Sarah Jaffe is a Nation Institute reporting fellow and the author of “Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.”
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 to many.
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.”
In part, 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.
By Eric Liu
PublicAffairs. 222 pp. $25