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After Votes Are Counted, What Will It Take To Reconcile The Country?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So Eric Liu has some advice for all of us after this election - try not to attack someone for how they voted.

ERIC LIU: It's really hard to build those kinds of bridges if you start out with the most polarizing thing. Why did you vote for that idiot? Why did you do such a stupid thing? But if instead you actually begin with what shaped you? What formed your worldview? What were some of the big experiences in your life? And it may be even after you humanize this person and unpack a bit of their story that you'll still feel like, boy, this is just deeply sad to me now that I understand this person's story that they still voted this way.

GREENE: Eric Liu is CEO of the organization Citizen University and director of the Citizenship and Identity Program at The Aspen Institute. He's helping people find ways to gather virtually for now, of course, to engage in civic life. And so we called him to ask about reconciliation in the days and weeks to come. As you just heard, he's hopeful, but it's not like he's Mr. Optimist. He doesn't think one conversation is going to change everything. He says, if we are angry, there's room for that.

LIU: There absolutely is room for anger. There's room for pain. We've got to be able to find a conduit for that. But what it means to live like a citizen is not simply to vent. It is to vent with intention, to vent in a way that allows you to do something constructive with it. It's about having better arguments. You know, the problem in American civic life, even as polarized as we are right now, is not that we're having too many arguments. The problem is that we're having arguments that are too stupid. What we've got to be able to do is figure out how to have better arguments. And what that means is arguments that are more grounded in history, more literate in power, more honest and intelligent emotionally and recognizing that people do not come into these civic and political arguments as rational, calculating machines. We come in as feeling, hurting, loving, hoping human beings who want to be the heroes of our own stories. And if we can't acknowledge that same set of motivations in the person we're arguing with, then that's going to be really difficult. But when we do acknowledge that, that can, in fact, mean conflict. It can, in fact, mean tension. But that's OK.

GREENE: But do you worry that what we have seen and what people have seen, I mean, inequality, intense protest, violence, death from COVID, people who've lost businesses, I mean, is it even changing what it means to be in this country? Like, I mean, people might be confused about what they're actually having faith in. It's reshaping things fundamentally.

LIU: This combination of the pandemic and the reckoning with racial injustice and racial inequity across all institutions, not just policing and criminal justice, these things do shake us at the foundations, and they make us question cliches that you'll see on television commercials that we're all in this together. Are we all in this together? That's not a matter of saying it. It's a matter of doing it and showing up. And one of the challenges and opportunities that we have right now is to put each other to the test. And so what it means right now in these times is for us to face the ethical implications of our choices. Society becomes how you behave.

GREENE: There are a lot of Americans who feel like the ability to make your own choices - you know, they don't have to wear a mask even if their government tells them to do something. They can keep their business open because it's their right to seek a living and make money for their family. Like, they view those as freedoms and as very American ideals. I mean, how in a moment like this do you talk people out of that if they are saying to you, look, these are my ideals and this is how I see this country?

LIU: I think one of the most truly small C conservative principles there is is there are no rights without responsibilities. The only people who get rights unchecked without any responsibility are toddlers and sociopaths. The rest of us grown-ups who have some measure of pro-social responsibility recognize that this is just about a grown-up taking responsibility for how you move in the world. And when you just disregard it in a bout of selfish, hyper individualism, that's not conservative. It's not liberal either. It's just not productive. As much as the United States is a place that lives on a narrative of rugged individualism, rugged individualism never got a barn raised, never got a field cleared, never got a schoolhouse built. And everybody who has grown up in small-town America in a rural part of the country, in a conservative district or state, knows that the mythology of the lone cowboy figuring it all out by himself is just that, it's pure myth; that the only good things that have happened have happened because people came together in a way where they took responsibility for each other and with each other.

GREENE: Well, I do want to say that among the many pieces of advice and things you've given us on your website, you've suggested some music for gatherings, including Bill Withers and "Lean On Me," which I think is sort of exactly what I want to listen to in a moment like this. Are you a Bill Withers fan?

LIU: I am. And we also have on this gathering guide, of course, pieces of what you might think of as civic scripture, just texts drawn from throughout our history, whether well-known or not, that can remind you that we've been through things like this before in some way. And yet the great opportunity right now is that we've never been through something like this ever. And what's amazing and exciting and should be empowering to so many of us right now is that we are attempting something for the first time in human history, and that is to make Earth's first mass multiracial democratic republic. No other country has tried to nail all four of those marks. Other societies have done one or two or three, but to be at a mass scale, truly multiracial, to have a culture of democracy and have representative government in a republic, to have all that work at once would be a freaking miracle. And one of the great things about this time, as painful and broken as so much is, is that we have a shot right now to prove whether this is possible. One of the things that we've got to recognize right now, wherever my ancestors and I were born, I claim America and that claiming right now, even if it's contested, even if it takes the form of good, vigorous argument and debate, the claiming is what is necessary. And if we all actually intend and choose and decide to claim on Election Day and every day after, then I think we might actually be able to keep this republic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON ME")

BILL WITHERS: (Singing) Lean on me when you're not strong and I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on.

GREENE: That was Eric Liu. He is CEO of Citizen University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.