Founder and Author Eric Liu

The author discusses his book You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.

Eric Liu is the founder and CEO of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He is the author of several books, including "You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen" (March 2017), "A Chinaman's Chance," "The Gardens of Democracy," and "The Accidental Asian." Eric served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He is a regular columnist for CNN  and a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Follow @EricPLiu on Twitter.

Follow @CitizenUniv on Twitter.

Like Citizen University on Facebook.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

The House Republican bill repealing and replacing Obamacare is the latest development sparking calls to action across the nation to turn over the GOP House Majority in the 2018 midterm elections, but what are the best ways right now to maximize citizen power in the era of Trump?

Tonight, a conversation with Eric Liu, the founder of the nonprofit Citizen University, and author of the new book, “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen”.

Then Academy Award-winning documentarian, Laura Poitras, joins us to talk about her latest film about one of the most controversial and prominent citizens on the planet, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All that in just a moment.

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Tavis: Demonstrations, marches and stepped up civic participation are what many, including tonight’s guest, see as a silver lining to an election that has tested our belief in America and at times, let’s be honest, humanity. But what are the best ways to maximize citizen power in the Trump era?

Eric Liu has long been an advocate for teaching people how to best wield their power. His latest text is called “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen”. Eric, always an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Eric Liu: Tavis; it’s great to be back.

Tavis: Are we more powerful than we think even in this present moment of crisis and catastrophe?

Liu: Especially in this era of crisis and catastrophe.

Tavis: Why especially?

Liu: Well, I think this is one of those moments where people stop taking things for granted. This is a moment where people who might have been either just drifting along thinking that things were fine or, frankly, thinking that the game was so rigged and the system was so broken that there’s no point in getting involved.

People are awake now and they realize standing on the sidelines is insufficient. They actually have to start figuring out not only how to get on the field, but then what to do when you’re on the field, right?

I think one of the things that I would give Donald Trump credit for in these first 100+ days of his administration is that he alone has catalyzed one of the greatest surges of civic engagement, civic participation we’ve seen in this country in half a century, right?

So I think people are waking up right now and realizing, A, what’s a stake, but B, that by showing up, by developing some muscle, by becoming what I say in this book, becoming literate in power, how to read power and how to write power. When you do these things, you can actually start changing the game.

Tavis: How would you compare, contrast, the way the French used their citizen power in their election when they had two uneasy choices with the way we did or did not use our citizen power when we had two uneasy choices?

Liu: Well, you know, I think the simplest answer is the French people reminded us of the simple power of showing up, actually showing up, right? Their turnout in the election was 74% which, by French standards, is actually kind of low. But the last time in the United States we had 74% voter turnout, 1896.

Tavis: Ouch.

Liu: 1896, right? So one of the things that I’ve always said is there’s no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting, right? It is voting to hand your power over to someone else whose interests will be opposite to yours and who want to use that power against you even if they do it in your own name, right? And the French people reminded us that you have to actually show up even when your choices are distasteful as you say.

In a case of Le Pen and Macron, there’s a clearer menace there because she descends literally from a neo-Nazi lineage and a threat that she poses to the idea of France and the idea of post-war France was far more vivid for French people, I think, than the menace potentially that candidate Trump posed, right?

There are a lot of countervailing things that made people say, oh, he doesn’t really mean it. But in France, they knew she meant it. They knew that her father had meant it, right?

But at the end of the day, it’s not even so much about the candidates. It is just remembering that when we as citizens throw away our power, give it away unwittingly or intentionally, we have nobody to blame but ourselves, right?

And showing up to vote doesn’t solve everything. The vote is not the be-all and end-all. But if you don’t vote, you don’t get even a chance to actually influence the rest of the system, and the French people reminded us of the simple power of showing up.

Tavis: My read of history suggests on some level — you’re much smarter than I am — but my read of history suggests on some level that it takes a bit of this. It takes a bit of being on the edge or going over the edge, as it were, in our democracy to pull us back to where we need to be. Is that your read of history? And if so, why does it require that?

Liu: [Laugh] Because humans are lazy. Humans are complacent. But I think it’s also the case that in a society like ours, it’s not just that things have been going great and we’re complacent, right? We are at the end, I hope, of a four-decade period where wealth has been concentrated, voice has been concentrated, clout has been concentrated.

You can’t have that happen for four decades without people eventually, both on the right and the left, saying we’re going to push back. We’re going to start knocking over the establishment that has been rigging the game this way. When I think about this era of citizen power, I’m not talking about the era since the election of Donald Trump.

I rewind at least to the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, right? Those things were very different ideologically, but they were very much the same thing. People saying this establishment that has rigged a game to concentrate power and monopolize it in fewer hands is something we need to undo and unravel.

Tavis: I hear your elongated period of time that you’re focusing on for this particular text. But specifically in the era of Donald Trump, what does it mean to be a citizen? How do we best wear the garment? How do we most honorably wear the garment of citizen in this present moment?

Liu: I love the way you put that. First of all, I think when I say citizen power, it’s worth defining terms.

Tavis: Please.

Liu: When I say citizen, I’m not talking about documentation status under the immigration laws in the U.S., right? There are plenty of folks in this country who lack the papers, but live like big citizens and plenty of people who have the documents and don’t.

I’m talking about this deeper ethical sense of are you a member of the body? Do you take responsibility for what’s going on around you? Do you understand that at the end of the day there’s no such thing really as someone else’s problem, right? That’s citizen. That’s being a citizen. Power I define simply as a capacity to ensure that others do as you would have them do.

So to some folks, that’s a little bit like, whoa, that’s kind of menacing, kind of dark I don’t like that. I have to say you got to get over any qualms you have about this. Because power is simply a universal human capacity and yearning, right? When you apply that yearning capacity to questions of public concern and common questions, that’s civic power, right?

So in thinking about what the responsibilities of a citizen are, Tavis, I think, number one, it is to be literate in power. But number two, it is to ground that literacy in a sense of character, a sense of moral purpose.

I have a real simple equation. Power plus character equals citizenship. If all you have is power literacy and you know how to get stuff done, you know how to pull strings, you know how to work the system, but you don’t have any moral bearings, you don’t have any kind of ethical sense, then all you are is a really finely skilled sociopath, right?

But if all you have is a moral sense, but you have no real idea how to get anything done, how to move people, how to move money or ideas or crowds, social norms to effect change, then you’re just philosophizing over there. You got to combine these two in a way that makes civic change possible.

Tavis: I’m struggling. I’m trying to juxtapose your definition of citizen with the president who now sits in the Oval Office. If being a good citizen, an honorable citizen is your definition — what was it? Power plus character equal citizen. Power plus character equals citizen. This guy is the president.

Liu: This guy’s the president.

Tavis: But one could argue that that equation is slightly off. There’s a component missing in that character. So is it possible that the president could be a selfish citizen?

Liu: It is not only possible. It is the case that the president is no role model for citizenship.

Tavis: Okay.

Liu: And I’m not just talking about the fact that he and his family are incredibly self-dealing and corrupt in the way that they’re operating the White House. Essentially, it is an extension of the Trump organization. I’m talking about rewinding the stuff that people have already sort of discounted and forgotten in the campaign. his demeaning of disfavored people whether it’s Muslims, whether it’s people with disabilities.

And then since he’s become president, his actual menacing threats toward the institutions of self-government, calling federal judges “so-called judges”, saying the Constitution is an impediment to getting done what he’d like to get done.

These are the kinds of things that you might say in the comments thread of a website or you might say on Facebook or you might say if you’re a commentator on a far right TV network. But if you’re saying these things as President of the United States, when you recognize that your example reverberates all around the world, you’re powerful, but you’re not necessarily being a good citizen.

Tavis: But how do you have a conversation about — your book notwithstanding — how do we writ large have a conversation about citizenship when you’re telling me that the person who leads our nation is no model of citizenship?

Liu: Because this country is and always has been bigger than its president.

Tavis: Okay.

Liu: Whether you like that president or not, right? And, by the way, when I’m talking about the deficiencies of the man currently occupying the Oval Office, I don’t assume that all the people who supported him share those deficiencies.

I think there are millions of Americans who chose this candidate precisely because they felt like the game was so rigged that they needed to knock the table over instead of just moving around the pieces on the same rigged game, right?

I get that and I get that instinct and that yearning. I think there are people both on the left and the right and people who don’t even put themselves in those categories who want change for good reasons, right?

But we do have to remember — and, again, our times remind us — that this country is so much bigger, that the idea of self-government in a republic is so much bigger than one man alone either promising or threatening to do certain things.

Tavis: I’m so glad that your book talks straight away about our responsibilities as citizens. Because it seems to me that we always get stuck talking about the rights, but never the responsibilities. I’m not naïve in asking this, but why do we get so enamored with one and lose sight of the other?

Liu: I agree with that 100% and I think, you know, a lot of it has to do with the origins of the country. The origins of the country were about throwing off tyranny, right?

And if that is the default for your operating system, even though today in 2017, we don’t live under tyranny, but that language still exists. So anybody who tells you that, hey, we’ve got to do stuff together, we’ve got to help each other out, that’s tyranny, right? Don’t tread on me! Get off my rights!

I think we have a deep habit here and I think one of the things that we’ve forgotten and the founding generation understood when they had conceptions of citizenship and responsibility was that, if all you think that being a citizen is let me do whatever I want to do, then you’re just basically dressing up a toddler, right? You’re not actually being an adult.

Being an adult means understanding we are woven into a fabric of relationship and obligation and that freedom isn’t just the removal of encumbrance. Freedom is saying we’re bound together. We got to help each other out here, right?

I think that notion of freedom not as just don’t tread on me, but as how are we going to raise a barn together? How are we going to raise a family together? How are we going to make a community together? That’s the other strand of the American DNA that we forget at our peril.

Tavis: I mentioned at the top of this conversation all the protests, all the demonstrations. You in your own poetic way, which I cannot repeat, made the point that Donald Trump gets credit in this first 100 days for at least bringing all this to the fore. But I’ve seen these signs, you’ve seen these signs everywhere at these protests: Resist. If there’s one word that the left or the Democrats are using now, it is Resist.

It seems to me that — I’m a resister, I’m all for resisting what I don’t like. I’m all for fighting for those things I believe in. But I also understand that resist is just a part of citizenship. What’s the flip side of that coin?

Liu: It is create, right?

Tavis: Okay. So it’s resist and create.

Liu: Yeah. Look, I think the reality is that it is always easier to mobilize in a negative, right? And resist is easier than saying to get people together around an affirmative agenda. But you can’t sustain just on resist alone, right? The idea of citizenship in the Trump era has to be about creating an affirmative sense and an affirmative story of something that people want to be part of.

That story isn’t just about Democrats and the left. I think there’s a moment right now where you got people in very interesting cross-ideological ways saying, you know what? Donald Trump and his election is a symptom of a deeper illness in a body politic, right?

There are people on the Tea Party right and there are people on the Black Lives Matter left who agree right now that we have to push against a state that is just treating people as cogs. We’ve got to treat ourselves as having power and responsibility.

Tavis: But politically do Democrats get that? You know where I’m going with this. There’ve been all kind of conversations about whether or not they really get that. Do they really get it and get it well enough to make it resonate in 2018? Do they really get that?

Liu: You mean the official Democratic Party?

Tavis: That’s what I mean.

Liu: Yeah. You know, it remains…

Tavis: And its leadership? Do they get that?

Liu: I think it remains to be seen. I think the reality is — and this is not just about Hillary people versus Bernie people. That is one way that it plays out, right? There are so many people especially in the younger generation right now who want affirmative change, who believe in a vision of inclusion, who don’t think that we’re going to rewind to some idea of America as a white nationalist, white Christian preserve, an island, right?

But simply saying we resist that vision is not enough. You actually have to be able to tell people here’s the story of what we’re going to be together, and it’s not a zero sum story, right? It’s a story in which we’re all going to be better off when we’re all better off. People don’t believe that right now.

One of things that I talk about, Tavis, in this book is the way that anybody who wants to make change in civic life and exercise power, you got to think in terms of three imperatives. Changing the game, changing the story and changing the equation, right? A good political candidate does that, but so does a powerful bottom-up civic movement.

Changing the game means — let’s take the Muslim ban, for instance. When Donald Trump issued his first executive order, he thought, hey, I control the game here. I’m the president. I don’t have to go to Congress. I can just issue an executive order and make this happen, right?

And the people of this country said uh-uh, no. We’re not going to let you play that inside game just with executive orders. We’re going to turn this into a game in which the courts are involved and in which the court of public opinion is involved. We’re going to expand that field and that arena where you can’t win, right?

Then the people of this country changed the story. He tried to tell a story about terror and terror threats, but the way that that ban was drawn and overdrawn, people said no. This is pure and simple a Muslim ban based on things that you have said in the campaign and have continued to say. And the opponents of this ban framed successfully the story within which is unfolding.

Then on the equation piece, you look at the way in which on the day that ban was issued, people spontaneously swarming to airports to defend immigrants and refugees and then swarming to courthouses.

Lawyers signing up, citizen lawyers, citizen activists, citizen artists, right? People saying whatever skill I can bring to the table, I’m going to bring to the table now. They changed that equation where folks in the administration thought this was an inside thing that they could rig and the people of this country said not so fast, right?

That is what we’ve all got to get literate in and that takes practice right now. That, I think, is where it helps to have, again, an affirmative, positive story of what we want to join and be part of and not just what we want to fight against.

Tavis: As we all know, Bill Clinton is quite a wordsmith. Bill Clinton is quite an orator. And part of the reason for that is that Eric Liu was writing his stuff [laugh]…

Liu: No, I take zero credit for that. The learning went the other way around [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, you better say that just in case the president’s watching tonight [laugh]. He was a speech writer for Bill Clinton and now he’s a wonderful author. His new text is called “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen”. His name is Eric Liu. Eric, good to have you on the program again.

Liu: Tavis, it’s great to be with you.

Tavis: Up next, Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Laura Poitras, with her film on Julian Assange. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on tonight’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: June 22, 2017 at 3:04 pm