Has America Lost Its Sense of Common Purpose?

After a three-year study, the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship has published 31 recommendations to help America — termed a “nation in crisis.” The bipartisan commission of academic, civic, and political leaders includes Eric Liu and Pete Peterson. They join Michel Martin to discuss their findings and recommendations for a way forward.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, one of the big questions as we try and navigate these global challenges is, of course, how do you create more resilient democracies? After three years investigating this, the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship published 31 recommendations to help America, which they call a nation in crisis. The bipartisan commission is made up of academic, civic and political leaders, including Eric Liu, co-chair of this commission, and Pete Peterson, who was a member. Here they are talking to our Michel Martin about how and what changes to implement.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Eric Liu, Pete Peterson, thank you both so much for joining us.



MARTIN: One of the reasons we’re glad to have both of you is that the two of you are politically diverse. Eric Liu, you served in the Obama administration. Dean Peterson, you have been a member of certain conservative groups, conservative sort of thought groups. But President Trump has been calling for patriotic education. And he’s also taken some steps to bar federal agencies from actually sharing with their employees certain kinds of education which has become commonplace in the corporate sphere, so diversity education, sort of, as it were. As you know, a lot of progressives have really pushed back hard against that idea, Eric. I mean, what they’re saying, that this is — really, the president isn’t calling for education, he’s calling for indoctrination, and that this is really the hallmark of an authoritarian regime, which is to kind of create a kind of a fantasy history that obliterates all of the blemishes of a nation’s past. Is something lacking in the way people are being taught about the history of this country?

LIU: There absolutely is a need for more civic education. And there’s a need, but it’s not only a matter of quantity. I mean, absolutely, yes, civics as a class has evaporated from so many of our public schools across the country. But even apart from quantity of civics is the nature and the quality of that civics. And so, particularly when you think about something like these arguments about American history, here’s the thing. In a country like ours, we are bound together by nothing but this creed. And so we are meant continually to contest the creed. We are always going to be arguing, who is us? Who gets to claim the we in we, the people? And you’re never going to have a final resolution on that. There’s always going to be a tug of war. And you can think about the recommendations that we made in this report, for instance, for a big nationwide endeavor, working with humanities councils, public libraries, other grassroots organizations, on an initiative about retelling our nation’s story. And that doesn’t mean a total revisionist story that throws out the founders and says, we were all born in sin and the whole country’s terrible, but nor is it a story that says that the origins of this country were great and blessed, and, therefore, no criticism is allowed because it’d be unpatriotic. The idea is synthesis. The idea is to be grown-ups, that you can see the good and the bad and the ugly and face that history, just as we face ourselves.

MARTIN: And, Dean Peterson, what does this look like? Because, as you surely know, a number of people have reacted very negatively to the president’s suggestion, saying that really what he wants to do is kind of whitewash history. On the other hand, conservatives have been saying really for some time that there is a lack of seriousness about educating people on the core principles and values of this country. You are an educator, so tell me — make the case for what is needed that wouldn’t basically obliterate the stories of two of the three people in this conversation right now.

PETERSON: So, I would say that civics education, at its best, develops a certain sense of love for the place in which you live. At the same time, it also provides a grounding in agency and the ways in which you can interact and reform the system. This constitutional system was formed for reform. The mechanisms for that happening to encompass an increasingly diverse nation were always there at the founding. I will remind us that it was the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who called the Constitution a promissory note. Now, you only call something a promissory note if you trust the writers of that promissory note, and you intend to cash it, and you have the agency by which you can actually do that. And I believe firmly that, even warts and all, this American history and the way that we teach it needs to also provide a grounding for which, as the great James Baldwin always said, that this is my history, too. This is my history, too. This is my country too. So I think it really needs to have both of those components, that there is a sense of affiliation and affection we have for the place in which we live, but, at the same time, we understand the tools by which we can reform it.

MARTIN: So, Dean Peterson, what does that look like? And the reason I — and who’s going to decide what that looks like? Who sort of advances the argument that this is what the future should look like that we could all embrace?

PETERSON: Well, from a policy perspective, to your question who gets to decide, it’s actually quite local. These are decisions around curriculum and what we teach in civics education that are made at the state level and local school boards, providing each of us opportunities to engage either directly in running for local school board, or at least voting for school board members, or certainly at the state level, to make those decisions. The president certainly can, say, make recommendations such as he wants, but those decisions will actually in the end be made at a far more local level. But I would point out — and I will just describe a couple different things — that the Howard Zinn description of American history prevalent in American schools is what a lot of conservatives object to, as one saying that it actually isn’t a balanced reading of history. Now, there is an imbalanced reading of history on the right as well that just sees us going from strength to strength and none of the issues that we faced regarding slavery or Native Americans or Chinese or the Asians here in California were really — were — really need discussing. They do need discussing. But, again — and I would say the 1619 Project is another one of those that argues that we were not founded in 1776, although there appears to be a fair amount of backtracking now by “The New York Times” on this, but it was incorporated into an actual curriculum that argues that America was founded on slavery, which I think is something, A, I disagree with, B, I don’t think is historically accurate, and, C, does lead to this polarizing view, one that doesn’t really inculcate a love and affection for where we live.

MARTIN: So, again, the question then is — well, Eric, maybe you want to answer this — so, what does it look like then?

LIU: I think this argument about, for instance, the 1619 Project, I somewhat dissent with my — and I don’t mean this in a way that they say in a B.S. way in Washington, D.C. — my good friend Pete Peterson. Pete Peterson is actually my good friend. But I dissent somewhat from him, because I don’t think the authors of that report claimed in any literal sense that the United States was founded in 1619 on slavery, but what they mean is, more than just a metaphor, that the foundations of what was possible, that our notions of liberty in the 1770s were made possible, in part, by the fact that some people were quite excluded from liberty. And that made them more jealously protect liberty and understand tyranny, because people in many of those colonies were practicing tyranny upon enslaved people. And so it’s a complicated story. And Pete and I can have an argument about what to emphasize and which syllable to accent in the telling of the story. And we can leave it to others listening to our argument, to people in our classrooms to come to their own judgments and to know their own minds right now. And I think this is what’s crucial in what we’re trying to do in this report, our common purpose. It’s not love for a country or faith in democracy that is blind. It is not indoctrination. It is, as I said, grown- up. Grown-up love recognizes flaws. Grownup faith fully embraces doubt. I’m not sure whether this experiment is going to run another round. But I’m not going to be the one who says, oh, I’m going to walk away from this thing right now. And the commissioners came together across party lines and across ideological lines to come up with some of the 31 fairly bold recommendations that are meant to reinstill a sense of opportunity to participate in argument, in reckoning, in telling that story, in participation in the shaping of our common destiny.

MARTIN: Yes, so let’s go to some of those recommendations. You have been participating for the last three years in a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on a project called Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. You had a very diverse group of people participating in these conversations, people from different political backgrounds, people from different sort of ages, races, academic disciplines, and so forth. So why don’t each of you take a minute and tell me, what are some of the recommendations that you think are most meaningful? Dean Peterson, you want to start?

PETERSON: Sure. Touching on some of the nuts and bolts, looking first at Congress, we are recommending an increase in the size of Congress. We had some great experts on the commission that actually looked at the physical structure of Capitol Hill to see what it would stand. And it looks like we could increase it by 50 members, without significant changes needed — needing to be made to the physical structure of Capitol Hill. That would at least play a role in diminishing what is now each congressman or woman representing three-quarters-of-a-million people, whereas, at the founding, it was at a 10th of that number. Independent redistricting commissions was another big proposal of this. It’s something that we practice out here in California, as a way of depoliticizing the drawing of our electoral or voting districts. Mentioned before the 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices. So, it really does fan in, as to Eric’s point, some of the more civic culture recommendations that get into areas of civics education. While it is 30 or so recommendations, they really do span the gamut of nuts-and-bolts reforms, but also more what I would call civic cultural reforms as well.

MARTIN: Talk a bit a bit more, if you would. I don’t want to gloss past the recommendation around the Supreme Court, limiting the terms to, what, 18 years?

PETERSON: That’s right.

MARTIN: What beneficial effect do you think that that would have?

PETERSON: Well, as we have seen, we live in a rather randomized system, where one president can recommend zero and others, just depending on the vagaries of lifespans and a desire on the part of a Supreme Court justice to retire, could recommend three or four. And so what we’re recommending is, if you go to 18, the way the mathematics work is that, over time, and this would be weaved in over time, as each current Supreme Court justice would come off of the court, you would get to a point where there would be one Supreme Court justice nominated and confirmed in each two-year congressional term. And so, again, every president, presidential term, it would be two justices. But it would bring a certain degree of certitude in what voters would be voting on, they would know that they would be voting for both House and Senate members, as well as presidents, that would have a certain degree of review and recommendation for new Supreme Court justices. And, again, it would depoliticize it, in the sense that you would know that, from president to president, there wouldn’t be this element of chance, which, as we’re seeing, can dramatically affect the leaning of the court itself.

MARTIN: It’s becoming like a gladiator match in a way to sort of determine the seat.


MARTIN: Eric, ahead.

LIU: Pete alluded to the fact that this commission came up with a set of recommendations on more of the civic culture side. And I want to emphasize a couple of those, because they’re really important. Michel, you have asked a bunch of questions about one of those, which is the narratives that we tell about who we are as Americans. We recommend, not just in the classroom, but actually in community-based ways. If anybody who’s listening to this conversation now thinks, hey, I’d like to get a conversation going where I live in Tampa or in Athens, Tennessee, or wherever it might be, about these questions. We want to help you do that. And the commission is committing, with a group of champion organizations, to over the next six years, between now the 250th birthday of the country, to implement these recommendations. This is not just a thing to sit on the shelf, right? So, that’s one set that’s around, how do we, in a bottom-up way, retell the American story? But a second one is to have a universal expectation of national service for young people. You talk about our common purpose. How can you have a common purpose if you don’t have a common experience? There are no institutions left where all Americans across different lines of race, class background are going to come together, not to talk about their differences, but to do something that’s working on a third thing that’s not me, and it’s not you, right? And, in the same vein, in this report — and, again, this is a bold one, and maybe more bold for Pete and some of his friends than for me, but an expectation of universal voting, the idea that there will be a mandate to vote in the United States, and you don’t have to vote for anybody in particular, but you got to vote, right? And we recognize that some of these…


MARTIN: Yes, what would that do? What would that do?

LIU: That would change the culture in a way that just boosts, number one, a sense of ownership and responsibility, a sense of — and the proposal, by the way, is that not voting under such a rule set on would incur a modest fine. It’s not a felony, it’s not a jailable offense, but the idea…

MARTIN: It’s like a ticket?

LIU: Yes, it’s like getting a ticket.

MARTIN: Dean, forgive me. Forgive me. I so — I simply just have to ask, because you are a person with a long history of involvement in sort of conservative organizations and a thinker and an educator. The president currently serving regularly demeans, in very personal ways, people who disagree with him, and, even as we are speaking now, is saying that he may not leave office peacefully if he is not reelected. And I just have to ask, is there not a responsibility on the part of those who share his party and his ideological sympathies to speak about that? Is there?

PETERSON: Yes, I think there absolutely is. And I think it’s — but it’s for everyone. To think that this is solely the president’s job to be steering our appreciation of civility, A, is not an adequate, I think, view of what’s happening in America today across the political spectrum, but it also puts too much on the president for having to be that demonstration. I have spoken publicly and will do so right here that the president has not been a great example of civility and the kinds of civic virtue that we highlight both here in this report and I think are going to be necessary to get us through these weeks and months ahead. But if we think that the problems related to this election and what’s going to come in the months ahead are only coming from the right, that just ain’t seeing the situation right.

MARTIN: And, Eric, what do you say about that? Should, say, people with a more progressive posture win in November and are in a position to sort of take office, what should their posture be? How should they then proceed, according to your views?

LIU: Well, beyond reading the report, and to directly answer your question, what we have got to do is take responsibility, OK? I am no fan of this president. To me, this president is — Pete puts it — understates it rather dramatically to say he’s not been a great example of civility. He’s been one of the greatest single examples of incivility in public life. But it’s not about the president. How this republic heals, how this democracy perseveres is on us. The great civil rights activists Ella Baker has a line that I always quote, which is, a strong people don’t need strong leaders, right? So, if you want to replace this leader with a — what you would call a better leader, one who is stronger and more civil and inclusive, great, God bless, go forth, organize and get people to vote. But the reality is that it’s still up to us to be a strong people. And that means taking responsibility for what’s broken around you, for the ways in which white supremacy and racial injustice persist at the local level, right? This is not just a national issue. This is in prosecutors’ offices, local police departments. We have seen this painfully in the Louisville situation in the killing Breonna Taylor, right? I think what we have got to recognize right now is that that responsibility-taking doesn’t require you to love this president or even to love our system. But it does require you to recognize that there is no choice but to show up. There’s no such thing as not voting, right? Not voting is voting to have power over the people who despise you and who you think you despise. Not showing up is still showing up to hand all your power over. And so we got to find ways to take responsibility.

MARTIN: Eric Liu, Pete Peterson, thank you both so much for talking with us today.


About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy about election interference. She also speaks with Gérard Araud and Norbert Röttgen about how Europe is handling COVID-19. Michel Martin speaks with Eric Liu and Pete Peterson about how to create more resilient democracies.