“Restoring Faith In Democracy” Transcript

Guest: Eric Liu

(Listen to the audio on the episode page.)

Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist Betty Teng.

Jonathan Kopp: And I’m communications strategist and political hack, Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this, the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.

Betty: Hi, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Oh, boy.

Betty: Yeah, it’s not over.

Jonathan: No, it sure isn’t. Look, we’re getting close to the end though, which is to say close to the beginning.

Betty: Right.

Jonathan: Georgia has certified its votes and Joe Biden is our president elect, having won 306 electoral votes. And Donald Trump is going out as a one term president.

Betty: Right. And it’s kind of amazing because with all the sturm und drang around Michigan, even if those electoral votes don’t count, are rendered moot, he still wins.

Jonathan: He wins.

Betty: So what is really kind of crazy-making, if I may use that word as a psychoanalyst, is–

Jonathan: It’s a professional term, right?

Betty: I’m saying that clinically, it’s technical, is that we’re making all of this fuss. And I think we need to recognize this as more energy than it deserves, because the impact of it isn’t even consequential.

Jonathan: Well, right. So as a matter of democratic participation, the voters have spoken and as a matter of law, 31, 32, 33 lawsuits and counting, the rule of law has spoken. But in the process, it feels like Americans of all stripes have had their faith in democracy shaken.

Betty: Yes. And that’s the real dangerous thing. And for me personally, working with people day in and day out about what they’re worried about, people thought that it would be over.

Jonathan: Right.

Betty: You had the faith on election night. At least people got very excited on that Saturday following. But then very soon that euphoria crashed and people thought that they could rest and they’re not resting. And that’s what’s very, very frustrating, that faith–

Jonathan: Yeah, because, look, I mean, our laws are one thing, but our norms are another. And what happens when the sitting president of the United States defies, again, some of our most sacred fundamental norms? And it is enough to shake our faith.

Betty: Absolutely. Which is why we brought our next guest on, Eric Liu.

Jonathan: A perfect guest for this moment.

Betty: Exactly, exactly. He has great, if not infinite, faith in American democracy. And yet it’s a realistic faith, I would say, which is why I’m so excited to bring on our next guest. Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, which works at a grassroots level to build a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship to the United States. He also directs the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He’s the author of several acclaimed books, including his most recent Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility and Democracy. Eric served as a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and later as the president’s Deputy Domestic Policy Advisor. Eric, thank you so much for joining us on Mind of State.

Eric Liu: I’m so glad to be with you.

Jonathan: So, Eric, you’ve been out preaching the gospel of civic religion. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what civic religion means?

Eric: Yeah, so in our work at Citizen University, we think about civic religion in these terms, which is democracy in the United States is such a matter of belief, and I don’t mean belief in a God necessarily, I just mean belief in each other and in the possibility that this thing could actually work. We often put it very simply, which is democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. And when you consider that we are a nation that is bound together only by a creed, a set of ideas and ideals, you realize, and we realize rather painfully and urgently during these times right now, how fragile and evanescent that mutual agreement is. And so we think about this work in many ways as the work of sustaining and continuously finding new ways to rekindle a sense of civic faith, a belief that this common endeavor, this possibility of self-government, can work.

And so we’ve quite taken literally this frame of civic religion which recognizes that to believe in the idea of democracy is to recognize that the values in the creed, words that we often say as cliches, liberty and justice for all, equal protection of the laws, and so on and so forth, all men, all people, are created equal. That we actually sit with those and interrogate those and express our doubts about those, but that we also find ways in regular ritual gatherings to ask each other, what do those ideals call us to do. How do they require us to show up in our community, in our relationships, in our engagement in civic and community life. And so probably the central program we have at Citizen University is called Civic Saturdays, which are essentially a civic analogue to a faith gathering. It’s not church or synagogue or mosque, but it has that flow and that feel precisely because we believe that this stuff has to be rekindled and that belief has to be rekindled in the company of others where you can express your doubt, your fear, your concern, and where we can make meaning together in a time where so much in our national politics is undercutting that faith.

Betty: You know, you’re talking, as you said, democracy works because enough people have to believe democracy works. And I’ve heard you said before, it is a faith based thing. And it feels like right now we’re having a crisis of faith about democracy. How do we deal with this crisis of faith? Because this language of religion really helps us, you know, galvanize and get behind civics, which is, it can be kind of a dry thing. But that it is a belief and it is a faith and it is something that gives us meaning. But right now, it seems like meaning is being taken away from democracy.

Eric: Well, I think it’s first important to say that when we talk about civic religion, we do not mean blind faith. We do not mean indoctrination and zealotry. And we certainly don’t mean unerring dogma. To reckon with the creed and the ideas in the American creed is to recognize that there are perpetual tensions. If you take two elements of that creed, liberty and equality, those are not just mom and apple pie, nice things that we like. Those are things that are continuously in tension. And the debates that go on today, even in the midst of a cataclysmic pandemic, about whether wearing masks is too great an affront on our liberty shows that these are going to be continuously contested questions and ideas. And so the question of civic faith is one of enabling enough people to articulate their core values in a way where they can understand how others who have different priorities and values might see the world differently.

Jonathan: You know, I’m all for listening, right. I’m all for trying to understand and empathize with the views of others in order to come together. But how do we repair the breach when it seems like there, at this moment, there is a right and a wrong. There is not necessarily room for people to show up at a state house with guns and disrupt government function, for people to believe without showing any facts or evidence or data, in fact, everything to the contrary, that an election was stolen or rigged and the rule of law is thwarting their arguments, but they’re not ceasing. Two thirds of the people who voted for Trump believe that this election was stolen. So how do we repair the breach when we’re not even agreeing on objective facts?

Eric: You are naming a central question, which is when you don’t have agreement on objective facts or common reality, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a union. That’s just a fact. And we are experiencing that right now. I will say that I think the least effective way to try to recreate a sense of common fact is to tell people they’re stupid–

Jonathan: But you have said we need less stupid arguments.

Eric: Well, yeah. Our arguments are often very stupid and unsatisfyingly binary. But I think it is simply, look, I think if you look at those two thirds of Trump voters who are of the view that this, that Donald Trump won the election and any evidence to the contrary is evidence of fraud, that is a willfully stupid way of seeing the world. And to me, what’s interesting and important about that is what drives the willfulness, not the stupidity, right. What drives the willfulness? What is leading those people to need to want to believe in that myth, in that lie, right. And so I don’t think that you can change the minds of all of those two thirds of people who voted for Trump. In fact, I don’t know that you can change the minds of most of them, but I think you can change the minds of some of them. And I think the only way you do that is by actually getting to that base layer beneath the current arguments about the election to what it is that forms their worldview, what it is that leads them to react to reality this way and respond to an authoritarian demagogue like Donald Trump the way they do.

Jonathan: But you’ve been out on a listening tour, I mean, you’ve talked to people across red and blue and urban and rural in formulating your insights for common purpose. What are you hearing that we’re not hearing and we’re not seeing? Because I understand the resentment. I understand the lack of faith in government. I understand feeling let down and left behind by an economy. It all makes perfect sense. But what are we missing?

Eric: Well, I mean, I think it’s really important and it’s very difficult, even in a time of crisis like this, constitutional level crisis, it is important to remember that the president is not the country, okay.

Jonathan: For sure.

Eric: I always reject a formulation that calls this either Trump’s America or now Biden’s America, and it wasn’t Obama’s America. America is a complex, contradictory ecosystem that will yield leaders of certain kinds at certain times. And Trump was as representative of America as Obama was and as Biden is, depending on what slice and what part of the swirl and churn of this complex adaptive system you want to focus on at any time. But I think that one of the things that we found so, to back up a second to Our Common Purpose. This is a report put out by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in a commission that my two co-chairs, Danielle Allen of Harvard and Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, we three co-chaired a commission. But there were 32 other commissioners who put together this report from all over the United States from right and left. And we spent two and a half, three years putting this set of recommendations together, which are recommendations for reinventing American democracy.

And core to that endeavor were probably 50 or so listening sessions that we did around the United States in very different kinds of settings and domains to very different kinds of people, immigrants in L.A., cadets at the Naval Academy, midshipmen at the Naval Academy, people in small rural towns, and people in big cities. And the thing, to Jonathan, to your question, what we heard, which underscores some of the emphasis that I try to put in my day job at Citizen University about rekindling civic faith, what we heard is that, across the board, whether people were fans of the current president or not, people love this country. People love the idea of this country. They want to see America deliver on its ideals and its promise, number one. Number two, people are mainly focused on living out those ideals where they live. People are not as consumed as you or I might be with national politics. People are trying to figure out how to make things work in Scranton or in Athens, Tennessee, or in San Bernardino, California, or whatever it might be, right.

And there, the more local you get, the more, number one, relationship and trust matters. But number two, the less you can get away with just simple mimicking of the words that you see in social media and the words that you see on cable news commentary, because the more local you get, the more you actually have problems to deal with and solve. And simply rehearsing talking points from Fox or MSNBC is not going to cut it. And so we did find that there are people all around the country who are trying to figure out, from the bottom up, from the inside out and middle out, how to renew our system. But, you know, I’m not naive. I mean, I think we are in, at the same time, a constitutional crisis, a crisis of legitimacy, and that is fed by a single man who is occupying the presidency as the catalyst, but by a great wave of people who respond to that catalyst. You can remove Donald Trump–

Jonathan: And it was there before him and it will be there after him.

Eric: Well, it was there before him and he galvanized it and now has activated it and literally and figuratively weaponized it in a way that says, even after he leaves the scene as an office holder, those forces will still be there. And so the reckoning still is to come. And I just believe that we’re not going to get anywhere in that reckoning unless we first attend to that base layer of rehumanizing our politics. I don’t, look, let me be very clear in talking about civic faith. I don’t know that this is going to be enough. I don’t assume that the United States is going to defy human history and get to have a perpetual experiment that runs forever. We may be coming toward the end of this experiment, but with every fiber of my being and every iota of my sense of purpose, I want to try to defer that collapse. And I want to try to be part of the renewal and the repair.

Jonathan; Here’s my issue, Eric. The common purpose doctrine seems to be all about fundamentally expanding the participation in democracy, and I mean lowercase d democratic values. But how do we convince a minoritarian government to cede power by making our democracy more participatory and more expansionist? I don’t know how you do that.

Eric: Well, I guess I don’t wholly concede the premise that, you know, when you say a minoritarian government, do you mean just by the design of the Constitution, that the–

Jonathan: No, I mean, up until this recent election, we had an electoral college that delivered a win to a president who was popular vote defeated. And we have a minority control of the Senate. And so that’s what I mean. Like, why would Mitch McConnell ever agree to expand the franchise, expand the size of the House of Representatives, expand the franchise to ex-cons who are out of jail? I love these principles, but power doesn’t give up power without being forced to do so, right?

Eric: Well, that’s exactly right. Mitch McConnell probably won’t ever do those things, but it is still up to the people of the United States to determine whether Mitch McConnell is Senate Majority Leader in perpetuity. And so I think it is, the kind of organizing that is going on in the United States right now, is emblematic of the fact that people recognize that they don’t have to take as given what is given. That happens to be true on both sides of the political spectrum, by the way. I mean, having record turnout in this presidential election guaranteed nothing except that we amplified our divisions, right. Meaning, therefore, that finally a pro-democracy majority took hold decisively. But there is no choice except to keep on organizing, number one. Number two, look at American history.

There are long stretches of American history where injustice was institutionalized and minoritarian power was operationalized generation upon generation. So we’ve gotten a little bit spoiled, those of us who were born and raised after the Second World War, in this kind of exceptional period when political differences were compressed and inclusion became a greater norm. And we had, what I think of as, the third founding of the United States at the civil rights movement, with the second founding having been Reconstruction, right. But if you think about the betrayal of Reconstruction and what set in in the United States after the kind of corrupt compromise of 1877, that led to, depending on how you want to measure it, you know, decades, a half century, the better part of three generations, in which democracy was subverted in national politics. That has happened.

Jonathan: Yes.

Eric: That could happen again. So, you know, Jonathan, the premise of your question is a little bit of, like, there’s a little disbelief, like how could such badness happen? And the answer is badness is more the rule than the exception in American life. And the charge and the challenge that we have right now is to keep it the exception. And I think we’ve got to, you know, again, I want to distinguish the report that we did at the American Academy, Our Common Purpose, has a theory of action implied in it. There are 31 recommendations that span the gamut from institutional changes to other changes. And you all can read about that and Google it. But the big theory of action that undergirds the whole report is that in a society like ours, there’s a cycle and a relationship and it’s either going to be a virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle between three things. Our institutions, our civic culture, and our civil society, right.

So when our political institutions are healthy and there is a culture of, as you say, participation and inclusion, and civil society is robust and all kinds of clubs and associations and organizations are forming to engage people, that’s a virtuous cycle and that’s what we wish to set in motion. But when those things start to decay, they infect each other. When our institutions become captured and corrupted, that leads people to become cynical, which leads them to check out of civil society and stop joining and stop showing up. And that feeds a culture of cynicism and hyper-individualism and just immediate gratification and I’m just going to get mine in a zero sum way. And then you get a vicious cycle, right. And so much of, not just American history, I mean, the history of republics, tells you how difficult it is to sustain that virtuous cycle generation after generation. And this is why, you know, our report isn’t just, I think, an academic set of suggestions. It is an urgent call to action, recognizing the fragility of the moment that we are in right now.

Betty: And Eric, I wanted to ask you about faith. You know, faith, as you said before, is a risk. You’re not naive about the challenges. And what you’re talking about is a lot of paradoxes, because even in the last four years, we’ve had more activism prompted by Trump than we’ve seen in at least 15 years, if not 20, a whole generation. And yet there is an intergenerational, I’m a trauma therapist, so an intergenerational, almost, trauma, and these foundings that you guys have articulated, and here we are at a fourth founding. So this bit of action, which for me, I see everything through a psychological lens because of my profession, is a desire to move. Humans don’t like to be frozen. They feel stuck. And I think in some senses, this impasse that we’re having between the two sides is frustrating.

And yet both sides articulated a faith in democracy by voting in record numbers. And so, how to activate so that it doesn’t create impasse again and to articulate that movement in a common direction, as you guys were sort of saying, a common purpose. And this love of the United States that shows up on both sides, like, that the action based thing is the core of it. And so how to transmit that to both sides so that it’s about not fighting each other, as you’ve put it, how do we get out of this political combat mentality, the vicious cycle to the virtuous cycle. Where are the mechanisms of shift? I mean, that’s a big, big question. But I think that there is a core in each human that they want to move and we are not moving in certain ways. People are moving at a grassroots level. People are moving in resistance, but they’re not moving as, we’re not moving as, a nation.

Eric: Several thoughts come to mind here. Number one, I think it is worth saying that if I unpack my faith in democracy, what I actually mean more is a faith in democratic self-government. Self-government is the essence. Democracy is a means, right, the idea of capturing something like the will of the people through a vote. Plenty of democracies have committed suicide through democracy. Germany in the thirties, being the most vivid example. And so just because a lot of people have voted for an authoritarian demagogue who might want to subvert the process of democratic self-government doesn’t mean that that’s great. I think the thing that we’ve got to get to is to a democratic culture, a culture in which people are entrusted with power to make decisions for themselves and entrusted to express what we think of at Citizen University as a complete notion of citizenship. Citizenship to us and the way we think about it is power plus character.

We’re focusing a lot, both in this conversation and in the United States right now, on power, on being literate in power and understanding how to move people and money and ideas and so forth to get what you want. But citizenship, if all you have is a literacy in power and it’s not coupled with some grounding in a moral ethical core, then you are just a really skilled sociopath. And we see that everywhere. We see, and I don’t use that word lightly. You’re a mental health expert. I mean that. I choose that word very deliberately. There is sociopathy afoot in the United States right now. There’s sociopathy in the culture of indignant, intentional, non-wearing of masks. That is literally I wish to, I don’t care how much harm I may bring to others, so long as I feel unencumbered, right. But I think that what we’ve got to do is to cultivate the character side of the equation. And that means being able to rekindle a belief in values like shared sacrifice, of mutual obligation, of service before self, of a cause greater than oneself. And I think the way we get to that, and the way we get to some of this reckoning with the trauma that you’re describing, is doing more stuff together. I mean that. Like, not talking about it, not arguing about it, not tweeting about it, but doing stuff and fixing stuff.

One of the core recommendations in Our Common Purpose is for national service and a core expectation of national service, that every young person coming out of high school age would choose a path, whether civilian or military, a service. And the reason why I’m a big believer in national service is that in the United States today, we don’t have enough opportunities or experiences where we will come together with people who are unlike us, who see the world differently, who worship differently, who talk differently, and where we come together not to talk about our differences and have a diversity workshop, but actually to do a third thing that’s not about me or you, and it’s in the doing of a third thing and the fixing of that third thing, that we come to rehumanize each other and we come to recognize that we do have common capacities, common fears, common hopes, common purpose. But–

Jonathan: Right. So a raising of the barn, it’s not Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the community coming together to build a barn.

Eric: Yeah, but, Jonathan, you know, again, I grant that in today’s culture, you have a group of people who are so hyper-individualistic and so, kind of, extremist in their libertarianism that it’d be very hard to get them into the fold of something like national service. And yet, again, this is part of my faith. I take a longer view. I do believe that we are going through a convulsion right now, and I do believe it is possible, depending on how we show up and navigate this time and invite people into a deeper sense of relationship and trust and mutual obligation at the level of where we live and not through mediated national politics. I do believe it is possible, in fact, still, to come out of this convulsive period with a sense that, okay look, we must learn to coexist. That does not mean we have to agree on everything. And it can mean, in fact, that we can have better arguments. The Better Arguments Project that we’re running is oriented toward that.

Argument is okay, but what we’ve got to have as a shared premise is that this is a game of infinite repeat play and you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. This is not a game in which the object is to wipe the other side off the face of the earth or to rig the rules permanently so that the other side atrophies and disappears. We must learn to coexist and if you think about that, Betty, in terms of reckoning with trauma, you know, I’m certainly no expert, but I think that you cannot deny your way through trauma and the experience of it. You cannot just excise it and amputate it off of your psyche. There’s got to be a coexistence with the trauma and a coexistence with the reason that it shaped you and recognition that you, the body, the whole, has been changed by this, but we are still of a body. And I think that’s what we’re trying to promote at Citizen University. And I know it’s hard and I know it’s challenging, but I don’t really see the alternative right now.

Betty: Having gone through two years of talking to all these people and listening, and I see this also, there’s a generational shift going on. So time marches forward and carries us through. And, as you say, you take a long view of this. And trauma is something that is an evolution and dynamic. And so do you see that our prognosis is good, given what we see in the millennials, in the young people? They’re very active and they’re one of the bodies of people who have taken to the streets on climate change. And so in this long view, looking at all the different generations of people that you and your team have spoken to, what do you see in terms of our possibilities for this faith, this collective faith, this ability to act, this grassroots possibility?

Eric: I am net hopeful about younger generations, both millennials and Gen Z, but I say net hopeful because I think there are assets and deficits here. I think one of the great assets of the rising generations is this deep sense of idealism, this deep sense of comfort being, they’re not just digital natives, they are diversity natives, they are inclusion natives, right. This is a generation that has grown up in a hybridized, multiracial society and is super comfortable with that. And is going to help us speed the reckoning with the way in which Americanness and whiteness are detaching, right. And that has freaked out a lot of people, but I think this rising generation is equipped to handle that. On the deficit side, though, millennials and post-millennials have a more shallow understanding and education in civic power. They don’t have the knowledge, the skills, the habits, or the practices of participating in a long term way beyond protest in the process of self-government. And so that’s a set of habits that needs to start getting cultivated rapidly.

I think what’s hopeful about the surge of young people who have voted this most recent election is that they’re beginning to understand that it’s not just a one and done, that if your concern is climate change, it’s not just a matter of electing someone who’s pro addressing climate change, but now you’ve got to bring pressure to bear continuously to ensure that there are policies that get enacted that advance your agenda. But I think the other thing that makes me concerned about the rising generation, and it’s not surprising and it’s not to blame them, because this is also the set of generations that has grown up since the Great Recession, since the, you know, has grown up in a generation of forever wars that have been subcontracted out to just one percent of Americans who we thank for their service and yet nothing has been asked of the rest of us. And so they’ve grown up in a civic culture in decay. And so it’s not surprising to me that when you see these polls, the younger the generation, the less belief there is that democracy is inherently better than authoritarian or autocratic systems.

They don’t have the faith because not a whole lot in their upbringing has reinforced that faith. And so it is in spite of that that I remain net hopeful, though, because they are learning to show up and they are teaching those of us in Gen X and older what it means to keep on believing and what it means to bring force and voice to the work of civic renewal and change. And so, look, I just want to close by saying I don’t call myself an optimist. To me, optimism versus pessimism is a frame that is so about spectatordom. It implies I’m just watching this thing unfold and I think it’s going to go okay or I think it’s going to go terribly, but I’m just watching. To me, the better frame is not optimism, but hopefulness, because hope implies agency. And we all have agency and all have a hand in determining whether this republic is going to get another round and whether self-government is going to survive in the United States.

Betty: Your main theme is take responsibility. Do something like join something, talk to some people, teach, say something, and I think that that is really a great theme and allows us to embody ourselves in the psychological sense. If we don’t act, we can’t be.

Eric: That’s absolutely right.

Jonathan: I hope we’re entering a more virtuous cycle at this point. And, Eric, you’ve sort of pointed the way and we really appreciate you coming and joining us on Mind of State.

Eric: Thank you for helping to make this conversation possible and being part of that wave, that awakening in civic life today.

Betty: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State and thanks again to our guest, Eric Liu. To find out more about his work, visit CitizenUniversity.us.

Jonathan: If you like this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.

Betty: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.

Jonathan: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.