Part of the Election 2016 Special Report
Eric Liu, founder of the civic-minded nonprofit Citizen University, says there’s no reason why participating in an election can’t be a much happier and more constructive experience.
With funding from the Knight Foundation, Liu’s Seattle-based organization has helped organize Joy of Voting events in four cities this year: Miami; Philadelphia; Akron, Ohio and Wichita, Kansas. What do participatory graffiti art or an all-night club scene have to do with voting? And how can you go to the polls more joyfully? Here’s how it works:
Next Avenue: Can you explain your vision of voting joyfully? What does that mean?
Eric Liu: Well, you know, there used to be a time in American history where voting wasn’t just this grim duty, this eat-your-vegetables kind of experience. It was a joyful, creative, communal, participatory ritual. It was about street theater and open-air debates and community gatherings.
A lot of that died away when television became the dominant way that we experienced politics, and now, of course, next-generation screens in the Internet age. But there’s no good reason why we can’t revive that culture of joyful voting.
I think that on a certain deep level, people are hungry for it. They want to do something that’s face-to-face, and experience civic life in a way that isn’t just about yelling at the TV or engaging in a Twitter war or a really hot comment thread on Facebook.
Think about sports and the way in which people are very ready to suit up and color their faces and get out there with rituals and marching bands and fight songs and funny traditions, and to do that in public, communally. Think about people’s faith lives and the way in which there’s a joyful spirit of creative, collective participation that’s meant to be seen and heard.
That kind of culture is all around us. It’s only in politics that a lot of it has gotten drained away. Through Citizen University and the Joy of Voting Project, we’re trying to restore it.
You’ve said that partisanship is really not our problem, and what we need is not less partisanship but better partisanship. What would that look like?
In this very, very coarse and uncivil presidential campaign we’ve had, there are understandably a lot of calls for fewer arguments and more civility in our politics. And I’m all for more civility.
At the same time, American politics is at its heart an argument between very different philosophical conceptions of the role of the citizen and the role of government. It goes back to the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. It goes back to Hamilton versus Jefferson, for fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical [Hamilton]. It’s about strong central government versus strong local control. It’s about color-blindness versus color-consciousness. It’s about liberty versus equality.
We can have arguments. But let them be more informed by principal, let them be more informed by history, and most importantly, let them be more human.
There are all these deep arguments that are part of American politics, and I don’t want to paper over those. I don’t want to pretend we have a fake consensus when we don’t. We can have arguments. But let them be more informed by principal, let them be more informed by history, and most importantly, let them be more human.
One of the problems with our politics in the Internet age is that it’s super easy to dehumanize the other side and turn them into objects of derision and hate, and to do so without having to pay a price because you may never have to see those people.
Our Joy of Voting project is rooting this work back in the local community and in a place where you have to see people and you have to rub up against people who maybe don’t share your preference for a candidate, but they do believe that democracy is worth maintaining and celebrating. We can fight about which candidate we want or which ballot measure we want, but let’s agree that for the love of the game we want the game to be healthy and something that people want to be part of. That, to me, is the goal for all of us.
There’s not much time left now before we vote in this election. What can each of us do to head off to the polling place more joyfully?
You know, I think it’s two or three things.
First, set an intention. I don’t just mean the intention to make time to go to the polling place, though you absolutely should make a plan. When you give even 30 seconds’ thought to what time of day you’ll actually get away and cast that ballot, it increases dramatically the likelihood that you’ll do it. But I also mean set the intention in a deeper way: “When Tuesday comes around, I’m going to look other people in the eye. I’m going to see if there’s a moment where several of us are standing together, maybe at a polling place, maybe at a place where we’re dropping off the mail-in ballot, and I’m actually going to engage people in a human conversation with a little bit of playfulness and just rehumanize this. So number one, set that intention to show up and be human.
Number two is remembering again what a gift it is that we get to do this. I’m so moved and influenced by the example of one of my heroes, John Lewis, the young civil rights activist who later became, and still is, a member of the United States Congress. John Lewis never fails to remind us that the vote is sacred and it is such a privilege for us.
I’m the son of immigrants; my parents were born in China. And you know, you realize that billions of people around the planet do not get to throw away their vote because they don’t have a vote, right? So that’s number two.
Then the third and final thing is just to remember that there is no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting. Not voting is voting to hand your power and your voice and your agency over to somebody else whose interests are often going to be harmful to your own.
Voting doesn’t solve everything. In fact, voting barely begins the process. But you have to claim a bit of ownership of the good, the bad, and the ugly of our society. And in a democracy, we claim that ownership first by actually casting a ballot if we can.