This is an age of epic political turbulence. From the fracturing of major political parties, to the spread of bottom-up movements like Black Lives Matter, individuals across the political spectrum are reclaiming power. The question that today’s activists have to face is: Are you ready? Do you understand power? And if you want to make change in the world, do you know how? Below, we’ll look at where power comes from, how it’s exercised, and what you can do to become more powerful in public life.
Power is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It governs how any form of government works, and it determines who gets to determine the rules of the game. So, learning how power operates is key to being effective, being taken seriously, and not being taken advantage of.
Our focus is on the civic arena, where power means getting a community to make the choices and to take the actions that you want. There are 6 main sources of civic power.
First, there is physical force and a capacity for violence. Control of the means of force, whether in the police or the militia, is power at its most primal.
A second core source of power is wealth. Money creates the ability to buy results and to buy almost any other kind of power.
The third form of power is state action, or government. This is the use of law and bureaucracy to compel people to do or not do certain things. In a democracy, we the people, theoretically, give government its power through elections. In a dictatorship, state power emerges from the threat of force, not the consent of the governed.
The fourth type of power is social norms, or what other people think is okay. Norms don’t have the centralized machinery of government; they operate in a softer way — peer to peer. They can certainly make people change behavior, and even change laws. For instance, think about how norms around marriage equality today are evolving.
The fifth form of power is ideas. An idea, such as individual liberty or racial equality, can generate boundless amounts of power if it motivates enough people to change their thinking and actions.
The sixth source of power, then, is numbers — lots of humans. A vocal mass of people creates power by expressing collective intensity of interest and by asserting legitimacy. Think of the Arab Spring, or the rise of the Tea Party. Crowds count.
These are the six main sources of power. Now, let’s think about how power operates, by taking a look at the three laws of power.
Law #1: Power is never static. It’s always either accumulating or decaying in a civic arena. So if you are not taking action, you are being acted upon.
Law #2: Power is like water. It flows like a current through everyday life. Politics is the work of harnessing that flow in the direction you prefer. Policy making is a method to freeze and perpetuate a particular flow of power. Policy is power frozen.
Law #3: Power compounds. Power begets more power; and so does powerlessness. The only thing that keeps number three from leading to a situation where only one person has all the power is how we apply laws one and two.
What rules do we set up so that a few people don’t accumulate too much power, and so that they can’t enshrine their privilege in policy? That’s the question of democracy.
If you don’t like how things are in your campus, city, or country, then you have work to do. First, map out who has what kind of power, arrayed in what systems. Understand why it turned out this way, who made it so, and who wants to keep it so. Study the strategies others in such situations used. Then, learn to express yourself. Speak up in a voice that’s authentic. Organize your ideas. Last, organize other people. Practice consensus building; practice conflict. Use what you’ve learned about power to make change happen. The bottom line? You’re more powerful than you think.
Author bio: 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 “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen” (March 2017).