Self-help guide for ac­tivists who ask: What is power, and how can I get it?


In the hec­tic first days af­ter the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, a se­ries of doc­u­ments be­gan to cir­cu­late on so­cial me­dia among newly mo­ti­vated ac­tivists seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion and strat­egy for the fights ahead. One of those doc­u­ments, called the In­di­vis­i­ble Guide, was put to­gether by for­mer con­gres­sional staffers who had sur­vived the tea party on­slaught early in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and who had writ­ten down the tac­tics that had proved suc­cess­ful in pres­sur­ing mem­bers of Congress to stymie the agenda of a then-pop­u­lar new pres­i­dent. The guide went vi­ral and evolved, be­com­ing first a web­site and then a se­ries of or­ga­ni­za­tions around the coun­try, col­lab­o­rat­ing with pro­gres­sive groups such as the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party and MoveOn.

The tac­tics in the guide are noth­ing revo­lu­tion­ary: They are ba­sic civics in ac­tion, lessons in find­ing mem­bers of Congress, call­ing their of­fices, at­tend­ing their town hall meet­ings. But in a coun­try where only a slim ma­jor­ity both­ers to vote in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, and where lo­cal elec­tions see turnout of some­times 10 to 20 per­cent, the guide was the first in­tro­duc­tion for thou­sands of peo­ple to po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment be­yond the vot­ing booth.

Eric Liu’s new book, “You’re More Pow­er­ful Than You Think: A Cit­i­zen’s Guide to Mak­ing Change Hap­pen,” has a sim­i­lar feel. As an ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, he is, like the In­di­vis­i­ble writers, a for­mer po­lit­i­cal in­sider. And in a coun­try where so many are flum­moxed by pol­i­tics, the in­sights he of­fers may come as a sur­prise.

Liu has writ­ten sort of a self-help book for the would-be ac­tivist, packed with pithy, com­mon-sense apho­risms such as: “Those for whom the sys­tem works will tend to de­fend it.” Draw­ing on an ar­ray of ref­er­ences, from prag­ma­tist philoso­phers to bil­lion­aire stock traders to evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy to the U.S. Marines man­ual, Liu as­sem­bles an ar­gu­ment that any­one can or­ga­nize their com­mu­nity and be a “civic cat­a­lyst.” He gives per­haps the best de­scrip­tion of his own book by cit­ing Walter Isaac­son on Ben­jamin Franklin’s “en­ter­pris­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ism and earnest com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism.”

His well-known cast of char­ac­ters, from Bar­ney Frank to Bill McKibben to Glo­ria Steinem to DeRay Mckes­son, is dot­ted with more sur­pris­ing ex­am­ples — such as Mis­souri pub­lic de­fender Michael Bar­rett, who in­voked a lit­tle-used reg­u­la­tion in an ef­fort to draft the state’s gov­er­nor, Jay Nixon, into de­fend­ing an al­leged crim­i­nal; Bar­rett’s ploy was meant to high­light cuts to pub­lic de­fend­ers that Nixon had just signed.

At the heart of Liu’s book is the ques­tion of power, some­thing that he cor­rectly notes is deeply ob­scured in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. Power, Liu writes, “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.” In­stead of wor­ry­ing that the pos­ses­sion of power, or the use of it, makes you a bad per­son, he ar­gues that power is some­thing we all have and need not be shy about us­ing — af­ter all, the peo­ple in charge cer­tainly aren’t.

Though Liu de­ter­minedly draws his ex­am­ples from bi­par­ti­san cam­paigns, he is at his strong­est when he puts aside the need to speak to both sides and makes a se­ri­ous case for his own val­ues in the face of le­git­i­mate out­rages — such as the afore­men­tioned lack of pub­lic de­fend­ers. Un­for­tu­nately, this is all too rare in this book. More of­ten, he re­lies on some­what sim­plis­tic def­i­ni­tions of left and right that draw false equiv­a­len­cies be­tween the two, such as: “There are some on the left who think only busi­ness has power and some on the right who think only gov­ern­ment has power.”

This is a prob­lem be­cause a book pur­port­ing to teach skills for gain­ing power ought to ac­knowl­edge that goals and val­ues will shape tac­tics: Con­ser­va­tives and pro­gres­sives alike may de­light in dis­rupt­ing a town hall meet­ing, but be­yond that they of­ten di­verge. In one sec­tion, Liu jumps from a group of conservative cam­pus “free speech” ac­tivists host­ing a “Dis­in­vi­ta­tion Din­ner” to or­ga­nizer Bree New­some tak­ing down the Con­fed­er­ate flag in South Carolina. De­spite both be­ing ex­am­ples of “the­atri­cal” sym­bolic protest, the con­trast be­tween a bunch of well-heeled right-wing celebri­ties be­ing feted at a black-tie gath­er­ing and a black woman scal­ing a flag­pole to take down a sym­bol of slav­ery, and be­ing taken away in hand­cuffs, could not be more strik­ing. These are not both tac­tics for peo­ple with equiv­a­lent lev­els of power. As Liu him­self notes, “Power, then, is an ex­pres­sion of our moral mind­set.”

At times, for an au­thor tak­ing power as his sub­ject, Liu seems naive about how it works. The chap­ter on us­ing nar­ra­tive for or­ga­niz­ing makes lit­tle at­tempt to an­a­lyze the suc­cess of sym­bolic fights, cheer­ing them more for their cre­ativ­ity than for con­crete gains. Nar­ra­tive vic­to­ries are im­por­tant, and sym­bols do mat­ter, but with­out a big­ger, broader power anal­y­sis, as scholar and or­ga­nizer Jane McAlevey notes in her re­cent book “No Short­cuts,” real gains can be min­i­mal.

By op­ti­misti­cally declar­ing that “power is in­fi­nite,” that no one need lose power when another per­son or group gains it, Liu posits a kind of power that avoids di­rect con­flict, that when it wins does not cause any­one else to lose. This can be true when talk­ing about some­thing like Giv­ing Tues­day or an ad­vo­cacy group for peo­ple with Tourette’s syn­drome, two of Liu’s ex­am­ples and or­ga­ni­za­tions that even the hard­est-hearted Ayn Rand devo­tee would have a hard time op­pos­ing. But he avoids the sub­ject of what hap­pens if two di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed groups — say, the cam­pus-carry ad­vo­cates he de­scribes and his own Al­liance for Gun Re­spon­si­bil­ity — use the tac­tics he teaches in a head-to-head clash. The ar­gu­ment that power can al­ways be gained with­out caus­ing any­one else a loss is it­self ide­o­log­i­cal. To cre­ate a more equal so­ci­ety, it is a fact that those who hoard power and wealth will have to give some of it up.

In ex­hort­ing the cur­rently pow­er­less to get in­volved, Liu there­fore some­times slides into into boot­strap rhetoric. While it is deeply im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that even the most ex­ploited peo­ple in so­ci­ety — like the im­mi­grant Immokalee work­ers, whose or­ga­niz­ing ef­forts Liu de­scribes — have agency and should di­rect their own strug­gles for jus­tice, it is sim­ply wrong to state: “This means we are all com­plicit in ev­ery in­equity we ex­pe­ri­ence.” Lan­guage like this lets the al­ready pow­er­ful off the hook.

Ul­ti­mately, Liu’s is still a great-man nar­ra­tive of his­tory, de­signed to per­suade the reader not to view the world dif­fer­ently but to aspire to be­come one of those great men. En­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to “act as if you al­ready had the so­cial and civic power you seek” is well and good, but power is not, in fact, all in our heads. Liu knows this — it is ev­i­dent when he writes about the need for “new sys­tems” and that “get­ting these new sys­tems will take a con­cep­tual rev­o­lu­tion no less sig­nif­i­cant than the ones that at­tended the birth of this na­tion.” But like the In­di­vis­i­ble Guide, his book is less ad­vice for that rev­o­lu­tion than it is an in­tro­duc­tion to the ba­sics of civic en­gage­ment.

If you are just be­gin­ning your jour­ney into trou­ble­mak­ing for a cause, this book will pro­vide you with plenty of ideas. But if you’re seek­ing a hard-nosed look at how power op­er­ates, I might rec­om­mend that you also pick up some of the clas­sics of the genre — even a few by a man named Marx. Sarah Jaffe is a Na­tion In­sti­tute re­port­ing fel­low and the au­thor of “Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Re­volt.”


Demon­stra­tors in Florence, Ala., call on Pres­i­dent Trump to re­lease his tax re­turns at a protest in April. Eric Liu writes that any­one can or­ga­nize their com­mu­nity and be a “civic cat­a­lyst.”

By Eric Liu PublicAf­fairs. 222 pp. $25

YOU’RE MORE POW­ER­FUL THAN YOU THINK A Cit­i­zen’s Guide to Mak­ing Change Hap­pen

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