This post is part of a CityLab series on power—the political kind, the stuff inside batteries and gas tanks, and the transformative might of mass movements.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and increasingly alarmed, you are in good company: In its first chaotic weeks, the Trump administration made several moves that angered and bewildered many Americans, both liberals and conservatives.
Where to start? There’s those immigration orders, which greenlit an expensive border wall that plenty of Republicans are iffy about, and the two travel bans on visitors from majority Muslim countries that courts have put on hold. Or maybe you’re more concerned about the healthcare plan that would leave 24 million more people uninsured by 2026. This week’s dismay focuses on Trump’s preliminary budget proposal, which slashes funding for important infrastructure, rural and urban housing assistance and homelessness programs, poverty alleviation programs, and environmental protection and international diplomacy, among others.
This is happening fast. And the populations most likely to bear the brunt of some of these changes—the poor, the elderly, the immigrants, women and children, and the disabled—might especially feel particularly powerless to resist what can appear to be a numbing torrent of outrage, all of which can be traced to a single, seemingly inexhaustible source. “Donald Trump has monopolized our political conversations, so everything keeps on finding its way back to him,” says writer Eric Liu. ”And that can leave many citizens feeling powerless—especially if you’re a member of a group that is disfavored by him.”
But to all these people—and to all citizens dismayed by national and global forces—Liu offers hope, and a new way of thinking. He’s the founder and CEO of Citizen University, an organization that promotes civic engagement, and a former White House speechwriter and policy advisor to Bill Clinton. In his new book You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (out March 28) Liu outlines an action plan for re-creating civil community and plugging-in a disaffected populace; CityLab caught up with him for a conversation.
Why did you write this book?
Two reasons. We are in the midst of this tectonic shift right now that is very cross-ideological. We feel a lot of that right now in this anti-Trump resistance, but quite frankly, the same set of forces that brought Trump to office fueled the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter. I felt like this was a really right time to capture some of the core patterns of this shift in power, and articulate for everyday Americans how they can become more literate in the exercise of power.
The second reason for this book is a TED talk that I've given about civic power and its practice in cities. A city—or any local context—is still the most fruitful arena for practicing power. I just wanted to really underscore that.
In your book, you say power is not something to crinkle your nose at. How should we be thinking about it, then?
This misconception about power—that it’s a dirty word—was a really important thing to call out. Most Americans, by reflex, have a negative association with the concept. There ends up being this almost willful ignorance about the dynamics of power and civic life.
One of the main things I wanted to do was to say: If you have any squeamishness about talking about or practicing power, get over it. This is the moment in our country’s life to recognize that power is not inherently good or evil; it’s like fire. It’s up to us, individually or collectively, to decide how to harness that force, but it behooves us to recognize that the force exists. If we want to achieve the kind of change we’d prefer in society, we’ve got to learn to master it.
Through the course of the book, you lay out a roadmap—punctuating it with some great examples—of how folks who are seemingly powerless have been able to influence institutions and entities more powerful than them. Could you walk me through how power works?
You'll notice that I use the metaphor of literacy. I mean it metaphorically, but I also mean it literally. Power is something that you learn to read and learn to write. To read it is to be able to look around your community, your neighborhood, your city, your state, and your country and understand where it comes from and how it flows through power structures.
The first big part of the book really lays out what I think of as the three fundamental laws of power. The first is that that power concentrates—as does powerlessness. The second law is that power justifies itself; it creates narratives to explain why the people who currently have power should have that power. If the world just stopped at those two, then you would get this self-reinforcing doom loop that entrenches incumbent power holders. Fortunately, there’s a third law that I described: Power is infinite. There is no inherent cap on the amount of power citizens can generate.
How do can folks use this paradigm to create change?
Each each one of these laws yields a certain imperative of citizen action. So, if power tends to concentrate into winner-takes-all systems, then you’ve got to change the game to something that reshuffles winners and losers. Number two: if power justifies itself, you’ve got to change the story. Number three says power is infinite. And yet, many people think of it as a zero-sum finite thing: if one entity gets more, then I must be getting less. You’ve got to change the equation.
One argument you make in the book is that a more equitable distribution of power is good for everyone, regardless of political persuasion; whether you’re a fan of the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees, it’s in both teams’ fans’ best interests to boost the underlying health of the game of baseball. That’s certainly not how our current political dialogue is framed.
You can it boil down to this precept which is we’re all better off and we’re all better off. And that is not just a tautology, that is a statement of scientific fact. Systems where participants have more of an opportunity to survive and express their full potential end up being healthier, more resilient, and more adaptive. They are the systems that survive. That is true of a sports team. It’s true of a corporation. It’s true of a neighborhood.
I don’t mean to be naive. There are many situations where things are set up in a zero-sum way. But all around the world, and increasingly in different cities in the United States, people are experimenting with other voting structures—ranked choice voting, proportional representation, and others—that reinforce this idea of mutual and overlapping interest rather than zero-sum interest.
I’m in Seattle and I was very active in the ultimately successful push to raise the minimum wage here to $15. The case my colleagues and I made was not only the fairness case—that low-wage earners would suffer less and be able to do more with more money. But it was an argument that said that the entire economy of the city in this region would be healthier.
Why? Because when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, and you set in motion a positive feedback loop of increasing demand. It’s proving to be true.
That’s not to say that there aren’t, at times, short-term costs to employers. Their labor costs increase—but so do their receipts, and so does the general vitality of that city's economy.
That’s a storyline that takes practice telling. It also takes practice believing because it cuts against some conventional beliefs. The politics in the United States and in Western Europe right now are based on a scarcity mindset: What we have in this country is a fixed amount of stuff. If there are more people who don’t worship or look or dress like me, that must mean there’s less stuff for me.
I try to keep myself from just you know reflexively deriding people who feel that way, because it’s a natural human instinct. But the responsibility of mindful citizens everywhere is to offer a different story. And I don’t just mean our elected leaders—I mean you and me in our neighborhood meetings, dinner party conversations, and PTA meetings.
You talk about the parallels between how Donald Trump and the Tea Party movement have used some of the tactics in your book, and how progressive movements today are now using them.
The Tea Party and some of the people who elected Donald Trump certainly understood how to change a story. Just by calling themselves the Tea Party, they were able to co-opt a narrative of citizen rebellion against tyrannical authority. Then, they began to describe an alternative strategy. The Tea Party also changed the equation. In the initial phases, it was a completely uncoordinated, unfunded citizen movement that began to congeal in a sideways, bottom-up way. What it remembered was that to change the equation of power, you don’t have to have the same scale and mass as the force that you’re trying to overcome. You just need a super-activated minority that can dominate the terms of the debate. They were a minority within their own party, but they were able to create this force of ideas. The same is exactly true of the people who have organized to elect Donald Trump. He didn't have a majority of the electorate, just a hardcore, dedicated base willing to show up.
Today’s activists who are organizing against Trump, whether they are liberals, progressive libertarians, or reform conservatives, have to remember that resistance is not enough. You’ve got to, at some point, have an affirmative alternative. When you think of something like the Indivisible movement—that’s a great case study of bottom-up self-organizing that spread almost accidentally.
What’s important now, for them, is to think: How can we apply these ideas where we live? Indivisible grew as a guide to lobbying Congress. But almost every principle that’s articulated in that document can and should be applied to City Hall, county council, and state legislature.
What are some obstacles to getting started—and how should people overcome them?
Number one is a paralysis of too many options. You hear routinely, “I want to do something, but I don’t know where to begin.” The remedy that is simply: Start somewhere. You can go local: the neighborhood level, school board level, precinct level, ward level. Rewrite power at these levels.
Second, find face-to-face opportunities to recreate community. I’ll give you a concrete example here. One of the initiatives we launched at Citizen University after the election was called Civic Saturdays—a civic analogue to church. It’s a periodic gathering with the intentional design and structure of a spiritual gathering. There’s a time for silent reflection, meeting neighbors, speaking about a common question, and a reading of we call civic scriptures—texts from American life and history. And there’s time afterwards for a social or a skill-building hour. It’s a time for people to learn more about how they can get engaged in their own communities. The demand for this has has surprised us. People been gravitating to this with this very palpable hunger.
Can you give an example of civic action that cuts across party lines?
I mentioned in the book a cross-ideological movement in cities in communities across the country that unites libertarians with progressives to reform the criminal justice system. You have limited government conservatives joining with social justice liberals to say, “Hey, it is just wrong that we have this rapacious civil asset forfeiture system in this town. It is just wrong that we have gotten so accustomed to this local police department running itself on fines that are regressive and hit people disproportionately hard the very people that police departments are meant to protect.” That, to me, is like one of the most interesting fights going on in the country—not only because of the justice dimension of it, but because it is across ideological lines.