Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017) is the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times. It is better for today than Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1969). This book is a primer on power — how we think of it, what it actually is, and how we can wield it. This book is designed to close the gap between the rhetoric of revolution and the actual changes in values, systems, habits, and skills that are needed. Liu’s goal is to help people make better demands and then make them a reality.
In his prologue, Liu suggests that we ask the question, “Who runs this place?” It’s a question that is too rarely asked and even more rarely answered thoughtfully. He suggests that we widen the lense from government (where the answer is often harder than we think) to include the businesses and other institutions that dominate the local economy, and who in those busineses has a real say. Wider, to include who makes the deals — the fixers and the enforcers, the groups that usually get their way. Who do you have to target to get things changed, to make things the way you want? Who decides?
Liu calls the time we are in the Great Push Back, the revolt of those who feel they lack power. But what is “power”? Liu’s definition is “the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Power is as often about persuasion or contagion as it is about coercion. It takes the form of force, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, and numbers. It’s not just about the making of laws, but also about the making of relationships, and about biases and slogans.
It is a problem that most people ascribe power to others rather than to themselves. The left ascribes power to business and the right to government, but there is also power in numbers, in ideas, and in changing the way we see things. Think how quickly a minority movement for gay marriage changed the way most Americans think. When we give in to others’ power, we let their kind of power, based on their values, prevail.
Liu argues that power doesn’t corrupt character as much as reveal it, and that power is a gift, a special form of privilege that we can redeem through our deeds and pass on to others. It is a gift because “every person and institution with power in our society today has it because we give it to them.” Unfortunately, most of the time we give power away by not participating. “No one can wield power except as others yield power.”
Liu goes the usual route of setting out the laws of power, but they are useful to understanding what it is and how it works. The most important things to take away from these laws is that power is legitimized by the stories those with power tell to justify their power, and that power is not zero-sum: it can be bypassed, displaced, and even upended.
In fact, what is special about our time, Liu says, is that legitimizing myths have lost their grip. People across the political spectrum have rejected justifications of the status quo. But there is still not a good vision of the future, especially on the left. “Resist” does not accomplish this. This is something progressives need to discuss and work toward. It is one reason I think that alternative institutions are so important, even if they are not activist in nature, because they are an essential part of a future that we need to make more positive and more concrete.