A Coalition for Democracy

Sermon by Eric Liu
Civic Saturday • January 16, 2021

 

Ten days ago a violent seditious mob overran the United States Capitol, after the President had urged them to stop Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty to confirm his defeat in the Electoral College.

Can you believe what I just said?

A notable word recurred through all the media coverage the day of the insurrection. The word was “sacred.” It was said that the “sacred temple of our democracy” had been desecrated. That the presence of white nationalists and Confederate flag-waving thugs in the Rotunda had profaned “our sacred seat of power.”

But what exactly is sacred about the Capitol? What do we mean when we call it a temple? We don’t mean anything about the supernatural or a god. We certainly don’t mean that the people we send there to represent us are gods to be venerated.

We mean simply this: Democracy – government of, by, and for the people – is a freaking miracle. Democracy works only if enough of us believe democracy works. A mutual collective leap of faith, in our Constitution and each other – that’s all that separates our republic from anarchy or autocracy.

So, what we sacralize is not the building. We sacralize a creed. We sacralize a complicated history of deeds that have forced us to face that creed – sometimes by redeeming it, sometimes by betraying it. The Capitol is where Reconstruction began and also where it was gutted, where the Civil Rights Act passed and the Chinese Exclusion Act too. The Stars and Bars in the Rotunda? The Confederate flag has been on proud display in the Capitol for decades – in the flags of all the Southern states that incorporated its design into their own. White supremacists were leading members of the First Congress in 1789 and of the 116th Congress that adjourned two weeks ago.

When we say the Capitol is sacred we mean our agreement to try to make this thing mean something is sacred to us.

This gathering today is an expression of that faith. It is a collective act of sense-making and searching that is not about dogma and fundamentalist certitude but is about asking ourselves always: How can we become America? How can we become the land of the free, the home of the brave, the place where the people rule, where we are created equal, with liberty and justice for all? We hope that this can still be achieved, even as we face mounting evidence that it can’t – evidence that we are a sick, weak, exploitable, divided, duty-shirking, sacrifice-allergic, strongman-curious mess of a people.

Today I hope to fortify our hope. I want to talk about three dimensions of American civic life and civic religion that we are responsible for sustaining through this time of crisis: the Constitution, the conscience, and the coalition.

1. The Constitution

How did you feel when you heard the words of the Preamble read today as civic scripture? Tell me in the chat box. [read some of the replies aloud]. I felt the lift of idealism and the pull of realism.

The events of the last two weeks forced me to contemplate that Preamble anew. To read it closely. I realized that most the sentiments and ideas in it could be found in the preambles to the constitutions of many other countries.

The Constitution of the Soviet Union, as amended in 1977, spoke of a “society of true democracy.” The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, amended 2004, promises “to turn China into a socialist country that is prosperous, powerful, democratic and culturally advanced.”

Our words are more elegant than theirs. But form a more perfect Union – the Soviets wanted that; establish justice – that’s what the Stasi said they were for; insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare – the Communist Party of China over the last fifty years would say check, check, and check.

There is, however, one clause in our Preamble that is not echoed by any totalitarian state: secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

It doesn’t say “to enjoy the blessings of liberty,” much less exploit them. It says to secure them. And not just now, while we get to enjoy them, but forever.

My representative in Congress, Pramila Jayapal, was stuck in that secure location with many members of Congress from both parties during the insurrection and lockdown. And as most of you know, all the Republicans in the room refused to put on masks and later she and a few other Democrats got Covid.

That secure location is a distillation of America 2021: two sides stuck together, no way out, and one side, a sociopathic minority, refuses – not on any coherent principle but as a matter of a twisted oppositional identity politics – refuses even in the face of what should be a unifying physical threat on the other side of the door to think about anyone else’s safety, endangering everyone in the end.

To exploit liberty is to refuse to wear a mask during a pandemic. To secure the blessings of liberty is to practice basic pandemic hygiene and common courtesy.

To exploit liberty is to show up at a rally to overturn a free, fair, certified election, undermine the peaceful transfer of power, and then spin your sedition as free speech. To secure the blessings of liberty is to know that showing up at a rally for insurrection, even if you personally did not storm the capitol, is crapping on the Constitution.

What does it mean to secure the blessings of liberty – and not just free-ride off of everyone else? It means you take responsibility for what’s broken, steward what’s good, cultivate civic virtue, sacrifice short-term gain for the greater good over the longer haul.

During the ratification debate in Virginia, the anti-Federalist Patrick Henry quarreled with the phrasing “We the people.” He said it should be “We the states.” But the defenders of the Constitution pointed out that the people are sovereign, not the states – and that the Articles of Confederation had failed, and a more perfect Union was now needed, precisely because after the Revolution the states had been too much at odds with one another, too selfish, and the people of all the states had suffered as a result.

“Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry once said. But if all you do is demand liberty, you will in fact get death. Covid has taught us that. Union secures the blessings of liberty. If you won’t put in the work of maintaining Union, your liberty is but a rumor.

The most indelible profanity of January 6, the greatest desecration, comes not from the literal defecation on the floor, not from trespassers taking selfies from the Speaker’s chair, nor even from that Confederate flag. The greatest desecration is that the marauders and their enablers committed their violence in the name of the Revolution. “This is 1776,” tweeted Lauren Boebert, junior Congresswoman from QAnon.

What a joke. The fetish that the Trumpist right has made of tyranny talk and militia cosplay is in inverse proportion to their understanding of what it takes to hold together a mass, multiracial democratic republic. But of course, that’s the thing – they don’t want a mass, multiracial democratic republic. They want a private white autocratic fatherland.

2021 isn’t 1776. It’s closer to 1787, when you needed grown-ups who knew that keeping a republic is harder than declaring a revolution. Or 1869, when the Reconstruction Amendments were ratified, slavery banished, the slave made a citizen, and our country founded anew. Or 1965, when the Voting Rights Act became law a year after the Civil Rights Act and we had the Third Founding of the United States.

Every one of those foundings, by the way, was followed by backlash and backsliding.

As I said about the Preamble, words are just words. Shared meaning and common purpose are easy to obliterate, hard to restore. Before we can make words mean something again now, we have to rebuild trust and relationship. We have to restore an ethical core to our society.

Which brings me to the second dimension I want to explore today: conscience.

2. Conscience

A lot of people on the left have said to hell with Biden’s messages of unity and empathy. Enough of the profiles of Trump voters in diners in distressed rural towns. After what happened last week, we need accountability. To which I say: you bet we do. I called early for Trump’s removal by the 25th Amendment or impeachment, and I hope that insurrectionist members of Congress are removed by Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, written after the Civil War to keep proven traitors out of the United States government.

But here’s the thing: accountability and empathy are not mutually exclusive, particularly for the people who were followers rather than ringleaders. Understanding does not preclude judgment or consequences. Accountability that lasts, in fact, arises from connection rather than coercion, it comes from a contagion of conscience, an awakening of an inner voice that is made more possible when the person whose conscience is being stirred can find some refuge in relationship.

The dude with the horns and the fur cape, Congresswoman Boebert of QAnon, Josh Hawley, Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt guy – not everyone who should be punished can also be redeemed, and not everyone who stormed the Capitol, cheered the insurrection, abetted the sedition, or stood by sympathetically is worth your empathic capacity. But some of them are. Because you are kin to some of them. I know I am.

This is the power of thinking about conscience: it reduces the vast scale of things to a single human heart. What most challenged me in today’s wonderful piece of civic scripture from Martin Luther King, Jr. was when he said, “And I had to look with a deep understanding of why he raised the question and with no bitterness in my heart.”

Why did King make a point of saying that? The rest of what he said was the quotable stuff, the good righteous drawing of lines between cowardice, expediency, vanity, and conscience. But as much the teacher as the preacher, he was modeling for us a moment of self-examination, a breath of doubt before a rebuttal, a desire to understand rather than win and therefore possibly to connect.

My teammate at Citizen University Athena Higgins many years ago was in a cult called the Boston Movement. She talks about it openly. When I asked her how she and her husband left – how anyone ever exits a cult – she spoke of the cognitive dissonance that sets in. The gap between the story from the great leader and their lived experience. The constant energy drain of shutting reality out. But that fatigue alone was not enough to impel her to leave. It took a relationship, a friend she could trust, who was a safe haven, with whom she could voice her doubts out loud without judgment.

The normalizing of abuse is what leads so many to a cult, Athena says, and then the normalizing of a new cycle of abuse is what traps them there; the hurt, the yearning to heal. Jená observed astutely that perhaps the most notable thing Trump said on January 6 when he finally told the insurrectionists to stand down was not about politics, safety, or right or wrong. It was this: “Go home, we love you, you’re very special.”

It’s not for a president to heal our damaged hearts, even if the president were someone you could look up to. It’s for us as citizens to do that for each other as much as we safely can. I do not believe that all 75 million of the Americans who voted for Trump want to be in a personality cult, come death or destruction. Let’s say, conservatively, that 95 percent of them do. That still leaves almost four million Americans whose consciences can be stirred enough to bring them back to reality. Not to the Democrats. Not to the left. Just to reality. Where they will take responsibility for their choices.

Jená and I have been voraciously reading a recent book by Susan Neiman called Learning from the Germans. It’s a comparison of how Germany since the Nazis and the U.S. since slavery have each dealt with their respective foundational sins. It’s about whether and in what circumstances a person and a people can take responsibility.

That distinction between a person and a people was illuminated in a passage about the president of West Germany, who in 1985 made a landmark speech reframing the anniversary of Germany’s defeat in World War II as “Liberation Day.” This was a big departure from the posture of victimization and blame-shifting that Germans of the war generation had adopted. The end of the war liberated Germans who had participated in Naziism from Naziism: this reframing of the narrative made the German people agents of their own liberation. It’s akin to the argument that unwinding white supremacy does more than help Black and other non-white Americans; it also liberates whites.

But the sobering addendum is that this same West German president who committed this act of public conscience could not muster the same when it came to his personal life. He could never speak with moral clarity about the choice his father had made to be a senior Nazi official, or the fact of his father’s postwar execution by the Allies. Sometimes conscience is gummed up by the personal. Sometimes we must go bigger.

3. Coalition

And this is why I want to close today with some thoughts on coalition.

The Trump years have been marked by rampant conspiracy. Conspiracy theories about the deep state. The meta-conspiracy theory of QAnon. And then the actual conspiracy to create a Big Lie about Biden stealing the election, followed by an actual conspiracy to steal the election from Biden and undermine the legitimate government of the United States, a conspiracy that may yet lead to the expulsion of members of Congress.

But these years have also been defined by relentless coalition – the joining of sometimes strange bedfellows, ranging from Bernie Sanders to Bill Kristol, AOC to Lisa Murkowski, to hold the line against autocracy. Coalition is the antidote to conspiracy.

We have a shining example of that in Georgia.

It’s so unfortunate that the story of the two U.S. Senate races in Georgia has been pushed off the front page. In a slightly less insane world, every day’s news would be deconstructing this victory. Telling how superorganizers like Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project and state legislator Bee Nguyen and of course their field general Stacey Abrams and an army of others brought new young voters and new voters of color to the ballot box. Those would be the profiles and tick-tock pieces in the news, rather than the Instagram sleuthing of white supremacists. And that tale of coalition would also tell how a Republican secretary of state in the end did hold the line and create moral space for Republican voters of conscience to get off the train of the cult.

Coalition turns conspiracy inside out. Where conspiracy secretly advances a crime, coalition works openly for goals you’re not ashamed of. Coalition replaces a theory of faraway powers who control your life with the practice of your own power to change your life. Coalition breeds restraint and compromise instead of unbounded permission to lie and justify. Coalition feeds on information, conspiracy on misinformation.

The last few years I was part of a group of leaders, writers, and activists, many of whom I think are just flat wrong on many policy issues. We banded together to defend democracy, to defend our mutual right to fight out our differences the way the Constitution intended. What Georgia showed America on January 5 is that it is possible to build a cross-region, cross-race, cross-religion, cross-ideology, cross-generation coalition of courage. Of conscience. Of constructive citizen power. Of democratic faith.

Remember January 5th.

Kate Tucker, who is leading us in song today, helps lead a civic organization called Briteheart in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ll never forget when she said to me, in response to the conventional wisdom, “We don’t know if Tennessee is a red state. We do know it’s a non-voting state.” The same can be said of every state in the United States. When a third of eligible voters don’t vote even in the best of years, and eighty percent don’t vote in the typical local election, every jurisdiction in our country is a potential proving ground for a coalition of people who want the rule of law and democratic self-government.

In this time of 1850s-style creeping disunion and 1950s-style McCarthyite paranoia, you might be tiring of talk of Us and Them. But even under less fraught circumstances, humans are always wired to split the world into us and them. At Citizen University we teach that civic religion properly understood offers the healthiest possible way to do that: the us is those who wish to serve, volunteer, vote, listen, learn, empathize, argue better, circulate power rather than hoard it, and accept the rule of law and the idea that democracy is a game of infinite repeat play in which you sometimes lose.

The them is those who don’t.

It is possible to judge the them harshly. But it’s not always necessary. For at any time, one of them can become one of us. Simply by choosing to live like a citizen. So we need to welcome more people in. This coalition for democratic citizenship at home is as necessary today as the creation of NATO was 75 years ago. Now we must contain and shrink the anti-democratic, the illiberal, and the authoritarian inside our borders.

What can a parent do, a neighbor, a gig worker, a manager, a teacher, an artist, a child – what can each of us do to expand that coalition? That’s what we’re going to ask you in a moment. But we know this much: you can’t do any of this alone.

Learn the Constitution, learn the arguments inside it, and know your own mind. Use every tool you have to awaken the conscience of people, and of the people. Commit to the idea and the practice of coalition.

We have a long way to go, my friends, before we arrive at America. Let’s carry each other there.

 

 

Readings to Precede the Sermon
January 16, 2021

Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
Ratified September 17, 1787

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.
From “A Proper Sense of Priorities”
Speech delivered February 6, 1968
Washington, DC

Someone said to me not long ago, it was a member of the press, “Dr. King, since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy? Aren’t you hurting the civil rights movement, and people who once respected you may lose respect for you because you’re involved in this controversial issue in taking the stand against the war?”
And I had to look with a deep understanding of why he raised the question and with no bitterness in my heart and say to that man, “I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference…. Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.
On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.