In our field, we often talk about the importance civic infrastructure, the connection between people, institutions, and systems in a community. We also love to engage in discussions power. But have you ever stopped for a moment to really break down what those words mean or thought about how people outside the Cradle to Career movement engage with those ideas?
In this episode, we dive into this deep world of power, civics, and democracy with founder of Citizen University, Eric Liu. Eric is one of the keynote speakers at the 2022 Cradle to Career Network Convening.
Hello, I’m Monroe Nichols, the Director of Policy and Partnerships at StriveTogether, and today’s host of Together for Change. Here we share expert perspective on what’s possible in communities, and how we can come together, and work to build to last. You know, in our field, we often talk about the importance of civic infrastructure, the connection between people, institutions and systems in the community. We also love to engage in discussions about power. But if you ever stopped for a moment to really break down what those words mean, or thought about how people outside the Cradle to Career movement, might engage with those ideas.
Some of you comic book fans might remember Uncle Ben’s quote to Peter Parker and Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. You know, that might be more relevant to how we think about civic infrastructure than you realize. Well, today we’re gonna do a deep dive in the world of power civics and democracy. Joining me is civic evangelist and founder of Citizen University, Eric Liu. Eric is also going to be one of our keynote speakers at this year’s Cradle to Career Network Convening. So you can listen to today’s podcasts and get a little bit of a preview of what you’re going to hear just about a month from now, Eric, welcome to Together for Change.
Monroe, it’s great to be with you.
Awesome. Well, I want to begin framing up our conversation for our listeners. And you know, I mentioned power at the top, but want to engage in this idea of shifting power. And, you know, I’ve listened to you talk quite a bit. Can you share with our listeners, how you define power? What are some of the sources of power? And how can people really harness it?
Yeah, I think it’s really great that you’re even asking the question, and I think that’s because so many times so many people are a little bit allergic to the topic of power, feels a little bit like a dirty word and a lot of American life. And most of our associations with it are pretty negative, right? We talk about people being power hungry, or power mad or going on a power trip. And, and we generally think that’s a bad thing. And we think about politics as being all about power in this dirty way. And you as an elected official know that there’s a whole lot more to that story. And I think one of the dangers of having that reflex of disgust about the topic of power, is that you cede the field to people who have no qualms getting fluent in power, right?
Power is all around us. And, you know, if you simply ignore it doesn’t, it’s not like it goes away. And, and I think even more importantly, as I’ve said, in many contexts, like power inherently is not good or evil. It just is, right? It’s like fire or physics. It’s just a force out there. And the question of whether you are going to harness that force, for good or evil ends is on you. That’s not on the kind of existence of power itself. And so, you know, I think that’s true in general. And I think, particularly, in a democracy like ours, and particularly in a democracy like ours, that is so unequal, where so many dimensions of the game do feel rigged, it becomes really incumbent upon us to choose to get literate in power to get fluent in this, like a language. I don’t use literacy merely as a metaphor. I mean, I think it’s truly a language. And I define the power in these terms, as simply the capacity to ensure that others do as you would like them to do. And again, a lot of yours, like comic book readers, whatever that’s like, oh, that sounds evil. That sounds like a villain. Yeah.
You’re talking about it just is and it’s not going away. I was like, oh, man, it sounds like that math requirement I had in college. I keep pushing it off every semester. You know, I’m gonna be fine. But turns out, I eventually had to go and do that.
You know, I there was there’s something else that I heard you talk about that was fascinating. It was this concept of reading and writing power. Right? And so I’m thinking about as you were talking about language and that kind of stuff. But can you talk to our listeners about what you meant about reading and writing power?
Yeah, look, pick a community, any community in the United States. You’re from Tulsa, so let’s think about Tulsa. Like, if you think about Tulsa, and you ask this core question, who decides? Right? Or to put it in more plain terms, who runs this town? You know, there’s a few ways to answer that question, right? One is the kind of official org chart way. Mayor, City Council, State Legislators like yourself, you know, maybe head of the Chamber of Commerce, whatever right?
But there’s also more an informal way of answering that question. And I think when you start actually answering it in a way that combines the formal and the informal, and you think, who are the influential elders in town that people go to? Who are the people who really organize some of the commemorations around the Tulsa race massacre? Who are the people who actually were able to tell that story with standing, not just, you know, appeared before national media, but because they and their families have been working, the sustaining of that story for generations?
That’s part of the answer to who has power when you think about who it is, who has the ability to mobilize people, money, ideas, change social norms, move government to action. Who it is, frankly, who can move people in a way that can intimidate other people using force and violence. All these things are around us all the time. Right? And those are answers to the question of who has power.
And I think when you actually start thinking about in those terms, you can begin to draw a mental map of power in Tulsa. And you can start thinking about, well, who are the nodes on that map? Who really has the ability to tap into these different sources like money, people ideas, force, what have you. And that is what I mean by reading and writing power, like actually drawing that map, thinking about who it is, who actually wields that power. And I use the word power not as a euphemism, we in American life, we talk about voice, we talk about agency, we talk about influence. And these are all words that we use to tiptoe around power, right?
Like get comfy with power, like, you know, there’s no, there’s no avoiding it, either you’re getting fluent in it, or someone who is fluent in it is using it against you, right? And so beginning to read and write that way and think, who decides who runs things in this town? And that’s the reading. And then the writing is? Well, how do I write myself into that map? How do I organize with others? How do I activate and join with people who’ve been cut out of the picture? Who are from marginalized communities who traditionally haven’t been invited to the table that will seat of decision making? How do we mobilize people money, ideas, social norms, and the rest, to change that map? That’s the writing of power.
Right? This is something I think we’re gonna come back to in just a little bit too, because I’m gonna get more from you on this topic, when we get to talking about like, engaging in civic life more directly, because I just, I hope people go and we’re gonna give you an opportunity to let people know where to find all of the stuff that you’re in the TED Talks that kind of because I think, I think there’s absolutely fantastic, but I hope that I’m like, I’m going back and forth. I’m like, why don’t want to spoil his speech in Chicago. But I also want people to go and read, they will watch this stuff. There’s another thing that you talked about that just really stunned me. You talked about, you know, greetings from the 52nd freest country in the world. But in that conversation, you talked about this idea that this distinction between optimism and hope, I don’t know if you might share like about that zeal. I think it really builds on this idea where you’re talking about, well, who holds power and, and how to engage in those types of things.
Can you, can you just talk about like the difference in your mind between those as you described it? And I think this may have been a TED Talk from a couple years ago. I’m also I’m also testing your memory, right. This is, this is a quiz on all things Eric Liu. But can you talk about that, that difference between hope and optimism as you see it?
Yeah, well, that was from a recent TED Talk. And, and I was talking about all the different reasons why we can and should be worried about democracy, particularly here in the United States. And we are according to Freedom House, only the 52nd I think that’s actually changed maybe the 54th freest nation in the world. And so as much as we love to celebrate ourselves for being the, you know, land of the free, our actual institutions, our actual habits, our actual civic culture on the ground, is not fostering that appreciation for the practice of the responsibilities and the virtues that are necessary to sustain a free society.
And what I spoke about in that talk was, you know, in spite of all these negative realities, and you know, you don’t need Freedom House to tell you just open the news and on any given day, and that’s true, whether your politics are right or left, there’s a lot to be discouraged about right now, that in spite of all of that, I remain hopeful. And I point out that I don’t say I’m optimistic, because the difference between hope and hope and optimism is this optimism to me, is a passive stance. You know, I’m optimistic. I grew up in New York. I’m a baseball fanatic. I’m optimistic the Yankees are going to win the World Series this year. Right?
I thought you’re gonna tell me the Mets I’m like, Oh, well, you just…
Come on, the Mets, that’s, that’s a whole other thing. I’m optimistic the Yankees gonna win the World Series, but that optimism has nothing to do with anything I’m going to have, I mean, I’m just watching. Right? Optimism as a spectator.
Purely a spectator. Yeah, there you go.
Optimism is the spectators kind of perspective. As is pessimism. Well, I’m pessimistic about, you know, the Yankees chances this year. But hope, hope implies agency. Hope implies power.
Hope implies that I actually have a hand in the outcome. And hope obligates me to be part of the work that actually can make the thing that I would like to see come to pass, come to pass. And so I am hopeful, which means simply, I am in the middle of it, I am getting involved, I am part of the solution. And because of that, and because my days are spent talking to people like you, who are trying to fix things, we’re trying to connect dots who are trying to point us toward a better way of being grown up. So living in society together. I am net hopeful.
That’s great. You know, I will say, you know, to build on that sports reference, the most optimistic sports fans in the country are Dallas Cowboys fans of which I am one. I’m glad we went there. Because there’s, you know, I’m thinking about all the noise in the world right now. Right? We’re in the midst of midterm elections across the country. News yesterday that former President Trump’s home has been raided by the FBI. You know, we’re deeply divided. There’s news of a possible recession. If we haven’t forgotten completely about it, there’s still a war raging in Ukraine right now.
There’s so much going on. And it goes on and on and on. Why do you think it’s important for people to really practice power, like in the place like in their city in their community, right, because I’m, I’m thinking about this, this hope versus that’s like, I mean, I hope the stuff in Ukraine works out well. Or I’m optimistic, I guess. Ukraine turns out well, but I can be more hopeful about Tulsa. Because I’m like, and I’m in the I’m in the fight here. Right. And so might you just talk about why do you think it’s important for people to think about, even with all the noise going on all around how important it is to really be thinking about practicing power in place?
You know, I think I’m so glad you asked that question. And I know it’s, you know, the topic is not an idle topic. It’s at the core of what Cradle to Career Network is about and StriveTogether is all about this idea of place-based partnership. And it’s very resonant with us at Citizen University, the organization that I that I run, we are all about trying to change the culture of citizenship in a way that is rooted in place, right?
We may all be in the abstract Americans and participating in civic life. But where the rubber meets the road is where we live, how we show up, where we live, and how much trust there is how much social capital there is how much that social capital is monopolized and hoarded by a few more whether it’s circulated by more by many, in that place. And so when I think about what it means to live like a citizen, and I think about you in Tulsa, or me in Seattle, or somebody in Cincinnati, right now, the question is not in the abstract, how do you deal with homelessness? The question is, how do these people who we are, who are without homes, who are our neighbors, who are walking past, some of whom are dealing with mental health crises, some of whom have been displaced by gentrification? And by, you know, an economy that’s that’s worked out really well, for a relatively small proportion of us, how do we deal with that?
Where we are, we can’t just wish it away. And you can’t change the channel, when you’re walking past this every day, on the way to work or driving, you know, to take your kids to a practice or whatever it is. And you know, the realities of place are realities that at the end of the day, are not susceptible to the posturing of social media, they’re not fixable by the talking points of cable news, like either you do, or you don’t have an idea for how to build a cross racial, cross class, cross ideological coalition of people who want to be part of the solution on homelessness.
Either you do or you don’t have the instinct to try to invite people into collective impact and collective action. Either you do or you don’t actually have the persistence, to say, you know what, this is going to be a 10, 15, 20 year endeavor to close the achievement gap in South Seattle, or to make sure that, you know, schools in this part of town or that part of town, are able to prepare kids for for the wider world in a sufficient way. And to me, what this boils down to so much is trust. It is about trust, like you cannot have, I don’t care, I mean, I do care who’s president but you, a president alone cannot solve and fix the problems in our democracy. Right?
Just and even at the level of a city, a mayor alone is not going to do that. Right? This is about whether we have a sufficient level of trust in each other and whether we have a culture in which we are committed to each other. And that sounds kind of vague.
But if you think about the way our politics and political culture is right now, we don’t trust each other. We demonize each other. We dehumanize each other across lines of race class ideology, place, and that’s, you know, that’s not just red, blue, right? People, all people in small town, Oklahoma, look at Tulsa or OKC and think, oh, those are those city people who think they’re better than us who have these, you know, highfalutin ideas and these views and they’re not connected to, to the way we live and, and so everywhere we go, we keep on putting each other in these boxes that turn us into abstractions
But when you route this work in place, nothing’s abstract anymore. People are human, there are relationships, you’re letting down people, you can look in the eye, and you’re making promises, promises to or breaking promises to people whom you are in a web of relationship and obligation.
You know, it’s, you know, I was thinking as you were talking about the distrust we have for each other right now in our in our civic life. But I mean, I’m sure it boils down to every aspect of what we do. And think about it like this, this transition over the last several years about distrust and the weakening of our of our institutions that we have. Do you, do you think those two things are connected? Our distrust with each other as led to this distrust in institutions? Or do you think they’re mutually exclusive? Do you think that they’re, those go hand in hand? Interested in just your perspective on that?
Yeah, they definitely are related. And it’s a vicious cycle, right? I mean, it’s not that one is the cause. And one is the effect, but they feed each other. You know, as our institutions, our political institutions have gotten less responsive to the people more about just catering to extremes, who are going to show up in primaries, more responsive to wealthy donors and interests that have that you know, where money talks, the more that those institutions get that way, the more cynical, we the people get about our institutions, right. And then that cynicism leads us to stop trusting each other.
And to start thinking about life more as a zero sum game in which you know what, I’m not going to be the sucker, who doesn’t get mine, I’m not going to help out somebody else. Because why should I do that everyone else is on the take. Everyone else is just looking out for themselves? Why should I be the one to yield and let someone into traffic, that’s just being weak, right? And that metaphor of traffic is extensible to every other part of life, right? And so when our institutions break down our sense of trust in each other breakdown, which then feeds another round of institutional breakdown, right, and I think that that vicious cycle is what we are in right now.
And I think, you know, again, you can get depressed hearing that, but it’s really simple to remember, just as that cycle turned viciously in one direction, we have the power to push, arrest that cycle and turn it and move it in the other direction. We can set a virtuous cycle in motion where we’re like, you know, what, we are going to work on building bonds of trust. We are going to work on actually connecting with and humanizing people who don’t look like us, vote like us, pray like us, move like us. And we’re going to solve problems together. And then over time, you know, and I say this, with all due respect to you as a, as an elected official, we will remember that most elected leaders, you accepted, I’m sure Monroe, but most elected leaders are not in fact, leaders. They are exquisitely attuned followers. They will go where the energy as they will go, were the, were the the norms, and the center of gravity is in the culture.
And if we the people create a culture in which you know, what we’re showing up for each other, you know, what, we’re counting on each other, you know what, we’re expecting more of each other, then we’re going to start yielding more and more electeds, like you who actually come from that culture, and want to advance that culture. And that will make our institutions more trustworthy.
But again, that’s not, you know, the problem with our broader culture right now is we want instant results. We didn’t get to this level of decay in our democracy overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. And so the kinds of things that everybody in this, you know, Cradle to Career is a pretty good name, because that tells you, that’s not an overnight deal. That’s a generational endeavor. Right? And I think fixing democracy is a generational endeavor too.
You know, you talked about this, this idea of a zero sum. And I was thinking last year, we had Heather McGee, actually, at the convening. She wrote The Sum of Us and so I wanted to give her a shout out so that, you know, I just, as the connection that you’ve made in your work, Heather’s work was something that was also, resonated quite a bit with me and I think with, with other folks, you know. The two of you over the last couple of years being exposed to our network, I think is going to be an amazing opportunity for folks to grow in this work, but also to be able to talk about this in terms that folks can understand and digest and think about it from the standpoint of, of taking agency and creating that community wide agency understanding that really the only, the only reasonable pathway we have forward is to do it together, right, like we, there’s there’s no other, the other way is decay, right? The only way to thrive is to do it together and so I just, I’m so appreciative to have you being a thought leader and not just a thought leader but an activator in this work, right? So since I’m going to try not to take too many diversions and talk to you about how much I’m enjoying this, but I really, I really am and I know our network members will as well. So I want to shift a little bit, but I think we’re right, right in a real sweet spot to talk about something that another concept that that is a cousin to how we think about the world at StriveTogether. You know, in our world, we talk a lot about civic infrastructure. And as I mentioned, it’s really grounded in this connection between people, institutions and systems in a community. And I’ve heard you, and I think this is when you were talking about reviving belief in democracy, share this concept that you call civic religion. Can you share with our listeners, what is civic religion? And why is it so important for us to like, rekindle the spirit of citizenship?
Yeah, well, you know, I think that it’s really one of the upsides of living in this tumultuous time right now is that we are remembering first principles. We are having to scrape back to the bottom and ask ourselves over and over again, wait, what are we doing here? Right? This thing’s not running on autopilot anymore.
That is so true. The great experiment is taken a wrong turn.
Exactly. Like wait… What is it supposed to be right? When you stop and ask questions like that, you realize you appreciate just how fragile this thing is. And when I say this thing, I mean, this mutual enterprise called, called democracy, I think, you know, a democracy is just a constitution, is just a piece of paper.
A democracy is just a format for decision making. And those things are empty until animated. And they have to be animated by a spirit, by what John Dewey called democratic faith, this idea that you know what, this isn’t just technical stuff. This isn’t just processing machinery moving. This is about whether we believe in each other. And one simple way to put it is, democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. Like it’s that simple. Like, it is a million fold mutual agreement.
And when things are going sort of okay, and normal, you don’t pay attention to that, just like when an economy is stable, you don’t pay attention to the fact that we have this million fold mutual agreement, that a rectangular green piece of paper with a number on it should be accepted as valuable and treated as currency, right? We’ve just all agree that that thing is going to represent something and we want to hold those things, and we want to hold ones with bigger numbers on them, right. But when an economy starts breaking down, and trust starts breaking down, you realize, oh, shoot, literally, that green piece of paper isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, right? Because we no longer have, well, the language in economics is full faith and credit, we don’t, no longer give each other full faith and credit, right? And democratically, we are in a position right now, where we have stopped giving each other full faith and credit.
And to me, that’s true in any democratic society. But it’s especially true in the United States, because all we have to bind us together here in this country is a set of ideas as a creed. We are not as much, as some people might wish, we are not a country of a single bloodline. We are not a country of a single racial composition. We are not a country worshipping a single god. We are not a country whose history is derived solely from the same piece of soil, where we can tell legends and myths about that piece of soil. We are the world. And the only thing that binds us together, when we are bound together, is cultivating a mutual commitment to a set of ideas that I think of as the American creed.
And that American creed, which includes words that we’ve all said and kind of use as cliches, we are the people, of the people, by the people, for the people, equal justice, under law, equal protection of the laws. You know, these words are just words until we actually animate them with our faith. And that’s what I mean by civic religion. I don’t mean, replacing, displacing or doing anything with traditional religion. You can either believe in God or not believe in God. But the point is that how you show up in civic life has to be about belief that this thing can mean something, and by believing that you make it so right. And I think the commitment that we have to have is one that is not just about me saying so like I can’t, when you when you talk to young people today who are completely cynical about democracy, for good reason, you can’t just wag your finger at them and say, you should believe harder, you should trust democracy. Right?
The job now is to make our democracy worth believing in.
That’s what I was gonna say the first question is going to be why?
It’s the easiest question in the world to answer actually.
Well, yeah, and I think the why has to do with well, because, you know, in theory, a system that it can be inclusive of all and responsive to all is over time going to yield the best results for all. But the key words, and what I just said is, in theory, because in practice, most of us throw away our power in practice. In practice, more than half of us don’t vote in local elections. Four out of five of us don’t vote, right?
And I’m not even just talking about voting. Most of us don’t volunteer. Most of us don’t show up. Most of us don’t take responsibility for the health of a community and so on. This idea of civic religion, in the American context is about recognizing that creed, that set of ideas is only animated by our deeds. And closing the gap between creed and deed, is the full measure of citizenship. It should be the only measure of patriotism, like, you know, it’s not how loud can you thump your chest, how big a flag can you wave. It is, are you moving our country a little bit closer to alignment with the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration and Gettysburg, and Seneca Falls Declaration. And you know, you name it, a whole set of pieces of text.
And at Citizen University, we have these programs like Civic Saturday that are meant to be a civic analog to a faith gathering, that are meant to invite people to kind of show up and ask themselves, wait, what are we doing here? And try to answer for each other how we actually, you know, the why, why should we believe in each other? Why should we believe that we’re better together? Why should we believe in the some of us? Why should we believe that democracy can work for all of us? And the answer is, you know, by believing we make it so. Right? And I think that that is, that is a leap of civic faith.
See, closing the gap between creed and deed. See that’s, it’s totally, it’s totally stealable but now I can’t still it due to the podcast and everybody knows I heard it, I can’t, I can’t take it.
Steal at will. My wife, my wife, who’s the co-founder of Citizen University, Jena Cane, she’s a theatre professional theatre artist, and there’s a line in theater, that’s “amateurs borrow, professional steal.” So you’re a pro, go ahead and steal that.
Hey, you know what, I will steal away. So picking up on this creed and deed, I actually was gonna ask you a question of just personal interest, I introduced you as a civic evangelist. Is working with Citizen University, the way that, that others can become civic evangelists? Is there, is there like a, my grandfather was a pastor so I’m like, is there like a seminary school for civic evangelists?
Literally, we have a civic seminary program, where we are training people from all around the United States, small towns, big cities, you name it, to lead these Civic Saturday gatherings, to organize people in their community, to come together make meaning, and then convert that meaning into action. And think about, well, what are we going to do to show up for each other and show up for our neighborhood or our city. And so that is one of the programs we have. And I think that’s a really important point you’re making here because, you know, to close the gap between creed and deed to nurture this civic faith is not, again, is not a matter of saying, being scolded, “believe harder.”
It’s being given pathways to take action. It is by the works that we make our faith manifest in every dimension of life and, and in democracy. It’s by how you show up to invite people who’ve been invited, you know, one word I hate, and I’m sure you all in network hate this word, too, in a certain way, the word underserved communities. My friend, Vivian Phillips, who’s a, who’s a civic activist, a citizen artist, here in Seattle. hse has a great line that I steal, which is “the underserved are the uninvited.” And so to me, it’s all about how are we thinking about new ways to invite people into the practice of self government into the practice of common endeavor, and problem solving. And you know, that practice is about doing stuff.
You know, that’s, that’s great. You know, I mentioned my grandfather was a pastor, and he always talks about, like, his favorite thing, he would always tell us all the time was like, faith without works is dead, right? And so like, and so like, this is also true in this particular in this particular case, right?
I was not raised, and I wish I had a grandfather who was a pastor. I had a grandfather who I, who was a pilot in the Chinese Civil War. He was a Nationalist Chinese pilot, and part of that time of war and revolution. And his name in Chinese in Mandarin is Liu Guo Yuen. And Liu the family name. But Guo Yuen in Chinese basically means “deliverance of the nation,” right? And so he wasn’t a pastor, but he was lit with a sense of purpose and mission. From the time he was a young man just because of his name. And he got to be part of the deliverance of, of his nation, which was the Republic of China. And me being born in the United States and raised here.
You know, I wasn’t raised in any godly faith tradition, but I think I have that wiring to want to be of use to want to be connected, and want to be part of a larger story in which as you, as your grandfather said, in which you animate faith by works, and which you actually are, have a hand in the deliverance of, of your nation. Of our nation. Right? And I think that is, the question for us is, again, that sounds highfalutin, but that plays out then in how you do show up in South Seattle, in this, in Greenwood, in Tulsa, in you know, whatever neighborhood in whatever you know, in the west side of Chicago, and how we actually choose to engage, see each other, and build the social capital to deal with the challenges we face together.
That’s great. You know, one thing he would always tell me he was, he was also an Air Force veteran, and he told me the two hardest things to do in life is to, is to engage in in faith, but also engaging your patriotism. Because if you’re doing it right, you’re going to question both at some point in time, so it’s a very active thing that you have, at all times. Shifting a little bit, and I know we’re getting close to the end of our time together, but you know I oftentimes, as you might imagine, working with folks who believe a lot differently than I believe and value things that, that are different than the things that that I might value. But in your book become America, you wrote about a positive experience you have with someone who seemed to represent something completely different politically, and from a value standpoint than yourself. And that was Glenn Beck, you know, which, which have to, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that. But in many ways that sort of…
You can watch the podcast we did, or the interview.
I absolutely will. But in many ways, I feel like that story represents some, some core ideas behind the work at Citizen University, and the Better Arguments Project at the Aspen Institute. Can you share more about that story, and maybe point us to where we could where we could listen to it. But I think it teaches so much about how we can engage with those who seemingly stayed against all the things we’re striving for, right? Might you just kind of share a little bit about that story for the folks who are listening?
Yeah. So you know, people can infer from what you said, my politics are not Glenn Beck’s politics. My worldview is very different from his. But this is a story not about Eric Liu and Glenn Beck. It’s a story about relationship and these webs of connection, I got introduced to Glenn Beck by someone who’s involved in one of our programs at Citizen University, a guy named Matt Kibbe. Matt Kibbe was an early Tea Party leader. And he is a active, passionate libertarian, who now runs something called Free the People in which he’s trying to get younger people to believe in and practice libertarian ideals. And Matt and I have had a lot of debates and a lot of conversations and a lot of arguments over the years. But we’ve also come to humanize each other. We both had family members, you know, navigate cancer. Both had a lot of common interests, we both shared a lot of just perspective on life. And we, as we came to know each other, we came to trust each other. And we came to be able to argue in a way that was not just about trying to own each other, but it was really trying to understand each other.
You alluded to the Better Arguments Project. That project that I run out of the Aspen Institute, starts with principle. The first principle which is “take winning off the table.” When you take winning off the table and engage in a debate or an argument truly to understand rather than to win. amazing things can happen. That becomes a contagious dynamic. And Matt and I had that relationship over, you know, over several years. And then, you know, Matt knew Glenn Beck from kind of right leaning politics world, and I said, hey, I noticed, Matt, that Glenn Beck has been out there last few years, kind of publicly saying, you know what, I actually regret a lot of what I did earlier in my career, I regret some of the ways in which I fed this toxic, dehumanizing polarizing political culture that has fed into, you know, that time, the political culture that was emanating from, from then President Trump, and Glenn Beck was very public, and basically saying, I take responsibility for that. I want to apologize to some people for having said that. And I saw that as an interesting opening. And I said, Matt, can you introduce me to Glenn, and he did. And I went down to Dallas and went to Glenn’s studio, and I spent a day with him. And not on camera, not for anything in which neither of us was going to kind of, quote, get anything out of it. But just to like, hey, our mutual friend connected us, I want to understand where you’re at. And we, and we came to just talk.
And we talked about our common interest in the founding generation. We talked about our common interest in American history. We talked about the fact that he grew up not far from where I currently live in Seattle. And then we talked about fathers and how my father died when I was in my, when I was 22. Died suddenly. His father, he had a fraught relationship with his father as a young man. And in both ways, the absence or the, you know, the challenging relationship with the father lead both of us, fed both of us with a sense of kind of, kind of a slingshot sense of you got to go out there and make something out of what you have and out of what you are. And we, I would just say on a human level we bonded. It’s that simple. Like we connected on that level and understood each other and the whole time. Interspersed with that was, you’re nuts for what you believe on immigration. You’re nuts for what you believe on the minimum wage. Come on, Glenn. You know, The Second Amendment does not say everybody gets to have an AR 15. You know, all this stuff. And we were, we were still mixing it up. But we were doing it in the context of relationship. Right? We then got to the point where like, okay, actually, we like each other and trust each other enough, like, let’s do a version of this for our respective communities. And we recorded an interview for his radio show, which your listeners can find. But I would just say, I tell you this at length, because the larger story is not about this cool interaction at the end between me and Glenn Beck.
The story really is about a chain of relationship and a chain of trust that led people to humanize each other. And let me be clear, we did not come by and we do not come to policy consensus, I still think a lot of his views are are wacky, I still think he’s wrong on a bunch of policy issues. He still thinks I’m part of a vast left-wing conspiracy, to have a, you know, administrative state take over every nook and cranny of private life. But we can argue about that in ways that are now constructive rather than destructive.
I had a good friend of mine in the mayor’s office who is, so we worked for a Democratic mayor, but Stuart he would always say was our token Republican in the office. I’m not sure he’s the only Republican. But he would make it a point just about every day to stop by, and I love him to death by the way, like he’s one of my favorite people. But he would make it a point almost every day to come by my office and call me a communist just as like, just as like a hello every day. Right? And so, you know, it’s kind of funny, but like, you know, if I look back on the folks who I have the most enjoyable time having these discussions with, I mean, Stuart is, he’s like, way up there on my list actually. And he calls me communists all the time. Go figure. So one, I think, final question is circling back to our comic book, right? The with great power comes great responsibility. What do you think is the big why of power? And you talk about this, this connecting on a human, what is our big risk, our great responsibility for those of us who are more in the Eric camp to connect with those and the Glenn camp or those that Glenn camp to connect with, connect more with folks in the Eric camp? Our global responsibility within that big why of power. Like what what would you say in kind of response to all of that?
You know, we’re living in a time right now, where, in very scary ways, there’s a lot of talk and there’s getting to be normalized talk about civil war, right? People are talking about, oh, we’re headed toward a next civil war, we’re already in a cold civil war. Maybe we ought to just get it over with and have a national divorce and red and blue should just separate and all that. And, and I think the deepest responsibility we have, as Americans is to the idea of union. And I do not, I do not just mean kind of union between red states, blue states, formerly Union states and Confederate states. I mean, actually, the sense of synthesis, the idea that we, that the E Pluribus Unum, right, that out of many can come one. Because again, we are a diverse country in every dimension.
If we, you know, the impulse to disunion, the impulse to secession is a never ending contagion, I promise you, if we had, if we had a secession, if Oklahoma secede and said, we’re out of here, man, we’re becoming part of it, you know, then it would not be 10 minutes before within Oklahoma, Tulsa would want to secede from the redder parts of Oklahoma. And within the redder parts of Oklahoma, the bright red parts want to secede from the you know, kind of purplish red parts, right? That impulse to secede is endless, if you, if you let it, if you indulge it, right? And the commitment, the responsibility that we have to have goes to this very simple question, which, which took my breath away when I learned it, learned that this question was actually the core animating question of the civics and Social Studies Department at Chicago public schools.
The question is this: How shall we live together? I don’t know how more simply to put it, right, as Americans right now, as a country that has no, has nothing in common except a set of ideas. And even the ideas only invite us to perpetual argument, not to unanimity, right? We have, we have a doubled, tripled obligation to always ask, how shall we live together? Because the answer cannot be I will wipe the other off the face of the earth. I will get Republicans completely out of my state, or I will get Democrats completely out of my existence. I will get Muslims, I will get Christians, I will get brown people, yellow people, black people, whatever, you know, out of my field of vision, no.
There may be people among us who want that, but that is not achievable. And so in the affirmative. How do we recommit to Union at every fractal scale from the United States? Yes? But, but frankly, to our own human hearts and the ways in which our own hearts, there’s a part of my heart, I imagine there’s a part of your heart, Monroe, even when you’re joking with your buddy who calls you a communist, there’s a part of you, that’s thinking, well, I like that guy but that guy’s one degree of separation removed from an insurrectionists, who I don’t like at all. Right? And that insurrectionist, though, has a part of his heart, who actually probably could like you and could like me, and could humanize us. And I think we have to re-examine it from our own hearts outward. What are the possibilities for union? And that is not a policy responsibility. That is the responsibility of civic culture, of civic faith and of just moral recommitment.
That’s fantastic. Eric, where can the folks who are listening, can they find you on Twitter or Facebook? Where they find Citizen University? You have some handles you can give us for everybody listening?
Citizen University is just totally findable. citizenuniversity.us. All the programs that we run from Civic Saturday to our civic seminary to other things that I’ll talk about when we gather together in person are there. I’m on Twitter, so is Citizen University. I’m on Facebook as well. And yeah, I just think, you know, and you alluded to a few TED Talks that I’ve done over the years, you know, so there’s content out there. But I really want to encourage folks like, yeah, please watch the TED Talks, but more importantly, check out the work and think about either how might you join Citizen University in the work? Or how might you be inspired by that and just, you know, form your own club, do your own version, do your own thing in your community? The muscle that we’ve got to build is the muscle that the Cradle to Career Network has been building for a good long time. And that is about mutual aid, mutual interest, mutual power building and mutual cultivation of this sense of civic responsibility.
Well, thank you, Eric, so much for joining us today on the podcast. I want to thank everybody listening for joining us, and also encourage you to stay connected with us by visiting strivetogether.org where you will find the transcripts of our Together for Change podcast series. We will see you next time. Thank you again, Eric.
Monroe, thanks for having me. This has been awesome.