You're More Powerful than You Think

A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen


By Eric Liu

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Is this the America you want? If not, here’s how to claim the power to change your country.

We are in an age of epic political turbulence in America. Old hierarchies and institutions are collapsing. From the election of Donald Trump to the upending of the major political parties to the spread of grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter and $15 Now, people across the country and across the political spectrum are reclaiming power.

Are you ready for this age of bottom-up citizen power? Do you understand what power truly is, how it flows, who has it, and how you can claim and exercise it?

Eric Liu, who has spent a career practicing and teaching civic power, lays out the answers in this incisive, inspiring, and provocative book. Using examples from the left and the right, past and present, he reveals the core laws of power. He shows that all of us can generate power-and then, step by step, he shows us how. The strategies of reform and revolution he lays out will help every reader make sense of our world today. If you want to be more than a spectator in this new era, you need to read this book.






Here is what people have been doing the last few years:

The Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution, the Maidan protests, the Green Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, the indignados, the Umbrella Revolution, the Brexit, anti-government protests in Iceland, Poland, South Korea, Ethiopia, Hungary, Thailand, Brazil. In the United States, we've had Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, $15 Now, Standing Rock, Feel the Bern, and then, of course, the Trump Train.

Not every one of these movements has, in a conventional sense, "succeeded." In fact, most have not (yet). But they're all connected. And they're still coming. Occupy begat We Are the 99% begat Fast Food Forward begat $15 Now begat the Bernie Sanders campaign. The Tea Party harnessed a radical anti-establishment spirit that seized and then consumed the Republican Party, fueled Donald Trump's election, unleashed a new populism, and created a "none-of-the-above" opening for libertarians.

This is a moment of citizen power. And that is nowhere more visible than in the turbulence of American political and civic life.

The coming-out of undocumented immigrants; the gradual then sudden triumph of marriage equality activists; the counteroffensive for religious liberty; demonstrations against racial inequity; demonstrations for free speech; the rising voices of sexual assault survivors; the emergence of moms for gun responsibility; the unadorned anger of nativists and white nationalists; the rise of Native American environmental activism; the obliteration of elite gatekeepers in party politics, consumer markets, mass media, pop culture—all are evidence of the same bewildering reality.

The old deal is dead. There is no new deal yet.

Citizens today no longer have to accept the bundles—the one-size-fits-all packages—that the monopolies of politics and business have long forced upon us. Unbundling is everywhere, from how we get the news to how we listen to music or watch television to how we catch a ride across town to how we label ourselves by party, gender, or race.

There is an upbeat, utopian version of this story that's all about an explosion of individual choice. But of course the unbundling is happening to us as well, in ways that have eaten away at our cohesion, security, and dignity. Social contracts—of trust and common cause—have been unbundled by technologies that sift and sort us ever more narrowly. Collective economic arrangements—pensions, benefits, livable wages, worker safety—have been unbundled by the Uberization and globalization of work.

As a result, in greater and growing numbers, we Americans no longer feel in control of our own everyday lives. We have little say in a workplace that makes us expendable. Our lives as consumers are dominated by distant, impersonal brands. In our lives as citizens too many of us are passive spectators or the clients of distant bureaucracies. We have a surplus of stuff and a deficit of attention and purpose. As we retreat to smaller circles of kith and kin, the commons goes to seed.

All this is propelled by a relentlessly upward concentration of wealth. Since 1980, the share of national income flowing to the wealthiest 1 percent has tripled. Since the end of the Great Recession in 2010, over 90 percent of the recovery's gains have gone to the 1 percent. Median wages have barely moved in forty years, while CEO pay has increased tenfold. More than half the benefits of federal tax breaks flow to the wealthiest 5 percent, while low-income families get nearly nothing. Today the greatest determinant of whether an American child will end up poor or rich is whether their parents are poor or rich. By the standards of our national self-story, that is profoundly un-American.

Meanwhile, economic concentration of power begets political concentration of power. Congress today is now driven by the policy preferences of wealthy individuals and corporations. A comprehensive study of congressional action by the political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens showed that when the average American's policy views clash with those of the rich, the rich almost always prevail. The average American is heard only if wealthy donors happen to be saying the same thing. Congress, redistricted to make itself challenger-proof, is walled off against reform. Meanwhile, Republicans use trumped-up charges of election fraud to keep low-income voters of color from voting. And government insiders from both parties cycle through a perpetual revolving door to Wall Street.

But we knew all this already: the system truly has been rigged.

What's new is that this unprecedented concentration of power is now giving rise to a Great Push Back: a sprawling, disorderly effort by citizens of the right, the left, and the scrambled everywhere-else—people of every color and faith—to challenge monopolized power in all its forms and to demand a greater say in how things are run. The revolutions promised by both Sanders and Trump are still coalescing, even if only one of them has the power of the federal government behind him.

And this Great Push Back—this chaotic, contagious cross-ideological revolt of the smalls—is not the end of the story. It's just the raucous beginning. (Also, there is no end.)

It's made all the more turbulent by another great shift underway: the delinking of whiteness and Americanness. The imminent arrival of an America that is majority-of-color—even as the power structure has remained predominantly white, and even as uneducated whites face declining opportunities and life expectancies—has amplified the anxiety and expectation and volatility already in the air. It has made populists out of racists, and vice versa. It has emboldened social justice advocates and white supremacists alike to press their claims more impatiently.

At some point we may reach a stable new equilibrium in political life. Before then, we can expect many more kinds of confrontation between the people in charge and The People. Between monopoly and its discontents. "Power," as Frederick Douglass said, "concedes nothing without a demand."

But here's the thing: there is a gap between making demands and making them happen. It is the gap between the rhetoric of revolution and the actual changes in values, systems, habits, and skills that add up to a revolution.

This book is designed to help close this "revolution gap": to help you make better demands—and then to make them a reality. It will give you new ways of understanding power in civic life and new tools for claiming and exercising it.


Let's start with a simple definition: power is the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.

If that sounds menacing or distasteful, or makes you feel squeamish, I understand. And I invite you to get over it.

Power is something we are often uncomfortable naming and talking about explicitly. In the culture and mythology of democracy, power is supposed to reside with the people. End of story. Further inquiry unnecessary and unwelcome. In our everyday talk, power has a negative moral vibe. Power-mad. Power-hungry. Power grab. Power trip. It's a dirty word. Which is why we so often soften it with such euphemisms as "voice" or "strength."

But power is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It just is. The only question is whether we will try to understand and harness it.

If power is the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do, civic power is that capacity exercised by citizens in public, whether in elections or government or in social and economic arenas.

I say "ensure" rather than "compel" or "make," because power is as often about persuasion or contagion as coercion. And when I say "citizens" here, I do not mean only people with the right papers; I mean all members of the body politic, who can and do contribute to our common life, whatever their documentation status.

Power in civic life takes many forms: force, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, numbers. And it flows through many conduits: institutions, organizations, networks, laws and rules, narratives and ideologies. Map these forms and conduits against each other and you get what we think of as "the power structure."

But the problem today is that too many people aren't able to draw, read, or follow such a map. Too many people are profoundly—and willfully—illiterate in power: what it is, what forms it takes, who has it, who doesn't, why that is, how it is exercised.

As a result, it's become ever easier for those who do understand how power operates in civic life—those who understand how a bill becomes a law, yes, but also how a friendship becomes a subsidy or how a bias becomes a policy or how a slogan becomes a movement—those folks are more capable than ever of wielding disproportionate influence and filling the void created by the ignorance of the majority.

How does a friendship become a subsidy? Seamlessly, when senior government staffers become corporate lobbyists and work their relationships to benefit their new masters. How does a bias become a policy? Insidiously, as with stop-and-frisk. How does a slogan become a movement? Virally, as when Tea Party activists co-opt "Don't Tread on Me," or Black Lives Matter turns a hashtag into a movement.

But most people don't see or care to look for these realities. Much of this ignorance, this power illiteracy, is intentional. And that compounds the problem.

There are some young people who think the whole business is sordid and would rather do community service or direct action and exempt themselves from politics altogether.

There are some techies who think that the cure-all for power imbalances or abuses is simply more data and transparency, and that tech networks are inherently beneficial.

There are some on the left who think only business has power and some on the right who think only government has power; both blinded by their selective outrage.

There are the naïve who believe that good things just happen, and the cynical who believe that bad things just happen: the fortunate and unfortunate alike who believe their lot is simply what happens to them, rather than the alterable result of a prior arrangement, an inherited allocation, of power.

But as the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in The Power Elite: "To accept either view—of all history as conspiracy or all of history as drift—is to relax the effort to understand the facts of power and the ways of the powerful."

As a result of this creeping public fatalism, we now have depressingly low levels of civic participation, knowledge, engagement, and awareness. Political life has been subcontracted out to a band of professionals—money people, message people, outreach people. The rest of us are made to feel like amateurs, as in suckers. We become demotivated to learn more about how things work. And this pervasive power illiteracy becomes, in a vicious cycle, both a cause and a consequence of the concentration of opportunity, wealth, and clout in society.

This is why reimagining civics as the teaching and learning of power is so necessary—now perhaps more than at any time in the last century. If you don't learn how to practice power, someone else will do it for you—in your name, on your turf, with your voice, and often against your interests.

Power plays out in every arena of life, from the home to the workplace to the public square. In this book our focus is on power in political and civic life—how we live in public. And the core question of such power is this: Who decides?

Every aspect of collective existence in a complex society is the result of countless layers of countless decisions, including decisions not to challenge long-ago decisions.

Think: How did the railroad tracks get put down in my town and who decided what would be the wrong side and the right side of those tracks? Why does one employer get tax breaks and subsidies but not another? Why is this community center getting funded instead of that one? Why a new jail instead of preschool? Who decided that?

When a city passes an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect gay, lesbian, and transgender people, but then the state preempts the ordinance, what unfolds is an argument not only about local government law but also about culture and identity. When a national political party has a system for allocating delegates, and one candidate's campaign comes to resent that system, the conflict may unfold in the language of parliamentary rules but it is, more deeply, a matter of muscle and "street heat."

Who decides? All politics turns on that question. The answer is in furious flux today. If you are illiterate in power, if you cannot speak the language of who has clout and how it is exercised, you will not even realize you've been excluded from the question.


Before we go through the plan for the pages to come, I want to make one thing clear. This book is not about personal empowerment in the self-help sense. There is no chicken soup for anyone's soul here. Nor is it about empowerment in the Machiavellian sense. You'll find nothing in these pages about how to manipulate the boss or edge out workplace rivals. I offer not the courtier's view of power but the citizen's view.

The citizen's view is by definition greater than the self because the citizen—a member of the body, a contributor to community—is by definition acting in a social context. To be sure, the citizen's view of power is not selfless. It is often quite selfish. But whereas self-help and self-advancement focus on the individual, often in isolation, citizen power is about identity and action in the collective: how we make change happen together.

Something else to be up front about: This book is for underdogs and challengers, not top dogs and incumbents. It's for people who want to be change agents, not defenders of the status quo. That change can emanate from the left or from the right. In many cases, it will scramble the lines between left and right. But in all cases, this book is about democratizing power rather than hoarding it.

As the coming pages will demonstrate, hoarding is not just morally repugnant; it is systemically suicidal. If we want our society to work for everyone, it is imperative that we learn to circulate power and literacy in power far more widely.

And literacy isn't just a metaphor. Imagine finding yourself in a foreign land. If you can't read or write the language, life is very challenging. Street signs, storefronts, newspapers, public notices: all are undecipherable to you. Because you don't know what you don't know, you become an easy mark for fraud, you waste energy and time on everyday tasks, you are cut out of chances to improve your situation, you are in every sense voiceless. You might survive, but you will never thrive.

Not knowing how to read or write power has exactly the same effects. Power is a language. It has a grammar and a syntax. It expresses our wants and needs, and is the medium by which those wants and needs are negotiated and addressed. Ignorance of that language is harmful to your aspirations and to your well-being.

So literacy in power means understanding the what, the how, and the why of power. That's the plan for the rest of this book. In Part II, we will focus on what power truly is and how to imagine it anew. We will explore three core laws of power that shape the patterns of public life—and that challenge us not to give away our power carelessly but to circulate it wisely.

Then in Part III, we will examine how to practice power—and specifically, how those laws demand three kinds of strategies for the citizen who wants to create change. Finally, Part IV examines why you'd want civic power. To what ends are you learning about the elements and the strategies of political action? What are the moral purposes and ethical foundations of your desire for clout?

In every part, we will look at cases from the past and present. Full disclosure: most are from the contemporary United States. That's not jingoism or parochialism. It's knowing what I know best. And it's trusting that you'll be able and willing to connect dots across place and time to your own situation.

We will also look at cases from across the ideological spectrum. You may not like the positions or beliefs of some of the people you will meet. But a skillful citizen finds lessons everywhere. This is important. In case you couldn't tell, I am not the mythical creature called the Impartial Observer. I write as a citizen who has progressive and communitarian views and who has put those views into practice—in government and policy making, in concerted citizen action, and in the publication of ideas.

But I also write as the founder of a cross-ideological organization, Citizen University, that brings together people from the Occupy left, the Tea Party right, and many points between. We challenge each other to find common interests. We generate unlikely collaborations and friendships. We engage where we can in mutual aid because although we will often disagree on policy and intellectual paradigms, we can all agree that this is a time to take on entrenched monopolists—and to boost citizen power.

The analogy I often use in my work, because I am a baseball fanatic, is this: I grew up in upstate New York and I'm a Yankees fan. I hate the Boston Red Sox. But I share with Red Sox fans an abiding interest in the underlying health of the game. The more people who know how to play, and the more resources there are for people to learn how to play, and the less corrupt and rigged the game is, and the less rigid a wall there is between amateurs and professionals, the better it is for everyone. Let's first make sure, together, that the game is not sick—that it prospers in every way. Then my Yanks can go beat the Sox.

The underlying health of civic life today is poor. The Trump presidency was born of decades of democratic decline. The clubs and associations where people used to practice citizenship are moribund. Everyday journalism that holds local power to account is evaporating. Muckraking investigative journalism is even rarer. Civic education in the schools is disappearing, and where it survives, it is often reduced to a bland "lowest-controversy denominator" that makes civics unsexy—or worse, it's hijacked by history-blind fanatics who call Moses one of the Founding Fathers or describe enslaved people as "workers." The game is sick. And it's not a game.

Let's begin the work of healing it.




Why do most people think power is a dirty word? Because they think it means coercion and violence. They associate it with the worst in human nature. And there's no question that power can involve all those forms of domination, and more. Lord Acton's dictum—that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—is the world's most famous statement on power because it accords with our deep intuitions.

But I want to propose a different way of seeing power. In fact, I want to propose a different way of seeing. Though it may not seem as intuitive as Acton's dictum, what I offer is perhaps more true than intuition, in the way that facts of nature like heat or light or weight are true well before we sense them—indeed, whether we ever sense them at all.

How we see is shaped partly by language, especially the metaphors we use. For example, I have said that power is like fire: inherently neither good nor evil, but deployable for both and thus a phenomenon to understand and master. That metaphor treats power as a tool. It suggests that power doesn't corrupt character so much as it reveals it: What will you do with this flame?

Here is another metaphor: power is like water. It flows all around us at all times. Sometimes it takes the liquid form of politics-in-action, a turbulent flow with crosscurrents and strong undertows. Sometimes it takes the solid form of settled law: policy is power frozen. Sometimes it is like vapor in the air, invisibly shaping the climate and our behavior in just the way beliefs or ideology or emotions do.

But how we see is not just a matter of language. It is also a matter of moral imagination. Whether you conceptualize power as fire, water, mass, force, or something else altogether, the deepest truth is that we the people are not merely the passive receptacles or objects of power. We are the very source of power. We do not just receive power as it passes through us or acts upon us. We generate it. We give it.

What I am saying is that power is a gift.

This is the most basic reason that you're more powerful than you think. And it is a notion that, to some, sounds terribly naïve or wrongheaded. So let me explain.

Power is a gift in several senses. First, it is something that emanates from us, that inheres in us. There is a religious way to put this, and many thoughtful believers would describe the life force that God puts in each of us—a force that enables us to exist, and then to make and repair the world—as a sacred gift. This is the power to create, and as the theologian Andy Crouch has written so eloquently, it has not the imperative spirit of "Make it so" but the invitational spirit of "Let there be." The power of genesis is not to oppress but to actualize: to spark flourishing.

I happen not to have been raised in any faith tradition. But in my own secular-spiritual American brand of civic religion—based on the texts and acts of our founding creed—I believe that human dignity requires freedom and the power to make of oneself and one's world all that one can. Such power is a gift, a human birthright. Citizenship of the United States, for those of us with the dumb luck to have been born into it, wraps that universal gift in a particular form of privilege—unearned at birth, perhaps, but redeemable by a lifetime of deeds and contributions.

Second, power is a gift in the sense of a talent—and more than that, an obligation to pass the talent on. When we say someone is a gifted painter or singer or runner or healer, we mean she has been given something special and precious. We also imply she has a responsibility to cultivate and to share that something special with the world. She has been endowed not only with inalienable rights but also inalienable duties.

A kind of circulation is at work here, and it is perpetual. Lewis Hyde, in his classic book The Gift, describes the making of true art as an endless cycle of gift exchange and warns about the dangers of treating art and creativity as commodities. A commodity mindset deadens human bonds of trust and affection. In Hyde's view, talent is not primarily a product for the market. It is first a gift for humanity. And the same holds for power. True power, which recycles endlessly, demands that those who hold it, ever so briefly, must do so for others.

The third, most literal, and most important way that power is a gift is simply that we give it. I cannot underscore that enough. We give it. Every person and institution with power in our society today has it because we give it to them. I know it does not feel that way. Most of us don't remember actively giving power to those people and institutions. But we did. We do.

Whether you live in a democracy that's become sclerotic and corrupt, like ours, or an authoritarian society that wants to control what you do and learn, it is important to remember that others don't take our power so much as we give it away. We give it away by not organizing or participating, out of a fatalistic sense that it doesn't matter, that "my vote won't count anyway." But mark well: there is no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting—to hand power to others, whose interests may be inimical to your own. And not organizing is organizing—for the people who mean to dominate you.

Consider every form of power I listed earlier: force, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, numbers. Every one originates from us. From you. That doesn't mean you can make yourself a millionaire by wishing it so. It does mean that money, which takes the form of a symbol, is an agreement between you, me, and the world to have that symbol mean something. If you refuse agreement, if you no longer honor promises made in that symbol, you are rediscovering your power. That is true whether you are an individual or a sovereign state.

Consider Donald Trump. This man gained power because—and only because—we gave it to him. We gave him our attention, our hope, our belief, our outrage, our fear, our anxiety. Many gave him their own unused, never-activated potential as change agents. We together gave him a vast voice and an omnipresent face because we lent him our many ears and our many eyes.


On Sale
Mar 13, 2018
Page Count
256 pages

Eric Liu

About the Author

Eric Liu is the founder and CEO of Citizen University ( and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He is the author of several books, including A Chinaman’s Chance, The Gardens of Democracy, and The Accidental Asian. Eric served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He is a regular columnist for and a correspondent for

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