Democracy is for amateurs

Former White House speechwriter and Deputy Domestic Policy Advisor, Eric Liu spoke at the Athenaeum on Thursday, September 12. The title of his talk was  “Democracy is for Amateurs.”

Speaking to an audience of mostly CMC freshmen as this year’s freshman class speaker, Liu began with the question “What does it mean to be a citizen?”

Liu outlined two “moments of truth”—that facing the Millennial generation in defining itself instead of allowing others to define it, and a moment of truth for the country.

“The convergence of these two moments,” he said. “Creates both an opportunity and an obligation, for you, the class of 2017 at Claremont McKenna College.”

He discussed the challenge for Millennials in defining their generation against the popular notion that they do not “care about anything larger than themselves.”

“This is a moment of truth for you to take authorship and ownership of the narrative of your own age cohort,” he said.

He continues: “As you enter these idyllic years of learning without constraints and limitations, you happen to be coming of age at a time of constraints, of limitations. At a time when a great recession and its aftermath and a recovery that is only felt by a few, has so many Americans feeling uncertain about the promise of America, about the viability of the American dream, and about whether, indeed, you all will be the first generation of Americans to do worse than your parents. “

Liu outlines historic income and wealth inequality, not seen since right before the Great Depression. He also points to the power of money in political access, a lack of civic engagement and a detachment of citizens from civic participation due to the professionalization of democracy. That professionalization of democracy can be seen in the lobbyists, regulators, consultants, bankrollers, professional communicators and others that have crowded out the amateur citizen and put barriers between citizens and their elected officials. All of these forces, according to Liu, have created a democracy that does not adequately represent the will of the people. “There is this feeling that the game is rigged,” he says.

Liu outlines three points, framed around power, character and practice, to help Millennials navigate a better future:

1. According to Liu, we need to make power less unseemly and frame our discussion of civic life in terms of power. “You need to be literate in power,” he says.

2. We need to foster a strong education in character because “society becomes how you behave,” he says.

3. Liu argues that in order to be a good citizen we must practice good citizenship at all times and in every action. He referenced the Zen Buddhist proverb, “chop wood and carry water.”  The good citizen is engaged, participates, and understands power, combining it with good character to foster a better society.

A civic entrepreneur, author, and educator, Eric Liu served as both a speechwriter and Deputy Domestic Policy Advisor for President Bill Clinton. Liu has emerged as a prominent national voice on the ideals of citizenship, patriotism, and democracy. He is a frequent contributor to MSNBC, and is a regular correspondent for and Liu wrote The True Patriot (2007), a national bestselling book that argues progressives must reclaim patriotism, and founded the Patriot Network to advance the book’s call for progressive patriotism. Previously, Liu authored Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life (2006), and The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1999), a New York Times notable book. In 2002 the World Economic Forum named Liu one of the top 100 “Global Leaders of Tomorrow.” Liu recently founded Citizen University in an effort to combat the rising trend of what he calls “citizen detachment.”