The Theory and Practice of Civic Engagement, by Eric Liu

Eric Liu (Citizen University)

If you happen to be in Redlands, California, on Thursday evening, September 21, I suggest you go by the headquarters of the tech company Esri to hear a talk by my friend Eric Liu, on the practical possibilities for civic engagement in our politically troubled age.

If you don’t happen to be in Redlands, I recommend getting Eric’s book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think. It addresses a central question of this age: what, exactly, citizens who are unhappy with national politics can do, other than write a check or await the next chance to vote.

This is a question I wrestled with immediately after last year’s election, in this Atlantic article, and in a commencement speech a few months later. But Eric, author of several previous books about the theory and practice of citizenship (including The Gardens of Democracy and A Chinaman’s Chance) and head of the Citizen University network, based in Seattle, has devoted his useful and enlightening new book to just this topic, in the age of Trump. He described some of its principles in a NYT interview with David Bornstein a few months ago. Essentially his topic is how to bridge the gap between thinking, “something should be done,” and actually taking steps to doing that something, on your own and with others. This also is the ongoing theme of Citizen University, which emphasizes that citizenship is a job in addition to being a status.

I’ll leave the details, of which there are many, to Eric — on the podium in Redlands or in the pages of his book. The high-concept part of his argument flows from these three axioms:

  • Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all. → You must change the game.
  • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate. → You must change the story.
  • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. → You must change the equation.

He goes on, in practical terms, to illustrate what these mean. The political question of this era (as discussed here) is how the resilient qualities of American civic society match up against the challenges presented by the lurches of Donald Trump. Can the judiciary adhere to pre-2017 standards? How will the Congress fare in its ongoing search for a soul? Will states and cities maintain their policies on the environment, on standards of justice, on treatment of refugees and immigrants? And how, fundamentally, can citizens play a more active and powerful role in the affairs of their nation? These and others are central struggles of our time. And Eric Liu’s book is part of the effort to push the outcome in a positive direction.