Election Inspires Courageous Conversation About Repairing Civic Trust

11 mins read

Feel like you’re still recovering after a pressure-packed presidential election? You’re in good company. Now that the polarizing political season is behind us, is it time to reimagine our social contract? What will it take to repair our civic trust?

In November, Barrington hosts Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque and Jessica Swoyer Green welcomed special guest Eric Liu of Citizen University and Aspen Institute to Courageous Conversations presented by Urban Consulate and Barrington’s White House. For the first time, the session featured live music performances by songwriters Lauren Eylise and Pat McKillen.

Organizers separated guests into groups for breakout dialogue following a truly inspirational interview with Eric Liu, who joined the virtual session from his home in Seattle, Washington.

In his past life, Liu worked in the White House as a domestic policy advisor and speech writer. As Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen University, today Eric works as a civic evangelist, writing, speaking and holding Civic Saturday gatherings across the country to explore our duty and privilege as citizens to build a stronger democracy. He is also the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program where he started the Better Arguments Project. He is the author of several books, including Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility and Democracy, The True Patriot, The Gardens of Democracy, and You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.

There was so much wisdom packed into this one-hour interview that we felt compelled to watch it twice! Thank you, Eric Liu & Courageous Conversations for the gift of understanding clear steps to becoming an America, where our differences bring us together, not drive us apart. Here are a few of our favorite pieces of Eric Liu’s advice for challenging times along with Zina Jacque’s line of questioning…

1. See Self-interest as Mutual Interest

Zina Jacque: “Do we need to reimagine our social contract and what does that mean for you?”

Eric Liu: “The current social contract is clearly broken. We live in a society that, for four-plus decades has been allowing and, in different ways, accelerating and abetting the concentration of wealth, voice, income, and power into fewer and fewer hands. …And when you get that kind of hoarding and clumping and concentration of wealth and power, you get everywhere this unspoken, imperceptible, contagious sense of scarcity. Everybody’s freaked out about losing what they’ve got.

So to reimagine a social contract is not to say just, ‘All right, time to attack the super-rich, time to tear down the one percent.’ No, it is to make a case for the circulation of the lifeblood of the body politic. The case is a case of self-interest, properly understood. Because true self interest is mutual interest.

There is a charitable, compassionate case to be made for a living wage, but there’s also a great business case, which is summed up this way. When workers have more money, businesses have more customers. And you create a virtuous cycle of increasing demand and increasing prosperity. And that, by analogy, is true of every effort we can and should make in a new social contract to ensure that power, voice, opportunity and prosperity are truly circulating throughout the body (of America).

We’ve got to create, not just a social contract, but a new narrative. A new way for imagining what it means to contribute to the common good.”

2. Name Our Fears – In Community, Not Isolation

Zina Jacque: “I see around me this base emotion of fear and I’m not even sure if people know what they’re fearful of. How do we combat fear? Because we don’t have the space to work on the narrative as long as we’re building walls. What do we do now that we have built up this store of fear?”

Eric Liu: “I think the first thing we’ve got to do is to make it possible, as a matter of cultural and civic ritual, for us to be in a room like this and say, ‘what are we scared of?’ And to not be scared of the answers. It’s not done in isolation. You clicking at buttons on a screen and getting an email feedback in return. No, this is in conversation. This is in fellowship. This is in the awkwardness of having someone else hear what you just said. That’s how we begin to contend with this fear.

The last thing I’ll just say about fear, because implicit in everything we’ve talked about, and we’ve named it a couple of times, is the centrality of race to any notion of Americanness. The big thing that we’re going through right now on a tectonic level is that two things that used to be interchangeable and intertwined are now decoupling and detaching from one another. And those two things are whiteness and Americanness. For most of our country’s history, they were just synonyms.

We live in a time right now were those things are delinking and that creates both incredible excitement, incredible anxiety, incredible hope, incredible expectation, incredible impatience, incredible urgency and fear and let’s name all of it. I think our ability to, in a mass multiracial democratic republic, be grownups about this is crucial. That we don’t just feel fear, smoosh it down and then basically have completely distorted ways of acting out because we never named those things in our own hearts.”

3. Let Go of Certitude, Re-embrace Humility & Take Winning Off the Table

Zina Jacque: “What I hear you talking about is breaking open. What changes when people are willing to be broken open?”

Eric Liu  “I hope what changes, in the first place, is just that people let go of certitude. One of the greatest ills of our time is both a culture and a set of incentives that just reward and reinforce righteous certitude. Left, right, rich, poor, whatever, everywhere we’re swimming in righteous certitude… The breaking open that you’re talking about, I think, enables the release of certitude and the re-embrace of some intellectual and emotional humility (by saying), ‘I might not be right,’ what a concept. ‘I might not be right’…

America is an argument. We’re nothing but a set of arguments. We don’t have a common bloodline. We don’t have a common religion. We don’t have a common history on a common piece of territory. We’re just bound together by a bunch of ideas and ideals that we are meant to argue over and that’s ok.

But we should try to have less stupid arguments. And less stupid arguments begin, not only in a release of certitude. You would be amazed at what will happen when you’re engaged with someone you’re disagreeing with if you take winning off the table. Just make that a private mental, emotional commitment. I’m not here to own you, to destroy you, to humiliate you in this argument or debate. I’m just here to understand.”

4. Relearn the Habit of Seeing Each Other

Zina Jacque: “What makes the way for healing in a nation so divided politically, racially, economically? What are the steps for that healing?”

Eric Liu: “For us to begin a process of healing, whether it’s around our racial divides or around the deep, profound ideological divides that were just reinforced by the presidential election, what we’ve got to be able and willing to do, in the first instance, is rehumanize our civic life. Right now, at every scale, we operate in this way where we don’t see each other. What we see are avatars or proxies for storylines that we’ve heard about on TV or social media.

What we have to relearn is a habit of actually seeing each other. And that’s why things like Courageous Conversations are so vital to our country right now. The ability to build that muscle again of actually seeing people in their full complexity and contradiction. People are complex amalgams of better angels and inner demons and the more we can acknowledge that about ourselves, the more we might be willing to admit that that might be the case in this other person that we are actually learning to see.”

5. “Show Up” With True Patriotism

Zina Jacque: “I think many of us experience this great cognitive dissonance between the American ideals (liberty, equality, justice, tranquility, a more perfect union) and our American reality. How do we narrow the space between these ideals and the evening news? What are our steps?” 

Eric Liu: “There’s a word for the closing of the gap between our stated creed and our actual deeds. The closing of the gap between our high American ideals and our actual broken, unequal, unjust institutions. And the closing of that gap is called ‘True Patriotism’. True Patriotism is not, ‘Rah-rah, we’re number one. I’m going to be louder than you about America’. True Patriotism is saying there is something exceptional but exceptionally burdensome about that creed because we are now called to live up to it. In the United States we have the blessing and the burden of this creed and True Patriotism is working every day to close that gap.

It’s saying, ‘Here’s how I’m going to be useful. Here’s how I’m going to show up. Here’s how I’m going to take some measure of action to close that gap,’ and that gets to the heart of your question. What can we do? Show up! Join a club. Pick an issue. Learn about that issue. Commit to closing that gap. That issue can be homelessness in Chicagoland. That issue can be the failure of investment in public transportation. That issue can be that you live in this part of Cook County in a food desert or you live in this part of the South Side in an area where there are no good higher education opportunities. Whatever it might be that you see, where you live, an opportunity to engage on an issue and then join a club.

I don’t use those words lightly. That set of muscles and practices and habits is foundational to being able to govern ourselves. So if you want to close that gap… don’t just rant at the TV. Don’t just scroll endlessly. That’s all watching stuff happen. We’ve got to actually do stuff and make stuff happen and, in so doing, we will become each other’s teachers in power.”

6. Embrace the Power of Individual Responsibility

Zina Jacque: “What are our challenges? What are our opportunities?”

Eric Liu: “There is the cliché, and anyone who’s a fan of the Spiderman franchise knows this, that ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. But what we often forget is that the inverse is also true. That with great responsibility comes great power. The more we take responsibility for each other, for our community, for the health of our society, the more power we activate, generate, and create.

Our challenge right now is to create a different kind of culture, and indeed that’s the mission statement of Citizen University to foster a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship in which we are recognizing that citizenship, not understood as papers and passports and documentation, but as an ethical matter requires both literacy in power and cultivation of character. It is the fusion of power and character that we’ve got to cultivate right now.

Power is not a thing out there worked upon me. It is inherent in all of us and we should stop giving it away in the way that we are mindlessly continuously giving it away. And power is a language as well. To become literate in power means to understand where it arises, who has it, who does not, what sources it comes from, money, people, ideas, social norms and how we can mobilize all those things money, people, ideas, social norms to change the frame of the possible. That’s a very theoretical, abstract thing. But it becomes incredibly concrete if you and a bunch of neighbors decide that you want to form a club to ensure that policing practice is changed in your part of town. Or you form a gardening club because you live in a blighted area or whatever it might be. That is the thing that we can start doing right now to start closing the gap between our high ideals or that exceptional burden and our actual institutions.”

7. Be Trustworthy

Zina Jacque: “What do we need to do to rebuild our civic trust?”

Eric Liu: “I think one of the best ways to rebuild trust is to be trustworthy. Make commitments to some people. Make some promises to some people. Say ‘Hey, I hear your mom’s having a hard time with her health. Let me bring by some dinner next week,’ and then bring by some dinner next week and be understood as a neighbor who can be counted on. Be understood as someone who will be there when the chips are down.

I think we build trust by by cracking open a little bit of that vulnerability and saying I may not be right. I really want to understand you. I’m not here to play gotcha. I’m not here to try to beat you and score points against you. Please tell me what shaped you and formed your worldview that I honestly so disagree with and I will do the same.”

8. Remember Our History

Zina Jacque: “On the days you are disappointed and down, what is the encouragement that lifts you back up?”

Eric Liu: “I’m a student of history. I was a history major and I’m perpetually concerned and a little stunned at how little memory we have as Americans. I think the best thing we can do to give ourselves some encouragement is to recognize that, yeah, this is hard what we’re going through.

But imagine what it was like to be a black officeholder in Illinois in 1877… And imagine your counterparts in the south and recognize people who had gotten their hopes up after the Civil War, after emancipation, during a decade of reconstruction only then to have a dark, heavy curtain fall for the next half century. For the next 60, 70, 80 years in the United States during which time Jim Crow took hold in the south through lynch mobs and took hold in the north through redlining, right? Imagine living through that. Imagine not just this moment, this election cycle but your whole adult lifetime, being ground down like that. Imagine the persistence of people like W.E.B. DuBois. The folks who founded the NAACP. Imagine the persistence of the generation that begat the generation that begat Rosa Parks, right?

Because Rosa Parks didn’t just decide one day she was tired and sit down on the bus. She was trained at the Highlander Folk School which was formed by the people a generation before who had been pushing and slogging through hopeless times. And they were formed a generation before by people who had no good reason to believe that democracy could ever deliver for them. And still, they kept showing up. We’re not going through anything compared to that.

Let us draw hope and inspiration from the fact that people no better equipped than we are managed to do much more with much less and we’ve got an opportunity, right now in fact, to deliver upon the preamble of our constitution and make that society a reality. So let’s get to it.”

Interested in continuing the dialogue at home or work? Here were the breakout questions followed by suggested resources and a video of the full interview with Eric Liu:

Breakout Questions:

  • In today’s social & political climate, how do you feel like you are most misunderstood?
  • Whose wisdom about society & civic life do you carry with you? What received wisdom do you hold? How has that served you?
  • When you stop to think about it, what did that wisdom leave out? Anything you were taught that you would like to lay down, or replace?
  • What would you need to rebuild civic trust? What do you want to give?

Suggested Resources:

Are you signed up for Courageous Conversations? Every Second Wednesday, 7pm:

Here are past articles for our takeaways from the 2020-2021 season of Courageous Conversations:

Courageous Conversations is presented by Urban Consulate and Barrington’s White House and made possible by your ticket purchase and generous support from Jessica & Dominic Green, Kim Duchossois, Tyler & Danielle Lenczuk, Cobey & Erich Struckmeyer, Susan & Rich Padula, Julie Kanak & Mike Rigali, Barrington Area Community Foundation, and BMO Wealth Management. To learn more, visit CourageousCommunity.us.


Courageous Conversations Photos at Barrington’s White House by Linda Barrett.

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