NCOC Featured Discussion

The Gardens of Democracy

An interview with Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer

December 12, 2011
Eric Liu is an author and speaker who served as a speechwriter and policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. Nick Hanauer is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Together, they have authored two books, “True Patriot,” and the just-released “The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government.” Kristen Cambell recently caught up with them about the new book, and their thoughts on the role individual citizens play creating the communities in which they want to live and work.



Kristen Cambell: The premise of your book is that democracy is a garden. Why do you feel this is an important message, and, on a very literal level, what does it mean?

Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer: In American life the prevailing metaphor for making sense of the economy and government is the machine. We think of the economy as a self-regulating machine in equilibrium. We are taught to think of government as a vending machine and politics as a mechanistic collision of self-interested agents. Our argument is that this metaphor blinds us to reality. In reality, society is a garden, not a machine. It's a complex adaptive system. An economy or civic body no more self-regulates than a garden self-tends. Gardens require gardeners - to see, to feed, and to weed.

KC: At NCoC, we often say “we believe everyone has the power to make a difference in how their community and country thrive.” The principles you lay out in the book seem to align with this. How do you think the concept of citizen-driven influence has changed in the last decade or so?

EL and NH: We have a simple precept in our book: Society becomes how you behave. It's that simple. In the networked, contagious environment of social behavior, it is important to remember that each of us can and does set off cascades of behavior every moment. It's up to us to decide whether those cascades are pro-social or anti-social. Courtesy, compassion, civility, voice, involvement: we decide by our actions and omissions whether to make such behaviors viral or not.

KC: You speak a lot about the importance of values as part of the civic process. What are the values you feel good citizens must possess?

EL and NH: Mutual responsibility, a willingness to put to the long term over the short term, and an ethic of contribution before consumption: these are some of the foundational values of great citizenship.

KC: Active citizenship can be as much (sometimes more) about the process of engaging than the issue you choose to address. If we’re really true to the process, and let people define their own issues, is it antithetical to impose a value system?

EL and NH: We believe that prior to debates and differences we may have over issues and policy choices, there ha to be a common understanding about the deep values that this democracy is meant to live by. One basic example is that the promise of American life is that for all the ways we may be unequal we shall always be equal citizens. When the game feels as rigged as politics does today, favoring concentrated wealth and power, there is something broken in our democracy - and whether you're a Tea Partier or an Occupier or an American in between, you should as a matter of moral outrage not accept this corrosion of the American promise.

KC: In the book, you speak about small acts compounding to tipping points of change. That demonstrating courtesy for others and “turning off a faucet and picking up a candy wrapper” are civic actions aligned with the same importance as more “formal” acts, such as voting and mentoring. Should we change the term “civic engagement” to “just being a good person?”

EL and NH: What we say in The Gardens of Democracy is that citizenship has to be about more than just formal political acts. It is about every aspect of how we live in community and, to quote the title of Bill Gates Sr.'s book, how we "show up for life." This is partly about deeds, large and small. It is also about the story we tell about ourselves and about what constitutes normal behavior. In American life, it's gotten to be too normal to be too selfish. It's gotten to be too normal to think of ourselves as atomized and free to do what we like and to assume that things will take care of themselves. In a garden, we have to tend.

KC: Last question, if there is only ONE message you hope people take away from this book, what would it be?

EL and NH: Freedom is responsibility.
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2 Comments
By Joe McCarthy at 4:16 PM on Dec 14th, 2011
Sounds like a timely and relevant book. I like the metaphor, and am reminded of an observation made by an author who was being interviewed about a book on gardening: "Tomatoes are the gateway drug of gardening." She was referring to the relative ease with which tomatoes can be grown by individuals (e.g., in pots or plots), and the high return on investment for those who appreciate a juicy tomato (vs. the ones you can typically find in stores).

While small acts of kindness and courtesy - "turning off a faucet and picking up a candy wrapper" - have a low barrier, I'm not sure whether they will offer the same level of inducement as a juicy tomato. I'm wondering if there might be a tomato-like gateway drug to induce the cultivation and practice of civic engagement.
By David Sargent at 10:45 AM on Jun 17th, 2012
Unfortunately, the utopian ideals of Mr. Liu will never work in this diverse society. Millions of immigrants here, many of whom are illegally, either :1) could care less about "surfacing" or coming out and want to remain below the radar; 2) are too involved in trying to survive economically; 3) Or are actually working and hoping for the downfall of this country How do you persuade them to participate?

Please, Mr., Liu, explain or justify your commenbts about those who are engaged in "sub rosa efforts to limit the franchise"--Are you referring to efforts to prohibit illegals from voting? And if so, what is wrong with that? Along with your high-flung comments about the U.S one of our precepts that we are a nation of laws?
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