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Former White House Speech Writer Says Citizenship Is An Art With Creativity


Let's talk about civic responsibility here in the U.S. now. In Washington, D.C., where we're based, there have been huge protest marches against the Trump administration since the beginning of the year. But in the last presidential election, most people who are eligible to vote actually didn't. And surveys show that barely a quarter of Americans can even name all three branches of government.

So we're asking, what does it mean to be a good citizen? Is there something broken in our idea about democracy, and if so, how do we fix it? This week, I'm heading to Scranton, Pa., to join up with my colleagues at member station WBIA so we can dig into these questions. It's the latest in our live events series that we call Going There. We're calling this one Civics 101. And one of the people who will be joining me onstage will be Eric Liu. He's the founder of Citizen University, which teaches the art of citizenship. He's also the director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He's a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Eric's written several best-selling books. His latest is called "You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide To Making Change Happen."

Eric Liu, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ERIC LIU: Michel, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So the website of your nonprofit Citizen University says the mission is to teach the art of citizenship. Why is it an art, do you think?

LIU: You know, I think citizenship is an art in two senses. One is it's not a science. It's not like there are a bunch of formulas that we follow. It's about being in community and figuring out how together, as humans, we solve problems, we negotiate conflicts, how we show up for each other and what it means to participate in that process of deciding who we are together.

But it's an art in the second sense, literally, that there is art to it. There is imagination. There is creativity. And if you're really practicing power in civic life to the fullest extent, you're bringing to bear not just your rational brain but your emotional heart and your spirit of creation and art. Sometimes that will involve song or music or paintings and puppetry of the kind that we've seen in these marches in recent months.

Other times, it will just be in the way that we artfully re-humanize politics and engage someone who seems different from us. But all of that is to say that it's not a science, and nor is it a bunch of burdens like eat your vegetables. This is about creation together.

MARTIN: But you also suggest in your writings - for example, I'm thinking about "The Gardens Of Democracy" that you co-wrote - that there is sort of a failure of the political imagination. Like, you say, to begin with (reading) we labor today under a painfully confining choice between outmoded ideologies on both the left and the right.

I mean, you say, that it's just that politics today, whether it's on the left and the right, doesn't seem to describe reality very well as people are experiencing it. And that has led to an inability to people to kind of find their voice because the language we're using doesn't fit. Well, whose fault is that?

LIU: Well, I think that's all our faults, I guess. But, you know, it's not like politics is something that happens to us, like the weather. It is something that we are participants in, whether we are active or whether we are passive. There's a great billboard that I once saw that I often quote for contexts like this, and that is - it was by a super congested highway. And the billboard said, you're not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.


LIU: And it's just a reminder. We're not stuck in broken politics or stale ideologies or a defunct two-party system. We are these things. And we either are them because we are actively feeding them or because we haven't yet exercised our own power to bypass them, to re-imagine them, to come up with new institutions and new ways of people engaging with one another.

And when I say disruption, I think there's a creative dimension to this disruption. It is happening now, finally. I think people are breaking out of these stale ideologies. There isn't clearly a left or right answer to how we reform the criminal justice system. We've got to have a combination of ideas and strategies and motivations, both from a social justice left and a limited government right, to unwind the prison industrial complex, for instance.

The same thing can be said of unwinding crony capitalism. It's not just a left or a right cause. And I think there are increasing numbers of issues like these that break that frame of left, right, red, blue, Republican, Democrat. And it's about are you solving a problem or are you not solving a problem? That's, you know, that's what my book is about, but it's also what our work at Citizen University fundamentally is about - is ensuring that more people more of the time are more fluent in how to make change happen.

MARTIN: That was Eric Liu. His latest book is called "You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide To Making Change Happen." He'll be joining me on Tuesday in Scranton, Pa., for the latest in our Going There live event series. It's all about what it means to be a good citizen.

Eric Liu, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LIU: Michel, thank you for having me. It's been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.