Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Democracy On Trial
About Eric Liu's TED Talk
Eric Liu says that voting is the most important thing a citizen in a democracy can do. He says when we vote, even if it is in anger, we are part of a collective creative leap of faith.
About Eric Liu
Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University, which teaches the art of powerful citizenship. Liu is also the executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program. He's the author of several books, including A Chinaman's Chance, The Accidental Asian, and The Gardens of Democracy.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So if you had to pick the most natural way for humans to govern themselves, let's say the system that we were evolutionarily designed to build, what would you pick?
ERIC LIU: What a great question. Because I think many people's first instincts is to go to a variation of law of the jungle and say that the most natural way for humans to govern themselves is force and violence and people to act in this completely self-serving way. And it's just a cutthroat environment.
RAZ: This is Eric Liu. He's a writer and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
LIU: And, you know, I'm sure there are - of course that's always been a part of human experience.
RAZ: You got to survive, right?
LIU: You've got to survive. But I think the reality is if you rewind to that 15,000-year time frame, the humans who actually survived were those who didn't stop at the skills of self-preservation and one-on-one competition, but who actually were able to advance to sociability. Those who figured out how we do stuff together.
RAZ: And that system Eric's talking about, the system used in roughly 130 out of 195 countries in the world - it's called democracy.
Do you think democracy is the best system of government that humans have come up with so far?
LIU: I do. I won't - I won't even give it the Churchillian (ph), you know, caveat of...
LIU: ...The worst except for everything else. Right? Now even when it is working well and even when it is healthy, it is profoundly flawed. I mean, democracy as opposed to autocracy, the idea of all the people having a say rather than just a tiny number of people having a say, to me that is an un-distilled, unabashed, you know, unqualified good compared to oligarchy or aristocracy or plutocracy or whatever.
RAZ: But do all the people really have a say? I mean, compare your power as a consumer versus your power as a voter or a constituent. When you write a bad review on the internet, someone's probably going to respond. But a vote, a letter to your elected representative?
Just look around the world today. Does anyone really care what we think? And hasn't technology made us so much more powerful in ways that democracy can't really keep up with?
LIU: Well, I think you're right. Democracy is on trial in a way that I don't think has been the case since the eve of the Second World War. And then, as now, there was this sense that, yeah, you know, democracies decay and they're decadent and they don't work.
But here's the other thing, Guy, that I think is super important to highlight in that example. Citizens are not consumers - right? - we are not just dissatisfied customers. We have a responsibility to be co-authors and co-creators.
RAZ: But is it time for a democracy reboot like a system update? Well, today on the show, we're asking that very question, putting democracy on trial. We're going to look at when it works, when it doesn't and how it could be so much better.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: OK. So let's stick with Eric Liu. He's the founder of a group called Citizen University, which teaches the art of, well, citizenship. And as Eric explained on the TED stage, the most important thing a citizen can do is vote.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LIU: Why bother? The game is rigged. My vote won't count. The choices are terrible. Voting's for suckers. Perhaps you've thought some of these things. Perhaps you've even said them. And if so, you wouldn't be alone and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. But in spite of all this, I still believe voting matters because it is a self-fulfilling act of belief. It feeds the spirit of mutual interest that makes any society thrive.
When we vote, even if it isn't anger, we are part of a collective creative leap of faith. Voting helps us generate the very power that we wish we had. It's no accident that democracy and theater emerged around the same time in ancient Athens. Both of them yank the individual out of the enclosure of her private self. Both of them create great public experiences of shared ritual. Both of them bring the imagination to life in ways that remind us that all of our bonds in the end are imagined and can be reimagined.
But let me give you an answer to this question - why bother? - that is maybe a little less spiritual and a bit more pointed. Why bother voting? Because there is no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting for everything that you may detest and oppose. Not voting can be dressed up as an act of principled passive resistance, but in fact not voting is actively handing power over to those whose interests are counter to your own and those who would be very glad to take advantage of your absence. Not voting is for suckers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: But you've heard this idea, Eric, that, you know, like, democracies move too slowly. Nothing gets done. I mean, look at how fast entire cities are built in China.
LIU: Yeah, Guy, you're absolutely right. But here's the thing. The reality is that on the most basic level, systems that are inclusive are more resilient. Systems that are exclusive and extractive are less resilient. They are more brittle. And so for a time, systems that are autocratic, extractive, exclusive, you know, they can - they can make the trains run on time for a really long time. They can create a sense of order and progress. And they can - as they have in China - build great things in short amounts of time with a lot of purpose and speed and with very little messiness.
But any day of the week, I will take a system like ours because of its resiliency and its adaptability in the face of crisis. And we, the voters, actually have to remember that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LIU: We live in a time right now divided, often very dark, where across the left and the right there is a lot of talk of revolution and the need for revolution to disrupt everyday democracy. Well, here's the thing. Everyday Democracy already gives us a playbook for revolution. In the 2012 presidential election, young voters, Latino voters, Asian-American voters, low income voters all showed up at less than 50 percent. In the 2014 midterm elections, turnout was 36 percent, which was a 70-year low. And then your average local election, turnout hovers somewhere around 20 percent.
I invite you to imagine 100 percent. Picture 100 percent, mobilize 100 percent and overnight we get revolution. Overnight the policy priorities of this country change dramatically and every level of government becomes radically more responsive to all the people. What would it take to mobilize 100 percent?
Imagine where this country would be if all the folks who in 2010 created the Tea Party had decided that, you know, politics is too messy. Voting is too complicated. There's no possibility of our votes adding up to anything. They didn't pre-emptively silence themselves. They showed up. And in the course of showing up, they changed American politics. Imagine if all of the followers of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had decided not to upend the political status quo and blow apart the frame of the previously possible in American politics. They did that by voting.
In a democracy, most of the time our elected leaders are not leaders. They are exquisitely attuned followers. And they will follow who they think is going to show up to vote.
RAZ: But I still, you know, I still sometimes wonder whether we - especially in the United States - whether we just assume that because we are the oldest constitutional democracy that, you know, that we're this automatic beacon to the rest of the world.
LIU: America is a beacon not because our electoral system is perfect and works so well that it should be emulated, and not even because our constitutional system is perfect and is self-perpetuating in perfection. But we are a beacon for a very simple reason. There is no place on Earth, no place on Earth that is - in the way the United States is - number one, dedicated to a proposition fueled by this idea that we have a creed that we're supposed to live up to. And conscious continuously of the ways in which we are failing to live up to that creed. Right? That is an American idea.
But I think, you know, we are always at risk of blowing it. We are always at risk of forgetting this. And frankly, I think it's people around the world who try with kind of urgency to remind the United States, hey, don't forget this. This is a great thing. And it's a necessary thing if our notions of global identity are ever to evolve.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
LIU: There are some on the left who think power resides only with corporations and some on the right who think power resides only with government, each side blinded by their selective outrage. And as a result of all of this creeping fatalism in public life, we here - particularly in America today - have depressingly low levels of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation, awareness. The whole business of politics has been effectively subcontracted out to a band of professionals - money people, outreach people, message people, research people. The rest of us are meant to feel like amateurs in the sense of suckers. We've become de-motivated to learn more about how things work. We begin to opt out.
Well, this problem, this challenge is a thing that we must now confront. And I believe that when you have this kind of disengagement, this willful ignorance, it becomes both a cause and a consequence of this concentration of opportunity of wealth and clout that I was describing a moment ago, this profound civic inequality. And this is why it is so important in our time right now to re-imagine civics as the teaching of power. Perhaps it's never been more important at any time in our lifetimes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Are you optimistic about the future of democracy? Like in 50 years are we going to look back and say, oh, that was just so silly that we were worried about democracy? I mean, of course it was going to be fine.
LIU: No. I'm not optimistic. I'm not pessimistic, either. I think this is actually one of these profound pivot points in a nation's history. Look, we in the United States are trying to do a pretty audacious thing, hasn't yet been done by humans. Which is to create a mass multicultural democratic republic.
LIU: Right? There have been other societies that have tried one, two or three of those things. But nobody has ever gone for all four. Right? So Athens was never mass scaled. You know, the Soviet Union was mass and multicultural and had the form of a republic but it certainly wasn't democratic.
LIU: But, again, to be a republic, a place where citizens actually see themselves as co-authors and co-creators and having co-responsibility - right? - that's hard. It's so much easier to sit back and treat the whole thing as a TV show, a reality TV show. But a democracy where people own responsibility. And, again, it's harder. But that is to me - that is the best social technology humans have yet come up with.
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RAZ: Eric Liu. He's the founder of Citizen University. You can check out his two great TED talks at ted.com. Our show today - Democracy on Trial. Back in a minute. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.