Power Is Not Finite

Editor Michael Tomasky talks with Eric Liu about his new book on how to create and deploy citizen power.

By Eric Liu

Tagged black lives matterDemocracyIndivisiblepoliticsProteststea party

Eric Liu has had a distinguished career in government (as deputy assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy) and as one of the progressive movement’s leading advocates for civic engagement (through his work at the Aspen Institute and his own Citizen University). He is co-author, with Nick Hanauer, of The Gardens of Democracy and The True Patriot. And not least, he is also a longtime board member of Democracy, where he’s written some acclaimed essays, notably “How to Be American” from the Fall 2015 issue.

He’s out with a new book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs). Editor Michael Tomasky spoke with Liu recently about the book.

Michael Tomasky: The book is about power. Define what you mean by power.

Eric Liu: When I talk about citizens’ power, I think it’s worth unpacking both parts of that term. With “citizen” I don’t mean only official documentation. I mean a deeper, ethical sense of being a member of the body, being a contributor to the community. When I talk about power, I mean the capacity to ensure that others do as you would like them to do. I know that may sound a little offputtingly blunt. In American life, we are trained to not be so nakedly candid about power. We like to euphemize it. But we humans are constantly in a struggle to ensure that others do as we would want them to. In politics, being willfully ignorant of that only consigns you to the status of being the pawn others are moving on the board.

MT: I like the way you explain something and then say “widen the view.” Now widen the view again. And again. You really call on people to connect dots they probably don’t usually connect.

EL: I think this is one of these times when we have to be in a dot-connecting mindset and take the long view. Donald Trump didn’t happen overnight. If you take the long view of these last three to four decades of crunching inequality and demographic shifts, where whiteness and American-ness are breaking apart, and opportunity is concentrating into hands of a few, it’s almost a miracle we didn’t get Donald Trump sooner.

I wrote this book to try to democratize understanding of how power works. And to say to folks that even though there is so much in our rigged system today, and it is rigged, to make people feel powerless, we are in fact in the midst of a profound global Great Push Back against concentrated, monopolized, hoarded power.

MT: Give some of the examples you gave in the book, because I think most people would feel this is an age of acute powerlessness for people like them.

EL: Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street. $15 Now. Dreamers. Black Lives Matter. The Sanders movement. The Trump movement. All of these, though ideologically very diverse, are in my view part of the same tectonic phenomenon. All of these are everyday Americans who are not professionals, who are not politically connected, who didn’t have permission to organize, having essentially decided they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. They’re ideologically divergent but the fact of their underlying similarities provides evidence that this movement of bottom-up people power is, to me, the dominant fact of our time.

MT: You write about minorities—and I don’t mean here racial minorities. I mean numerical minorities. And you make the point that it’s always minority will, not majority will, that drives change. Explain.

EL: We’ve seen in these last 120-whatever days this incredible awakening. Particularly on the left, but not only on the left. And you can say “gosh that’s not every American,” but it doesn’t have to be. We operate by majority rule, but majority rule in every instance is determined by minority will. An organized, activated, fiercely focused minority is what eventually binds the majority to its view of what ought to be happening. That is the case in every single instance of change in the United States and beyond. At no time was the Tea Party a majority of Republicans, let alone all Americans. But they were the most highly motivated well-organized political minority out there and they bent first their party to their will and then federal politics.

At our moment, the emergent movement is Indivisible. The co-founders of Indivisible were explicit in acknowledging the template of the Tea Party.

MT: Tea Party local chapters really educated and organized people to think about what leverage they had on state legislators, members of Congress, etc. Is Indivisible doing that?

EL: I think there are many parallels. I think one of the exciting things about Indivisible is we’ve had this wave of self-organizing. In short order, to have these 6,800 local chapters in every congressional district in the country is pretty remarkable, especially when you consider that the four authors of that original document had no such intention. It is teaching citizens precisely how to apply levers of power to local and federal officials. They started out focused on Congress but have moved to state government and other arenas.

MT: The book is more a how-to, without specific policy goals…

EL: The goal here is to show people how to get literate in power. But that literacy in power isn’t just to make us awesome tacticians. There has to be some deeper sense of why. Power plus character equals citizenship. And I don’t just mean individual character, but collective. There’s a passage where I say once you’ve taken stock of your power you have a very simple choice. Are you going to hoard or are you going to circulate it? To hoard, of course, is a lot of what we’re seeing in parts of the Trump agenda that are trickle-down economics on steroids.

But to circulate power is to embrace an agenda that is essentially anti-monopoly. To be anti-monopoly is to be against people who are hoarding power and getting unearned benefits from past accumulations of power. And it leads you to a policy agenda that is very interestingly cross-ideological. It’s about raising wages and higher taxes on the wealthy and reinstating an estate tax. And it would include things like affirmative action. But it would also include a simplification of our tax code so it’s less manipulable by those inclined to manipulate it.

I think what makes this moment remarkable is that it’s not focused on D.C. There are so many projects going on right now that are about either local change or social change and renewal and issues that are separate from Congress or this President. The $15 Now movement, which I’ve taken an active part in in Seattle and other places, is another one. It’s about moving folks who live in communities across this country to engage their neighbors in ways that are really changing the game.

There are three laws of power that I write about in the book.

Number 1: that power concentrates.

Number 2: that power is always justifying itself, with explanations of why the people who are in power ought to be in power. And if we just had those two laws we’d be stuck in a pretty grim doom loop.

But what saves us is law Number 3, which is that power is infinite. Here again I know this so cuts against the grain of the thinking of the sophisticated people who read Democracy. It sounds a little bit naïve, it sounds new-agey, but I mean it concretely in this sense: In civic life, it is possible to generate power out of thin air where it did not exist before simply by organizing. This is obvious to people involved in grassroots politics but it is completely not obvious to tens of millions of bystanders of American democratic life who have been observing and spectating but have never stepped onto the field themselves.

The current allocation of power is not fixed or finite. If you learn how to organize your neighbors, give a great public speech, use social media, develop memes to stir up interest in a cause, you haven’t diminished at all my ability to do those things. All you’ve done is you’ve added to the net amount of power in civic life. That’s a point I just really want to underscore. One of the things we’ve got to do in this moment is restore some fundamental faith that it’s possible for us in twos and threes, by starting clubs and organizing, to begin to heal the body politic.

Read more about black lives matterDemocracyIndivisiblepoliticsProteststea party

Eric Liu is co-author, with Nick Hanauer, of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government and The True Patriot. He served as a speechwriter for President Clinton and later as White House deputy domestic policy adviser. His most recent book is You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen.

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