Book Notes: You’re More Powerful Than You Think

Relevant given the current political environment is You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide for Making Change Happen by Eric P. Liu—founder of Citizen’s University and former Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.

Liu characterizes his book “an argument about how power works in civic life and a guide for exercising it.” (25) Liu defines power as “the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” (7) Power he further notes “is like fire: inherently neither good nor evil, but deployable for both and thus a phenomenon to understand and master.” (17)

In his call for grass roots activism, Liu laments that “the underlying health of [American] civic life today is poor.” characterizing it as “sclerotic…corrupt” and “crony-rigged.” (14,20, 32) All of this has resulted in “relentlessly upward concentration of wealth” in that the share of national income flowing to the top one percent has tripled since 1980. (5)

This in turn has led to “creeping public fatalism” resulting in “depressingly low levels of civic participation, knowledge, engagement, and awareness.” Thus the entire political process has been coopted or “subcontracted out to a band of professionals—money people, message people, outreach people.” (9)

To reverse this situation, Liu advocates “powerful citizenship” through the exercise of power by “underdogs and challengers, not top dogs and incumbents.”

His volume is meant “for people who want to be change agents, not defenders of the status quo.”

The author further notes such change “can emanate from the left or from the right. In many cases it will scramble the lines between left and right.” (11)

In promoting the exercise of grass roots power Liu suggests three main strategies. The first is to work outside the existing system, thereby “changing the game.” Recently utilizing this approach were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both of whom bypassed the existing GOP and Democratic establishments in their respective presidential campaigns. (82)

A second strategy is to expand the public’s sense of what’s possible or to “change the story.”

The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement employed this tactic in promoting its agenda. (119-121) A final tactic is “to think and act in networks” whereby “power is amplified…exponentially.” (153).

Occupy Wall Street successfully used this strategy in its evolution from a handful of activists protesting at a small park in lower Manhattan into a national movement occupying “plazas and power spaces” in American cities from coast to coast. (174)

In general Liu urges “radical inclusion” as the remedy for the current civic malaise, asserting that “the system is healthiest and most robust when power emerges from the bottom up and middle out, not the top down.” (50)

This all-too-brief review cannot do justice to Eric Liu’s complex and challenging volume, which deserves the attention all concerned Americans during this most unsettled period.

Newell G. Bringhurst, a retired professor of History and Political Science, welcomes responses and comments at [email protected]

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