now. So the question ‘Who is us?,’ which has always been a central American question, has never been more salient than it is today. People are realizing that whiteness is no longer the default setting for Americanness.
There’s great opportunity in that but also great dislocation. And the opportunity and challenge that we all have right now is how to articulate a new narrative of “us” that can reflect our great diversity and give us a basis for unity. So our work at Citizen University really tries to address both of these stressors.
The point of American life is to generate hybrids of culture, of cuisine, of bloodlines, of musical styles, of approaches to problem solving, whatever it may be. A lot of our work at Citizen University . . . is about trying to encourage people to . . . mix and not match—to mix and scramble their sources of friendship, their sources of reading, their sources of inspiration in ways that can generate new hybrids.
ZJ: A lot of people have different conceptions of what it means to be a civic-minded person. What does being an American in 2019 mean, particularly in a diverse country with as many cleavages as this one?
EL: Our work is about a notion of citizenship that is broader than documentation status—it’s a deeper, more capacious ethical notion of being a member of a body, a participant in and contributor to community. And we really think about citizenship broadly defined as being about this fusion of power and character—being literate to power, understanding how power works on the one side, but also coupling that literacy with a grounding in moral and civic character; the values, norms, and ethics of being a prosocial member of a community.
The point of civic life is not necessarily to have unanimity, even if that were possible. It’s not to foster consensus around [the American] creed; it is to foster healthy engagement with that creed, a sense of responsibility for sustaining and living up to that creed, and then welcoming not only diversity but disagreement and argument about what that creed calls us to do. So a really short version of saying that is: To be an American is fundamentally to be in creative, joyful, productive argument about what it means to be an American.
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ZJ: In your book Become America, you talk about meeting Glenn Beck, a longtime conservative radio talk show host (although he’s not so comfortable with the current president in some ways). For someone who has more left-of-center political beliefs, what was that experience like?
EL: I noticed a year or two ago that Glenn Beck was taking a very public pivot. That he was taking steps in major media outlets to take responsibility for his part over the many years in how toxic and poisonous our political culture had become.
Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy (Sasquatch Books, 2019, 320 pages)
I went down [to Beck’s studio outside Dallas, Texas] for a conversation that was not on air, not for the cameras or the microphones—it was just for us to get to know each other. And we did. We started talking about our common interests in American political tradition. We started arguing about the Federalist Papers. We started talking about the Progressive Era. We started getting to things that were not just about politics. We talked about the relationship each of us had with our father. My dad died young when I was in only my early 20s. [Beck] had a very fraught relationship with his father that compelled him to go into media to find some voice and identity. We started bonding at a human level just about different life experiences.
Then he invited me back to continue that conversation but to have it on air. So that we could actually show his base and his viewers what it would look like and what it would sound like to engage in this way. And we did that. So we just built this relationship that is not naive. It is not requiring that either of us abandon our actual policy beliefs, and still requires us to challenge each other and to be disappointed with one another when either one of us (or our side) says or does things that either one finds really objectionable or challenging. But we laid down this foundation of humanity. And I think that is the necessary precursor for any sustained renewal of trust in humanity and in civic life.
ZJ: Based on your experience with Beck and others, how do you approach someone who seems to be totally on the other side of the universe from you in terms of what they believe?
EL: I think it’s really important to start those conversations not by diving in first to the policy or the political issues that you’re going to debate, but with some human universals. Who were your greatest mentors? Who shaped you? What were your formative experiences? How did your values or worldview get developed, whether by positive experiences or by trauma? By challenge or by trial? How did you come to be interested in what you’re interested in?
These kinds of human questions allow us to find chords of connection. I don’t care who the person is; they can be someone who is an outright bigot who thinks that you shouldn’t even get to be here. But if you somehow got into a room and were both answering those kinds of questions, you would find some chord of connection in your experience.
What we need in American civic life is not necessarily fewer arguments. We just need less stupid ones. I don’t mean to be glib. . . . I mean more emotionally intelligent, more historically literate, more honest about power and power differentials, and more grown-up. Being able to do that requires that you not only start with the universal human dimensions and questions but that you also go into these conversations letting down your guard. It’s really hard to change someone else’s mind if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed.
The corollary is if you enter into these encounters not to win but just to understand, that makes all the difference. That’s the big message that we have in our Better Arguments project at the Aspen Institute, which is if you take winning off the table, a lot of things become possible. If you engage a person not to persuade them that you’re right, they’re wrong, that you’re smart and they’re dumb, but just to say, “I want to understand you better. I want to understand how you come to this view that I find so abhorrent. How you see the world the way you do which is so different than my own. I’m not here to judge you or to make you feel defensive or bad about yourself. And hopefully you can understand me.” That’s hard enough, but I think that’s an approach that we found can help, both in our work at Citizen University and . . . the Better Arguments project.
ZJ: What is something that gives you hope about the future of civic life in America? What are the silver linings to the conflicts we’re having right now?
EL: I actually am hopeful about our chances for civic and democratic renewal right now for a couple of reasons.
“The question “Who is us?,” which has always been a central American question, has never been more salient than it is today”
One, everywhere I go, in the work that we do at Citizen University—far from the circus and the shouting matches of national politics in D.C.—I see people in communities all around the United States who are showing up, who are engaging across lines of difference, who are just saying, “However we got here, my job now is to help start fixing things.” They are part of the renewal (in a very vocal way) of trust, of capacity, of inclusion. That’s in small towns, in big cities, in rural areas, in urban areas, it’s red places, blue places. Our work brings me into contact with people all across the United States who are part of that body of renewal. I think that’s a story that’s under-told in the national media.
The second thing that gives me hope is recognizing that the pain and the anguish and the anger that we feel in our politics are birthing pains; we are birthing a new America right now. We are trying to do something that hasn’t yet been done in human history—which is create a mass, multicultural, democratic republic. Different societies along the way have done two or even three of those. But to do a mass multicultural democratic republic—to be at a mass scale of 320 million people, to have this diversity of cultures and traditions within that society, to be a democratic culture (which means not just run by elites, not just having the game rigged by the one percent), and then to be a republic (which means to govern ourselves, to treat ourselves as citizens responsible for the health of the body politic)—no one’s ever tried to do all four of these things at once.
We’re trying. And it’s hard. And it’s painful. And what seems like a lot of cacophony and hate and anger—I actually see the positive side of it. These are a lot of voices that for most of American history were never in the public square. Voices of people of color, voices of angry left-behind disenfranchised white people, voices of Appalachia, the voice of immigrants and refugees.
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So much of American public life and politics was driven by a very narrow band of voices of white men of relative privilege who got to shape the discourse. That’s no longer the case. So of course we’re going to have more noise and arguments and pain. And what makes me hopeful is we are going to find a way through this by cultivating not just the habit of getting your voice heard, but to come back full circle to civic religion: habits of the heart. The capacity for empathy; capacity for arguing better; capacity for re-humanizing and checking your own worst instincts to dehumanize.
In our work at Citizen University, we’re spending all day long with people trying to cultivate these capacities, and that gives me some hope. We don’t need 320 million Americans to be this way. We just need a critical mass—a critical mass to start shifting norms, to start to embody what it looks like to build a 21st-century beloved community. And once we get that critical mass in community after community, city by city, a tipping point will arise.