Eric Liu

Why ordinary people need to understand power

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0:11

I'm a teacher and a practitioner of civics in America. Now, I will kindly ask those of you who have just fallen asleep to please wake up. (Laughter) Why is it that the very word "civics" has such a soporific, even a narcoleptic effect on us? I think it's because the very word signifies something exceedingly virtuous, exceedingly important, and exceedingly boring. Well, I think it's the responsibility of people like us, people who show up for gatherings like this in person or online, in any way we can, to make civics sexy again, as sexy as it was during the American Revolution, as sexy as it was during the Civil Rights Movement. And I believe the way we make civics sexy again is to make explicitly about the teaching of power. The way we do that, I believe, is at the level of the city.

1:05

This is what I want to talk about today, and I want to start by defining some terms and then I want to describe the scale of the problem I think we face and then suggest the ways that I believe cities can be the seat of the solution. So let me start with some definitions. By civics, I simply mean the art of being a pro-social, problem-solving contributor in a self-governing community. Civics is the art of citizenship, what Bill Gates Sr. calls simply showing up for life, and it encompasses three things: a foundation of values, an understanding of the systems that make the world go round, and a set of skills that allow you to pursue goals and to have others join in that pursuit.

1:53

And that brings me to my definition of power, which is simply this: the capacity to make others do what you would have them do. It sounds menacing, doesn't it? We don't like to talk about power. We find it scary. We find it somehow evil. We feel uncomfortable naming it. In the culture and mythology of democracy, power resides with the people. Period. End of story. Any further inquiry not necessary and not really that welcome. Power has a negative moral valence. It sounds Machiavellian inherently. It seems inherently evil. But in fact power is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It just is. And power governs how any form of government operates, whether a democracy or a dictatorship. And the problem we face today, here in America in particular, but all around the world, is that far too many people are profoundly illiterate in power — what it is, who has it, how it operates, how it flows, what part of it is visible, what part of it is not, why some people have it, why that's compounded. And as a result of this illiteracy, those few who do understand how power operates in civic life, those who understand how a bill becomes a law, yes, but also how a friendship becomes a subsidy, or how a bias becomes a policy, or how a slogan becomes a movement, the people who understand those things wield disproportionate influence, and they're perfectly happy to fill the vacuum created by the ignorance of the great majority.

3:46

This is why it is so fundamental for us right now to grab hold of this idea of power and to democratize it. One of the things that is so profoundly exciting and challenging about this moment is that as a result of this power illiteracy that is so pervasive, there is a concentration of knowledge, of understanding, of clout. I mean, think about it: How does a friendship become a subsidy? Seamlessly, when a senior government official decides to leave government and become a lobbyist for a private interest and convert his or her relationships into capital for their new masters. How does a bias become a policy? Insidiously, just the way that stop-and-frisk, for instance, became over time a bureaucratic numbers game. How does a slogan become a movement? Virally, in the way that the Tea Party, for instance, was able to take the "Don't Tread on Me" flag from the American Revolution, or how, on the other side, a band of activists could take a magazine headline, "Occupy Wall Street," and turn that into a global meme and movement. The thing is, though, most people aren't looking for and don't want to see these realities. So much of this ignorance, this civic illiteracy, is willful. There are some millennials, for instance, who think the whole business is just sordid. They don't want to have anything to do with politics. They'd rather just opt out and engage in volunteerism. There are some techies out there who believe that the cure-all for any power imbalance or power abuse is simply more data, more transparency. There are some on the left who think power resides only with corporations, and some on the right who think power resides only with government, each side blinded by their selective outrage. There are the naive who believe that good things just happen and the cynical who believe that bad things just happen, the fortunate and unfortunate alike who think that their lot is simply what they deserve rather than the eminently alterable result of a prior arrangement, an inherited allocation, of power.

6:14

As a result of all of this creeping fatalism in public life, we here, particularly in America today, have depressingly low levels of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation, awareness. The whole business of politics has been effectively subcontracted out to a band of professionals, money people, outreach people, message people, research people. The rest of us are meant to feel like amateurs in the sense of suckers. We become demotivated to learn more about how things work. We begin to opt out.

6:52

Well, this problem, this challenge, is a thing that we must now confront, and I believe that when you have this kind of disengagement, this willful ignorance, it becomes both a cause and a consequence of this concentration of opportunity of wealth and clout that I was describing a moment ago, this profound civic inequality. This is why it is so important in our time right now to reimagine civics as the teaching of power. Perhaps it's never been more important at any time in our lifetimes. If people don't learn power, people don't wake up, and if they don't wake up, they get left out.

7:37

Now, part of the art of practicing power means being awake and having a voice, but it also is about having an arena where you can plausibly practice deciding. All of civics boils down to the simple question of who decides, and you have to play that out in a place, in an arena.

7:58

And this brings me to the third point that I want to make today, which is simply that there is no better arena in our time for the practicing of power than the city. Think about the city where you live, where you're from. Think about a problem in the common life of your city. It can be something small, like where a street lamp should go, or something medium like which library should have its hours extended or cut, or maybe something bigger, like whether a dilapidated waterfront should be turned into a highway or a greenway, or whether all the businesses in your town should be required to pay a living wage. Think about the change that you want in your city, and then think about how you would get it, how you would make it happen. Take an inventory of all the forms of power that are at play in your city's situation: money, of course, people, yes, ideas, information, misinformation, the threat of force, the force of norms. All of these form of power are at play. Now think about how you would activate or perhaps neutralize these various forms of power.

9:16

This is not some Game of Thrones empire-level set of questions. These are questions that play out in every single place on the planet. I'll just tell you quickly about two stories drawn from recent headlines. In Boulder, Colorado, voters not too long ago approved a process to replace the private power company, literally the power company, the electric company Xcel, with a publicly owned utility that would forego profits and attend far more to climate change. Well, Xcel fought back, and Xcel has now put in play a ballot measure that would undermine or undo this municipalization. And so the citizen activists in Boulder who have been pushing this now literally have to fight the power in order to fight for power. In Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alabama, there's an organization on campus called, kind of menacingly, the Machine, and it draws from largely white sororities and fraternities on campus, and for decades, the Machine has dominated student government elections. Well now, recently, the Machine has started to get involved in actual city politics, and they've engineered the election of a former Machine member, a young, pro-business recent graduate to the Tuscaloosa city school board. Now, as I say, these are just two examples drawn almost at random from the headlines. Every day, there are thousands more like them. And you may like or dislike the efforts I'm describing here in Boulder or in Tuscaloosa, but you cannot help but admire the power literacy of the players involved, their skill. You cannot help but reckon with and recognize the command they have of the elemental questions of civic power — what objective, what strategy, what tactics, what is the terrain, who are your enemies, who are your allies?

11:17

Now I want you to return to thinking about that problem or that opportunity or that challenge in your city, and the thing it was that you want to fix or create in your city, and ask yourself, do you have command of these elemental questions of power? Could you put into practice effectively what it is that you know? This is the challenge and the opportunity for us.

11:45

We live in a time right now where in spite of globalization or perhaps because of globalization, all citizenship is ever more resonantly, powerfully local. Indeed, power in our time is flowing ever faster to the city. Here in the United States, the national government has tied itself up in partisan knots. Civic imagination and innovation and creativity are emerging from local ecosystems now and radiating outward, and this great innovation, this great wave of localism that's now arriving, and you see it in how people eat and work and share and buy and move and live their everyday lives, this isn't some precious parochialism, this isn't some retreat into insularity, no. This is emergent. The localism of our time is networked powerfully. And so, for instance, consider the ways that strategies for making cities more bike-friendly have spread so rapidly from Copenhagen to New York to Austin to Boston to Seattle. Think about how experiments in participatory budgeting, where everyday citizens get a chance to allocate and decide upon the allocation of city funds. Those experiments have spread from Porto Alegre, Brazil to here in New York City, to the wards of Chicago. Migrant workers from Rome to Los Angeles and many cities between are now organizing to stage strikes to remind the people who live in their cities what a day without immigrants would look like. In China, all across that country, members of the New Citizens' Movement are beginning to activate and organize to fight official corruption and graft, and they're drawing the ire of officials there, but they're also drawing the attention of anti-corruption activists all around the world. In Seattle, where I'm from, we've become part of a great global array of cities that are now working together bypassing government altogether, national government altogether, in order to try to meet the carbon reduction goals of the Kyoto Protocol. All of these citizens, united, are forming a web, a great archipelago of power that allows us to bypass brokenness and monopolies of control.

14:10

And our task now is to accelerate this work. Our task now is to bring more and more people into the fold of this work. That's why my organization, Citizen University, has undertaken a project now to create an everyman's curriculum in civic power. And this curriculum starts with this triad that I described earlier of values, systems and skills. And what I'd like to do is to invite all of you to help create this curriculum with the stories and the experiences and the challenges that each of you lives and faces, to create something powerfully collective. And I want to invite you in particular to try a simple exercise drawn from the early frameworks of this curriculum. I want you to write a narrative, a narrative from the future of your city, and you can date it, set it out one year from now, five years from now, a decade from now, a generation from now, and write it as a case study looking back, looking back at the change that you wanted in your city, looking back at the cause that you were championing, and describing the ways that that change and that cause came, in fact, to succeed. Describe the values of your fellow citizens that you activated, and the sense of moral purpose that you were able to stir. Recount all the different ways that you engaged the systems of government, of the marketplace, of social institutions, of faith organizations, of the media. Catalog all the skills you had to deploy, how to negotiate, how to advocate, how to frame issues, how to navigate diversity in conflict, all those skills that enabled you to bring folks on board and to overcome resistance. What you'll be doing when you write that narrative is you'll be discovering how to read power, and in the process, how to write power. So share what you write, do you what you write, and then share what you do. I invite you to literally share the narratives that you create on our Facebook page for Citizen University. But even beyond that, it's in the conversations that we have today all around the world in the simultaneous gatherings that are happening on this topic at this moment, and to think about how we can become one another's teachers and students in power. If we do that, then together we can make civics sexy again. Together, we can democratize democracy and make it safe again for amateurs. Together, we can create a great network of city that will be the most powerful collective laboratory for self-government this planet has ever seen. We have the power to do that.

17:07

Thank you very much.

17:09

(Applause)

Far too many Americans are illiterate in power — what it is, how it operates and why some people have it. As a result, those few who do understand power wield disproportionate influence over everyone else. “We need to make civics sexy again,” says civics educator Eric Liu. “As sexy as it was during the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement.”

About the speaker
Eric Liu · Civics educator

Eric Liu is founder of Citizen University, which teaches the art of powerful citizenship, and the executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program.

Eric Liu is founder of Citizen University, which teaches the art of powerful citizenship, and the executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program.