Of all Seattle's noteworthy political citizens, Eric Liu has to have the most fascinating resumé. After a high-ranking stint on the National Security Council, Liu served under President Clinton as Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy. His future in DC politics was bright, but instead Liu moved to Seattle, where he devoted his life to promoting the idea of citizenship and what it means to be a civic-minded human being. In recent years, Liu founded Citizen University to explore the idea of civic responsibility, and he travels the nation with his Civic Saturday program of events — a kind of secular church that invites people to come together to share ideas and reconsider the idea of citizenship. Tonight, Liu is celebrating the launch of his latest book, a collection of sermons from Civic Saturdays titled Become America, at Washington Hall. The event is free. Liu and I talked on the phone yesterday about citizenship, Seattle, and why serving on the Seattle Public Library Board was more satisfying than working in the White House. This interview has been lightly edited. (Full disclosure: Liu is friends with, and co-author of two books with, my day-job employer, Nick Hanauer.)
The first question is probably something you hear all the time, but I want to get it out of the way early. It's actually something I heard when my first response to Trump's election was to start a book club: Isn't worrying about emphasizing citizenship and civic responsibility during the Trump Administration kind of like putting a Band Aid on cancer?
I think it is absolutely vital during a time of democratic crisis to tend to culture, norms, values, and shared narrative. I think culture is upstream of policy, I think spirit is upstream of law, and I think that the norms and attitudes and mindsets that people have about one another and about what we're doing together here are all upstream of elections and the policy consequences of elections. That's my first point.
The second point — to your book club, actually — I further think that as much as Donald Trump the man poses a menace to democratic norms, one of the lessons of the last few years is just how resilient a system democracy is in the United States. And not just among those who've chosen to resist him, but in communities all around the country right now, people are rebuilding the bonds of trust, relationship and responsibility that make any notion of self-government possible.
I include in that category every kind of club you can imagine. This is a time when I think our highest task as citizens is to start or join a club, to start rebuilding that muscle of association and reckoning with what's going on around you, trying to figure out how you fit into a larger story, trying to figure out what your responsibility is for changing that story. And so to me, whether it's a book club, whether it's things like Civic Saturdays, whether it's a club on something that's not even avowedly about politics like a gardening club, I think that forming and joining clubs right now is one of the most important things we can do as citizens. And particularly where those gatherings are about the deeper moral and ethical choices of our times, I think it becomes especially important.
Could you talk a little bit about your evolution as a civic-minded person?
This past weekend, I was taking part in the Crosscut Festival and I was reflecting about not only the role of organs of local journalism, like Crosscut and Cascade Public Media, but more generally on my education in democracy in Seattle. As you know, before I moved to Seattle 19 years ago, I worked in DC — I worked in national politics — and to look at my bio or my resumé, someone might think, 'you really cut your teeth in DC, you learned what you know at the White House.'
And that's actually not really true. I think my deepest education in democracy has been as a member of the community in Seattle and as a citizen of Washington state. And probably the most signal example of that was the decade that I spent on the Seattle Public Library Board, where I'd still be serving if I weren't term-limited.
I happened to serve on the library board during a time where the system was building out new branches and the downtown Central Library to deliver on this bond measure called Libraries for All that had passed in the late 90s, before I joined the board. And so for the whole time that I was there, we were in 26, 27 neighborhoods around the city and trying to invite people in for what we called in a somewhat hokey title, Hopes and Dreams meetings. Actually, you and I might've met at one of these Hopes and Dreams meetings-
I think so. Way back. Yeah.
Yeah, way back. And sure, it's hokey. And sure, it's inherently a limited format. But the fact is that when you extend that invitation and people start showing up sharing their hopes and dreams for how many materials in other languages your branch should have, or the idea that you need more meeting space because there's no free meeting space in Capitol Hill, or whatever it might be — when you start hearing these things, you realize you've created an expectation that we will not only listen, but try to deliver. And we will do that to the best of our ability. But then where we can't, we have to explain tradeoffs and we have to be accountable to the people who showed up to these meetings as well as others. And frankly, that is just an order of magnitude more concrete a practice of democracy than most of what happens in DC.
So much of politics in DC is just this Kabuki theater of posturing — it's virtue signaling or it's just rallying my base or attacking my enemies. I do this even if I know what I'm introducing is never going to go anywhere. It's for positioning and posturing. And so my education on the library board was just so much more meaningful and rich.
And then, as you know, working with Nick and others, getting things like the Alliance for Gun Responsibility off the ground after Sandy Hook was hugely formative for me. And it was of course gratifying, just as a citizen, to have helped found an organization that has not only changed the laws in our state, but as you know, has changed the frame of the narrative around the very idea of gun responsibility nationally. So again, I worked on guns when I was at the White House and exactly nothing happened. But to be here in a city, in a state, where you can indeed move ideas and change narrative has been a big part of my evolution.
I was at the fundraiser for the Alliance last week, and they talked about all the legislative achievements they've made in the past year. Ten years ago, you couldn't get an elected official to pass a gun safety law anywhere in this country. The Alliance helped the people win at the ballot box so many times that the legislature couldn't ignore the people's voice. It's exciting that we've finally have come around to the point where these gun responsibility laws are passing within the legislature again. But you kind of had to go outside the system and force the issue. So it was a long way around, but it finally happened from the inside rather than the outside.
But it's exactly the long way around that makes democracy a resilient, complex, adaptive system if it's not rigged. We were able to bypass an initially recalcitrant legislature because we had direct democracy as an option here and could go around a rigged legislature that was either cowed or owned by the gun lobby. And then having revealed to legislators that in fact the will of the people is strongly with gun responsibility and if you would like to retain your job, you might want to move in this direction, is exactly how the system is supposed to respond.
Of course it doesn't respond that way in DC, in Congress, and that's true under, frankly, both parties and any administrations of both parties. But that capacity for self-correction is still higher, I think, at the local and state level.
Do you think Seattle was particularly suited for for your message of civic responsibility? Some other places I've lived seem like they might not be as receptive to what you're doing.
I do think Citizen University is a very natural outgrowth of the civic ecosystem of our region. And again, having worked in the other Washington, I know very clearly that an organization like Citizen University, the approaches that we've taken to civic awakening and civic power-building, which are not inside the box of conventional wisdom or policy fights as they usually unfold within DC think-tanks was made possible by being here. That's number one.
And I think, going back to when I moved here in 2000, that there is a civically entrepreneurial spirit here that's as strong as our business, entrepreneurial spirit. This is a town that is not yet finished. You can arrive and raise your hand and start getting involved and pushing things or making change happen or creating new ventures.
But it's also a place where there's enough open-mindedness and freedom from a lot of the frames of conventional wisdom that dominate the New York/DC corridor that our work has been able to thrive here. And I think specifically with Civic Saturdays, these gatherings that are civic analog to a faith gathering, Civic Saturdays are a great instance of a larger approach we've had, which is that Seattle is one of the great places to incubate new civic ideas and then try and spread and adapt them to other places around the country.
For all the reasons I just said and you were alluding to, because there's more openness here, because there's less hierarchy here, because there has always been a higher willingness to hybridize here and try new combinations of things, we could incubate Civic Saturdays here in Seattle. And when we realized that this approach to civic gathering and this approach to awakening civic spirit and purpose could really stick, then we started being able to take it on the road. And that's been true of other programs of ours as well, where Seattle is an apt and fertile place to test new ideas.
So what can people expect from your book launch party tonight at Washington Hall?
We're going to talk about some of the content of the book, which as you know, is a collection sermons that I had written and delivered at Civic Saturday gatherings here in Seattle and around the country, But what you can really expect is a broader conversation just like the one we're having right now, about the deeper drivers of what's sick in the body politic, about what you can actually do from wherever you sit and stand, even if you don't feel powerful or you don't feel connected, how you can in fact web up with others and start making meaning and start taking action together.
And so the format will be, I think, pretty conversational in a way that I'm excited about. Because Civic Saturdays are have you been to a Civic Saturday?
I don't believe I have
So, first of all, I would invite you to come join us in June — June 1st we'll be at the Hillman city Collaboratory for our next one in Seattle. And I'll be in Oklahoma City after that for another one.
But when you come to these, they have the arc of a faith gathering and we always build in a great amount of time at Civic Saturdays for people to turn to each other and talk about questions and prompts. But I think at this event tomorrow we'll have even more of that — more opportunity for people to ask me questions and be in dialogue with me as well as with each other.
Sounds like it's a good way, for people who are curious and haven't taken part, to sort of dip a toe in the proverbial water.
Exactly. Totally. And it's also just a chance for people who, if you feel like you want to be connected to something bigger, if you feel isolated and frustrated with the state of our politics, come be in the company of others and come explore some of these questions in a way that is open-hearted, open-minded and will move you to connect with people in new ways. And then yes, dip a toe into some of what we do at Civic Saturdays as well.