Eric Liu

The American Citizen

Air Date: May 16, 2015

Founder and CEO of Citizen University Eric Liu discusses his new Aspen Institute initiative to cultivate the values, knowledge and skills for effective citizenship throughout the nation.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. At the time of our taping, today’s guest was nominated to be a new member of Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

So I first want to congratulate Eric Liu. And in addition, the Aspen Institute has named him Leader for a new Program on American Citizenship & Identity. A former advisor and speech writer to President Clinton and author of the recently published A Chinaman’s Chance, Eric Liu is CEO of Citizen University. He founded the Seattle-based organization to cultivate the values, knowledge, and skills of effective citizenship.

Liu’s Aspen project has a three prong mission … (1) to articulate an ethical framework for American civic identity, (2) to propose public policy for societal cohesion, and (3) to teach leaders to build coalitions that overcome divides.

While innovative programs have emerged, like Liu’s work and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics program, in our schools there’s decreased emphasis on the importance of good citizenship.

Liu embarks on his work with the Aspen Institute to reinvigorate the civic core of America, as the nation continues to be plagued by stunning apathy and illiteracy. But I do want to ask Eric Liu to explain, how we avoid our civic demise? Thank you for being here, Eric.

LIU: Alexander, thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: How do we avoid that?

LIU: (Laugh) You know we avoid it by not treating it as a thing that’s happening outside us. One, one of my core precepts of citizenship, of, of life really, is, is the idea that society becomes how you behave. Right. And in some ways this, you know, on the one hand it seems sort of like a common place, common sense thing to say, but if you actually sit with it and think about it for a moment … it runs quite contrary to a lot of the messages we get in American life.

The dominant messages we get in American life are essentially a) every man for himself, b) I, I should be able to do whatever the heck I want as long as I’m not actively harming somebody else. Don’t, don’t tread on me, right … that, that’s the main message.

And “Don’t tread on me” is, of course, you know, part of the big bang of American creation. But it’s not really a guide for how to live in community. Right. It’s not really a guide for how to be a grown up, pro-social human in, in a society.

And so I think when you think about society becomes how you behave … if you choose to be engaged or disengaged, if you choose to be civil or uncivil, if you choose to be compassionate or not compassionate, courteous or not courteous, it’s not just about you … it’s not just that, you know, if … okay I’m going to be selfish today. And someone else’s altruism will cancel out my selfishness, it will all work out just fine.

No. If you choose to be selfish, it is as contagious as a virus. Your selfishness affects, gives permission to people all around, it changes norms and mores around you in ways that are completely viral, right? And so when it comes to something like this, about apathy and civic decline, we can’t treat this as kind of exogenous to us. Right? It, it’s part of us. And so if we want to change that, if we want a politics that is more responsive, if we want a civic life where people show up more for each other, guess what … we got to do that, each one of us. Right?

And I think that’s the … there’s a great billboard that I once saw that captures this, this ethic, Alexander, it was on a, the side of a really congested highway … it might have been I-5, you know, out West where I’m from … and you know, traffic was basically a parking lot, nothing was moving. And this billboard said, “You’re not stuck in traffic … you are traffic” … right … and, and that to me encapsulates the spirit of … you’re not separate from the problem if there is a problem, you are part of the problem and either you are actively working to solve it, or to, to move it in the other direction … or you are contributing to it.

And so when it comes to civic decline or voting, for instance, there is no such thing as not participating. Right? Not participating is participating in a noxious, harmful direction.

HEFFNER: But to what extent can this idea of rugged individualism comport with crafting a civic identity?

LIU: You know, I think the, (coughs) the history of the United States is a history of melding exactly those two things. You know we aren’t …

HEFFNER: But they’re in conflict right now.

LIU: They’re, they’re in tension … they’re in tension. You know America is a set of constant, continuing tensions and arguments. Right? A tension between one notion of liberty … which is “Don’t tread on me” and the idea of equality. Right? There’s all … there’s an inherent tension there. There’s a tension between rugged individualism and “we’re all in it together.” Right? But these things I don’t think of as mutually exclusive.

What American life is all about is trying to figure out at different times the tug and the pull between those things and whether we’ve gone too far in one direction or another.

But when you think … again, about the Founding generation and, and we, today, in the, you know, in the 21st century like to think about the founders and that whole cohort as these radical individualists, as if each of them was just an atomistic, you know, libertarian paragon.

No, that entire Colonial generation was steeped in a deep sense of communitarianism, in a deep sense of relationship and obligation, in a deep sense that every right that you might have or exercise or claim, was bound up with a big set of responsibilities, too. Right? And somehow, over … particularly the last few decades in American life, the responsibilities half of that equation has, has fallen away and it’s just “rights, rights, rights”.

HEFFNER: You identify an important word in our political lexicon, communitarianism as opposed to collectivism which has been demonized by the Right. So how do you strife for that concept in an apolitical way? And how are you going to carry that forward in your Aspen Institute work?

LIU: Well, again, this is, this not a word that either I have coined or an idea that I have invented. Communitarianism is how Plymouth Colony got built. Communitarianism is how barns got raised across the American West. Communitarianism is how the, the men who landed on Normandy Beach … ah, on Omaha Beach in Normandy … managed to turn the tide of history on D-Day. Communitarianism is how people of all races and classes and backgrounds came together during the Civil Rights Movement to redeem the creed of the United States. Right?

So, this is not some foreign Communistic, you know, un-American Socialist thing. This is how, essentially, every time this country has made progress, it’s because we’ve taken a big old dose of a spirit of community. And a big old dose of remembering that when we … that we’re better together.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s, that’s a great campaign mantra, but unfortunately in our politics and in our schools, I might add, there is an absence of that leadership, that direction towards communitarianism.

LIU: This new program that, that I’ve launched at the Aspen Institute on Citizenship and American identity is really meant to address that question on a few different levels. So, it’s not so much about classroom activity, although I’m very interested in things like what you mentioned at the outset,, the, the online platform that Justice O’Connor has created in retirement from the Supreme Court where the middle school kids can play, essentially video games to learn different aspects of civics.

All that is great. What we’re going to focus on at Aspen is how we change the culture. Right. Aspen, the Aspen Institute is a, is an incredible platform and hub of leaders from every sector in the United States and around the world.

My, my focus is here on the US. You know, leaders from media and the arts, leaders from politics, leaders from business, leaders from philanthropy. Right. And, you know, your question of how do we form a norm, basically, you know my theory of action is basically simultaneously, you know, from the top and from the middle out. Right.

From the top … it does … leadership does matter. Making sure that we cultivate new cohorts of leaders across different sectors who speak this language of community. Who are grounded in the ethics and the values that are inherent in different parts of the American creed. Right. Who, who recognize that the history of this country is, is one that properly told is about this interplay of community and individual liberty. Right.

And that’s just … as you say, it’s a language that is essentially abandoned in how we form leaders in every sector today, not just in our schools, but in our adult institutions.

And so part of what we want to do is basically to be convening leaders across all different sectors and giving, giving them permission in way that modern life doesn’t give them to do a big, deep dive ethically, morally, historically on what the content of our citizenship is here in the United States. Right?

And to remind themselves, and to be reminded by others of, of this dimension of communitarianism. The other piece though that’s more “middle out” is really finding ways to reach Americans where they are. Right.

And, and sometimes, you know, the realty of our times, one of the reasons why I wanted to launch this program at Aspen is … it’s not just as you allude to that there’s a gradual decline in civil knowledge in this country, but it comes at a moment where we are experiencing some of the most radical, severe, income inequality, wealth concentration and, and essentially just social fragmentation in this country than we’ve seen in a good long time. And it becomes more necessary than ever for us to figure out what’s the new story of us? Right.

And so a big part of what we’re going to do in this Aspen Program on Citizenship and American identity is going to different parts of the country and essentially asking folks “What is the story you tell of America?” How do you define America? How do you define American? And … this is a moment where people need, again, to be both given permission and a little prodding to do that reflection because the answer, the story is not the same story that you might have given two, three, four decades ago.

There was a time when to be American was to be White, to become American was to quote “become White, to try to become White” and, and that was the end of the story. People didn’t particularly question it. But today in this age of both demographic flux and, and inequality, there’s a bigger story to be told. One that’s more inclusive, and one that has to reckon with 21st century demography.

HEFFNER: So in a sense, we’ve re-invented our culture already, but we need the norms to, to be able to sustain it. And to, and to thrive.

LIU: We need the norms, we need the story, we need the language and we need habits. Right? I mean this is a lot about practice. You know, we were talking before the cameras rolled about what’s so great about New York and though I live in Seattle now, I was, I was born in Poughkeepsie and spent a lot of time here in the city and every time I’m back I’m reminded in this very visceral way that my, my entire spirit of patriotism, of American patriotism turns out to be a particularly New York brand of patriotism.

Like this idea of “We will take people from every corner of the planet. We will fuse them together, we will create wild new hybrids, we will be tolerant, we will be aggressive, we will be bumping up against each other, but we will form something greater than the sum of the parts by doing this.” That’s not some bland kind of melting down, melting pot where we all become sort of beige-ish, brown-ish, right, but recognizes this incredible diversity and makes something out of it. Right.

That is a … people aren’t born knowing how to do that. You have to have a culture that forms … you have to have leaders, you have to have institutions that create shared experiences, whether it’s national service or other things that allow people across different backgrounds to come and experience life together. And you have to be able to, again, reinforce over and over again a story of America, a story of this kind of community that people can kind of locate themselves in.

HEFFNER: Will your program answer this question? Which is … is the apathy localized just as much as it is a national phenomenon? Because if you ask public servants, or aspiring public servants, they’ll tell you that you can really infuse from that local perspective the national political discourse with energy, vitality and, and deep care about the issues. You mention voting. It’s atrocious what, what’s going on nationally.

The, the evidence is not there to support that locally it’s any better. So as you visit these communities what do you hope to find and how do you, how do you hope to bridge the local with the national?

LIU: Well, it’s a great question. I, I do think we’re in this very interesting age, partly because national politics has become so dysfunctional and stuck and broken.

But partly also just because deeper tectonic shifts are happening with technology and other things that make this much less an age about everybody flowing to the center and, and thinking that all action must happen in the nation’s capital and we, we await what Washington tells us. Right.

This is an age, this is a networked age. It is not a spokes to the hub age. This is a network age where there are nodes all over the country of civic action, of, of power, of … kind of culture creation. Right? And, and cities end up being the most powerful, impactful nodes in this age of networked power. And I think that on issue after issue whether, you know, in my town, in Seattle, we not too long ago moved and enacted a $15 minimum wage. Right. That’s literally unthinkable in national politics in, in the Congress. They, they can’t even move to deal with $10 … $10.10.

But, but in Seattle, it is possible, it is possible to build a coalition of business people and labor. It is possible to build public support for something like that. And when we did that in Seattle, we didn’t do it in some little bubble, you know, off in the Northwest corner of the country. We did it while consulting with and learning from allies in other cities.

We talked to folks in New York, we talked to folks in Chicago, we talked to people in San Francisco who’ve been raising the wage. We talked to people in San Jose and all around the country who’ve been figuring out in ways that are locally appropriate to them how they activate citizens to engage on something like raising the wage and dealing with inequality that way. Right.

You may agree or disagree on raising the minimum wage, but that’s just an example. There are plenty of people on the Right who have the same realization and intuition that this is a time where a lot of change can be happening locally and where you can awaken citizens to engage in a new way where they feel like they have agency and can see some results of their interaction more powerfully at the local scale than at the national.

HEFFNER: I mean … Seattle of course, has a reputation for being a progressive hub and that’s where your university is based, your organization. What transpired there in terms of your own engagement in the non-profit sector that could be useful for other states, cities and localities to consider moving forward?

LIU: That’s another great question. You know, I think … of course, every city has its very distinctive, unique assets and ecosystem, but one of the things about Seattle that I feel like other cities in the country can either learn from or borrow … is a spirit of coalition.

And I’ll give you a very specific example. Around, around race. Right. So, Seattle is a community that has … people of color, but not in the same numbers and proportions as you might see in Los Angeles or New York or, or some other cities. Right. And one of the features of Seattle’s civic and political and ethnic life is essentially that there are not enough Asian Americans, or African Americans or Latinos or Native Americans for each group alone essentially to go its own way. Right. For each group alone to just be its own force in politics and disregard the others.

But there are enough for … if those four communities and other, you know, non-majority mainstream communities ban together, in coalition, as a block, they can really have force and voice and presence in Seattle civic life and politics.

And that’s precisely what’s happened over the last few decades. And it took … again, it took some leadership … you know, starting in the late sixties, early seventies there were these four leaders who alternately are called “The Gang of Four”, “The Four Amigos”, a guy named Larry Gossett, an African American leader who’d been a student leader in, in the sixties, a guy named Roberto Maestas, who founded a thing called El Centro de la Raza, a guy named Bob Santos, who is sort of the unofficial Mayor of the Chinatown International District Neighborhood, and a guy named Bernie Whitebear who’d been a leader in the Native American community.

And these four guys 40 years ago basically recognized this demographic reality and decided “We have to stick together, we have to work together, we have to support each other. And we have to recognize that it’s going to be sort of a ‘You know it’s your turn to move on something and we’re going to get behind you.’ And later one will be my turn to move on something, you’re going to get behind me.”

That’s a remarkable thing and they created a culture over these last decades of cross-racial community and coalition to, to move things. I think other cities could learn from that. Right. And, you know, even in places like New York where the politics and the ethnic politics can be so much more fractious because each group does have more have more might and voice on its own. You recognize that, that “we’re all better off when we’re all better off”.

And sometimes when all you’re doing is looking out for your slice of the pie, your people’s piece, everybody ends up a little bit net worse.

HEFFNER: But that’s a disputed idea.

LIU: Which?

HEFFNER: And in the, in the American electorate even that we’re all better off, when we’re all better off. I mean it’s, it’s a bit cliché, but it’s, it’s true, that, that there are folks who dispute that …

LIU: Of course.

HEFFNER: … idea …

LIU: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and it could be as many as 47% that dispute that idea …

LIU: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … I mean I don’t know. But when you engage communities on the Right and on the Left I would, I wonder if there is … if they believe collectively there is an impetus for Federal action to extrapolate from the Seattle example Justice O’Connor’s pleading with us “We need a Constitutional Amendment to encourage a civic awakening”. Do we need that?

LIU: I don’t think we need a … I mean … I don’t think … I don’t know what a Constitutional Amendment would do …

HEFFNER: To mandate the teaching of civics she thinks that because our nation is plagued with civic illiteracy we have to act and we have to act boldly.

LIU: I don’t think about this, this piece as, you know the Federal government has to tell everybody what to do. I don’t know that a Constitutional Amendment would be the, the right vehicle for a revival or reinvigoration of civic education.

However, I do think that, you know, there’s a word that has a little bit fallen out of our vocabulary … any student of immigration history, any student of, say, New York history would know well, and that word is Americanization … right … so a hundred years ago, you know during, during the last great wave of immigration to the United States, our schools, our churches and houses of worship, our community organizations, settlement houses, all these different institutions undertook a broad campaign of Americanization … to really take all of these new immigrants, particularly from parts of Europe that, that hadn’t sent a lot of immigrants to the United States before, Southern Europe and, you know, places like that … and enmeshed them in history, language, culture … of the United States of America … right.

Now, the problem with Americanization at that time was that it, it was a very heavy-handed form essentially of Waspification … right.

You come here, you know Lithuanian Jewish … you come here Greek, you come here Italian, like “Lose that … lose your accent, lose you ethnicity, stop being so ethnic … you know, you know, kind of make yourself a bit more WASP. Right. That was the downside of that era’s form of Americanization.

But there was another part of that program of Americanization that was timeless and remains necessary … which was introducing people to the idea that this is a country that has nothing holding it together, but a creed. Nothing holding it together but a set of values that are embodied in a few documents, a few pieces of parchment and paper and then becomes a matter of practice and habit whether we breathe life into them or not … right.

Today, in the 21st century we need what I think of as an Americanization 2.0 … as a new form, a new program of Americanization that similarly activates schools, faith organizations, non-profit groups, community based organizations, all different kinds of institutions to engage this generations immigrants in, in reminding them that “Hey, this is not just some random free trade zone where you arrive and you get to do what you want. There is a coherent ‘us’ here a coherent story and a coherent tradition that you are entering into and it behooves you, it behooves all of us for us to be steeped in that.”

And 21st century Americanization can be more inclusive, more, you know, embracing of the facts of diversity, but it’s still the necessary thing to do and I think, you know, both at the Aspen program and Citizen’s University, my non-profit … we aim to be driving this kind of program.

HEFFNER: One of the prongs of your Aspen Institute project is policy making. So how do you, how do breed that culture through policy making? Again, I don’t mean to imply that it has to be from the top down, it can be by local dictates and legislation in State Houses around the country.

But if you’re saying “no” to a Constitutional Amendment, or, or at least there are other mechanisms, what, what do you hope to learn through the Aspen Institute work that will drive at the policy making, that will tackle this problem.

LIU: You know I think … let’s take education specifically, right. For better or for worse, this is a nation of local control when it comes to education. And so, it’s not easy for the Federal government to … I mean we see in the debate today about the Common Core, which is not even technically a Federal effort. It’s a coordinated effort by 40 some states to try to create some common standards across different disciplines and even that has created incredible push-back from both the Left and the Right.

Can you imagine if the Federal Department of Education had tried to say … you know, “We now issue hence forth, you know a set of standards and everybody shall follow them.” The political culture here would, would resist that.

At the same time, there are interesting partnerships to be built on a policy level where the Federal government acts sort of as catalyst or venture capitalist in a way …


LIU: … for experimentation by states and localities on … you know, basically saying, “Here’s the charge, figure out new creative, compelling ways to revitalize civic education in K-12 schools.” Right.

We have a pot of money, we have a certain set of kind of guidelines of what we think of as creative, you know, civic education, but we’re not going to dictate. Here’s out pot of money, state, cities … go at it, compete, come up with your best ideas, come up with our best ways of, of cracking this nut and then we will award funds to, you know, the most promising plans and ideas. Right.

The government actually, the Obama Administration did something quite like this during a program early in the first term of the President … called “Race to the Top”.

They had a giant pot of funding, and they said to the states and now to school districts around the country … “Here are four broad goals, we want … you know, more data driven stuff. We want more high quality teacher training. We want to accelerate the up-take of charter schools” and so on and so forth … states, districts, come up with plans and strategies for doing this. We’re not going to dictate how, but you come up with things that make sense for you from the ground up and then we’re going to award funds to the most promising and exciting of these plans.”

And that to me is a great leverage way to scale and to incentivize innovation on any issue, but particularly on something like civics where you have essentially a policy market failure. Right. People aren’t taking it upon themselves to just wake up and revitalize civics. But I think with a prod like that and meanwhile, from, from, you know, the ground up, people like you and me having conversations like this, reminding each other, you know, that this stuff matters and it doesn’t matter just if you’re, you know, age 75 and older. It matters particularly for the young generation to get literate in this stuff. I think we can move the dial.

HEFFNER: I hate to say it, Eric Liu, but we’ve run out of time.

LIU: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: I hope you’ll visit with us again and describe what the experimentation elicits from our Aspen Institute project.

LIU: I sure will, thank you for having me, Alexander.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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