“Majority rule is always shaped by minority will.”
That bit of wisdom from Eric Liu, author of “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen,” hit me like a thunderbolt. Majority rule has always meant that after the people have their say at the ballot box, whichever side wins sets the agenda. But I didn’t fully appreciate the minority’s vital role in shaping said agenda.
“At no time in 2010 were tea partyers a majority of national Republicans, much less a majority of the people of the United States, and yet, they completely shifted our politics, some might say, off the rails,” Liu said in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “But whatever you like about or don’t like about their policies, they won that game.”
“Right now, ‘Indivisible’ may or may not constitute a majority of the people, much less even a majority of Democrats or progressives,” Liu said, “but they are activated, they are organized.”
As the founder of Citizen University and the executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, Liu is an expert in and advocate for the power of civic engagement. To prove the power of minority will, he opens his book with the story of the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Fla. “For decades, those tomatoes were picked by the hands of migrant workers, who were often undocumented and basically subjected to a form of what you would think of as indentured servitude,” he said. So they organized. They went on strike for and eventually received better wages and working conditions.
“They didn’t have connections. They didn’t have clout. Many of them weren’t literate in English, much less literate in power, in power politics,” Liu explained. “I open the book with that story because, if they could do it, there’s really no good reason why you or I can’t do it.” In his book and during our conversation, Liu runs through bottom-up protests that have had national impact. Let’s take Occupy Wall Street. When I compared it negatively to the tea party movement, Liu pushed back convincingly by comparing it to a fallen tree one might encounter in the forests near his Seattle home.
When you walk around there you see a lot of fallen trees, and you might say, “Oh what a bummer, that tree fell. It failed.” But what these fallen trees are is what they call nurse logs. Out of those fallen trees, you start seeing other trees sprouting from the mulch and the nutrients of that fallen tree. I think Occupy Wall Street was just that kind of nurse log. It didn’t “succeed” in the way that the tea party did, but the way that it occurred and the way that it gave us a language of the 1 percent and the 99 percent is the mulch out of which the Bernie Sanders campaign grew. It is the mulch out of which the $15 Now movement grew. It is the mulch out of which a whole slate of new kinds of worker organizing endeavors are emerging.
Liu argues that one of the keys to the success of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the women’s marches — even the science marches that happened over the weekend — is the decentralized leadership structure. And this, he believes, is the key to fighting President Trump. “The way to counter Trump is not to try to create a giant single point of opposition,” Liu said. “It is exactly this kind of decentralized swarm of resistance and pushback that’s actually going to contain him.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Liu explain how “you can create brand-new power out of thin air.” He also talks about the freakout over “this incredible period, where whiteness and American-ness are splitting apart,” and he’ll outline his citizen’s guide to making change happen. Liu is emphatic about one option employed by the “there’s no point in me being involved” crowd.
“Not voting is voting,” he said, “to hand your power over, to throw it away and give it to somebody whose interests are going to be harmful to your own.”