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TEDNYC

Eric Liu: Let's make voting fun again

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Many people like to talk about how important voting is, how it's your civic duty and responsibility as an adult. Eric Liu agrees with all that, but he also thinks it's time to bring joy back to the ballot box. The former political speechwriter details how he and his team are fostering the culture around voting in the 2016 US presidential election -- and closes with a powerful analysis of why anyone eligible should show up on Election Day.

- Civics educator
Eric Liu is a civics educator and founder of Citizen University, which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship. Full bio

Why bother?
00:13
The game is rigged.
00:16
My vote won't count.
00:18
The choices are terrible.
00:20
Voting is for suckers.
00:22
Perhaps you've thought
some of these things.
00:25
Perhaps you've even said them.
00:27
And if so, you wouldn't be alone,
and you wouldn't be entirely wrong.
00:29
The game of public policy today
is rigged in many ways.
00:33
How else would more than half
of federal tax breaks
00:38
flow up to the wealthiest
five percent of Americans?
00:42
And our choices indeed are often terrible.
00:45
For many people
across the political spectrum,
00:48
Exhibit A is the 2016
presidential election.
00:50
But in any year, you can look
up and down the ballot
00:54
and find plenty to be uninspired about.
00:57
But in spite of all this,
I still believe voting matters.
01:01
And crazy as it may sound,
01:05
I believe we can revive the joy of voting.
01:06
Today, I want to talk
about how we can do that, and why.
01:09
There used to be a time
in American history when voting was fun,
01:14
when it was much more than just
a grim duty to show up at the polls.
01:18
That time is called
"most of American history."
01:22
(Laughter)
01:24
From the Revolution
to the Civil Rights Era,
01:25
the United States had a vibrant,
01:28
robustly participatory
and raucous culture of voting.
01:30
It was street theater, open-air debates,
fasting and feasting and toasting,
01:35
parades and bonfires.
01:39
During the 19th century,
immigrants and urban political machines
01:41
helped fuel this culture of voting.
01:45
That culture grew with each
successive wave of new voters.
01:47
During Reconstruction,
when new African-American voters,
01:53
new African-American citizens,
01:56
began to exercise their power,
01:58
they celebrated in jubilee parades
02:00
that connected emancipation
with their newfound right to vote.
02:02
A few decades later, the suffragettes
02:06
brought a spirit
of theatricality to their fight,
02:09
marching together in white dresses
as they claimed the franchise.
02:12
And the Civil Rights Movement,
02:16
which sought to redeem
the promise of equal citizenship
02:18
that had been betrayed by Jim Crow,
02:21
put voting right at the center.
02:23
From Freedom Summer to the march in Selma,
02:26
that generation of activists
knew that voting matters,
02:28
and they knew that spectacle
and the performance of power
02:32
is key to actually claiming power.
02:35
But it's been over a half century
since Selma and the Voting Rights Act,
02:38
and in the decades since,
02:42
this face-to-face culture of voting
02:44
has just about disappeared.
02:47
It's been killed by television
02:49
and then the internet.
02:51
The couch has replaced the commons.
02:52
Screens have made
citizens into spectators.
02:55
And while it's nice to share
political memes on social media,
02:58
that's a rather quiet kind of citizenship.
03:01
It's what the sociologist Sherry Turkle
calls "being alone together."
03:04
What we need today
03:09
is an electoral culture
that is about being together together,
03:10
in person,
03:14
in loud and passionate ways,
03:15
so that instead of being
"eat your vegetables" or "do you duty,"
03:18
voting can feel more like "join the club"
03:22
or, better yet, "join the party."
03:25
Imagine if we had,
across the country right now,
03:28
in local places but nationwide,
03:31
a concerted effort
to revive a face-to-face set of ways
03:34
to engage and electioneer:
03:38
outdoor shows in which candidates
and their causes are mocked
03:40
and praised in broad satirical style;
03:44
soapbox speeches by citizens;
03:47
public debates held inside pubs;
03:49
streets filled with political art
and handmade posters and murals;
03:53
battle of the band concerts in which
competing performers rep their candidates.
03:58
Now, all of this may sound
a little bit 18th century to you,
04:04
but in fact, it doesn't have to be
any more 18th century
04:08
than, say, Broadway's "Hamilton,"
04:11
which is to say vibrantly contemporary.
04:15
And the fact is that all around the world,
04:17
today, millions of people
are voting like this.
04:19
In India, elections are colorful,
communal affairs.
04:23
In Brazil, election day
is a festive, carnival-type atmosphere.
04:27
In Taiwan and Hong Kong,
there is a spectacle,
04:32
eye-popping, eye-grabbing spectacle
04:35
to the street theater of elections.
04:37
You might ask, well,
here in America, who has time for this?
04:40
And I would tell you
04:44
that the average American
watches five hours of television a day.
04:45
You might ask, who has the motivation?
04:50
And I'll tell you,
04:52
any citizen who wants to be seen and heard
04:53
not as a prop, not as a talking point,
04:57
but as a participant, as a creator.
05:00
Well, how do we make this happen?
05:03
Simply by making it happen.
05:06
That's why a group of colleagues and I
05:08
launched a new project
called "The Joy of Voting."
05:10
In four cities across the United States --
05:14
Philadelphia, Miami,
05:17
Akron, Ohio, and Wichita, Kansas --
05:19
we've gathered together
artists and activists,
05:21
educators, political folks,
neighbors, everyday citizens
05:24
to come together and create projects
05:28
that can foster this culture
of voting in a local way.
05:30
In Miami, that means
all-night parties with hot DJs
05:34
where the only way to get in
is to show that you're registered to vote.
05:37
In Akron, it means political plays
05:41
being performed
in the bed of a flatbed truck
05:44
that moves from neighborhood
to neighborhood.
05:46
In Philadelphia,
05:49
it's a voting-themed scavenger hunt
all throughout colonial old town.
05:51
And in Wichita, it's making
mixtapes and live graffiti art
05:55
in the North End to get out the vote.
06:00
There are 20 of these projects,
06:02
and they are remarkable
in their beauty and their diversity,
06:04
and they are changing people.
06:07
Let me tell you about a couple of them.
06:08
In Miami, we've commissioned and artist,
06:10
a young artist named Atomico,
06:12
to create some vivid and vibrant images
for a new series of "I voted" stickers.
06:14
But the thing is, Atomico had never voted.
06:19
He wasn't even registered.
06:23
So as he got to work on creating
this artwork for these stickers,
06:24
he also began to get over
his sense of intimidation about politics.
06:29
He got himself registered,
06:33
and then he got educated
about the upcoming primary election,
06:35
and on election day he was out there
not just passing out stickers,
06:38
but chatting up voters
and encouraging people to vote,
06:41
and talking about
the election with passersby.
06:44
In Akron, a theater company
called the Wandering Aesthetics
06:47
has been putting on
these pickup truck plays.
06:51
And to do so, they put out
an open call to the public
06:54
asking for speeches,
monologues, dialogues, poems,
06:57
snippets of anything
that could be read aloud
07:00
and woven into a performance.
07:03
They got dozens of submissions.
07:05
One of them was a poem
07:07
written by nine students in an ESL class,
07:09
all of them Hispanic migrant workers
07:12
from nearby Hartville, Ohio.
07:14
I want to read to you from this poem.
07:17
It's called "The Joy of Voting."
07:21
"I would like to vote for the first time
07:24
because things are changing for Hispanics.
07:27
I used to be afraid of ghosts.
07:30
Now I am afraid of people.
07:32
There's more violence and racism.
07:34
Voting can change this.
07:36
The border wall is nothing.
07:39
It's just a wall.
07:41
The wall of shame is something.
07:44
It's very important to vote
07:47
so we can break down this wall of shame.
07:49
I have passion in my heart.
07:53
Voting gives me a voice and power.
07:55
I can stand up and do something."
07:58
"The Joy of Voting" project
isn't just about joy.
08:02
It's about this passion.
08:05
It's about feeling and belief,
08:07
and it isn't just our organization's work.
08:09
All across this country right now,
08:12
immigrants, young people, veterans,
people of all different backgrounds
08:14
are coming together to create
this kind of passionate, joyful activity
08:17
around elections,
08:21
in red and blue states,
in urban and rural communities,
08:22
people of every political background.
08:25
What they have in common is simply this:
08:27
their work is rooted in place.
08:30
Because remember,
all citizenship is local.
08:34
When politics becomes
just a presidential election,
08:37
we yell and we scream at our screens,
and then we collapse, exhausted.
08:41
But when politics is about us
08:45
and our neighbors
and other people in our community
08:49
coming together to create experiences
of collective voice and imagination,
08:52
then we begin to remember
that this stuff matters.
08:57
We begin to remember
that this is the stuff of self-government.
09:00
Which brings me back to where I began.
09:05
Why bother?
09:07
There's one way to answer this question.
09:09
Voting matters because it is
a self-fulfilling act of belief.
09:12
It feeds the spirit of mutual interest
that makes any society thrive.
09:17
When we vote, even if it is in anger,
09:22
we are part of a collective,
creative leap of faith.
09:25
Voting helps us generate
the very power that we wish we had.
09:29
It's no accident
that democracy and theater
09:34
emerged around the same time
in ancient Athens.
09:37
Both of them yank the individual
out of the enclosure of her private self.
09:40
Both of them create great
public experiences of shared ritual.
09:45
Both of them bring the imagination to life
09:50
in ways that remind us
that all of our bonds in the end
09:52
are imagined, and can be reimagined.
09:56
This moment right now,
10:02
when we think about
the meaning of imagination,
10:04
is so fundamentally important,
10:08
and our ability to take that spirit
10:12
and to take that sense
10:15
that there is something greater out there,
10:17
is not just a matter
of technical expertise.
10:19
It's not just a matter of making the time
or having the know-how.
10:23
It is a matter of spirit.
10:26
But let me give you an answer
to this question, "Why bother?"
10:28
that is maybe a little less spiritual
and a bit more pointed.
10:31
Why bother voting?
10:36
Because there is
no such thing as not voting.
10:38
Not voting is voting,
10:41
for everything that you
may detest and oppose.
10:43
Not voting can be dressed up
10:45
as an act of principled,
passive resistance,
10:47
but in fact not voting
10:50
is actively handing power over
10:52
to those whose interests
are counter to your own,
10:54
and those who would be very glad
to take advantage of your absence.
10:57
Not voting is for suckers.
11:00
Imagine where this country would be
11:04
if all the folks who in 2010
created the Tea Party
11:06
had decided that,
you know, politics is too messy,
11:09
voting is too complicated.
11:12
There is no possibility
of our votes adding up to anything.
11:13
They didn't preemptively
silence themselves.
11:17
They showed up,
11:19
and in the course of showing up,
they changed American politics.
11:21
Imagine if all of the followers
of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders
11:25
had decided not to upend
the political status quo
11:30
and blow apart the frame
of the previously possible
11:34
in American politics.
11:37
They did that by voting.
11:38
We live in a time right now,
11:43
divided, often very dark,
11:45
where across the left and the right,
there's a lot of talk of revolution
11:47
and the need for revolution
to disrupt everyday democracy.
11:51
Well, here's the thing:
11:55
everyday democracy already
gives us a playbook for revolution.
11:56
In the 2012 presidential election,
12:00
young voters, Latino voters,
12:02
Asian-American voters, low-income voters,
12:04
all showed up at less than 50 percent.
12:06
In the 2014 midterm elections,
turnout was 36 percent,
12:11
which was a 70-year low.
12:15
And in your average local election,
12:17
turnout hovers
somewhere around 20 percent.
12:19
I invite you to imagine 100 percent.
12:23
Picture 100 percent.
12:27
Mobilize 100 percent,
12:30
and overnight, we get revolution.
12:32
Overnight, the policy priorities
of this country change dramatically,
12:35
and every level of government
becomes radically more responsive
12:39
to all the people.
12:42
What would it take
to mobilize 100 percent?
12:45
Well, we do have to push back
against efforts afoot
12:48
all across the country right now
12:51
to make voting harder.
12:52
But at the same time,
12:54
we have to actively create
a positive culture of voting
12:56
that people want to belong to,
12:59
be part of, and experience together.
13:00
We have to make purpose.
13:03
We have to make joy.
13:05
So yes, let's have that revolution,
13:07
a revolution of spirit, of ideas,
13:09
of policy and participation,
13:12
a revolution against cynicism,
13:14
a revolution against the self-fulfilling
sense of powerlessness.
13:16
Let's vote this revolution into existence,
13:20
and while we're at it,
13:23
let's have some fun.
13:25
Thank you very much.
13:26
(Applause)
13:28

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About the Speaker:

Eric Liu - Civics educator
Eric Liu is a civics educator and founder of Citizen University, which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship.

Why you should listen
Civics is about the teaching of power. So why don't more Americans understand how power works? In this talk, educator Eric Liu talks about ways to make civics sexy again -- and why cities must be a democratic laboratory for experimentation and innovation.
More profile about the speaker
Eric Liu | Speaker | TED.com