Reimagining What It Means to Be Powerful

April 20, 2017  • Eric Liu

Eric Liu is the director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. Below is an excerpt from his new book, You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.

Why do most people think power is a dirty word? Because they think it means coercion and violence. They associate it with the worst in human nature. And there’s no question that power can involve all those forms of domination, and more. Lord Acton’s dictum — that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—is the world’s most famous statement on power because it accords with our deep intuitions.

But I want to propose a different way of seeing power. In fact, I want to propose a different way of seeing. Though it may not seem as intuitive as Acton’s dictum, what I offer is perhaps more true than intuition, in the way that facts of nature like heat or light or weight are true well before we sense them — indeed, whether we ever sense them at all.

What I am saying is that power is a gift.

How we see is shaped partly by language, especially the metaphors we use. For example, I have said that power is like fire: inherently neither good nor evil, but deployable for both and thus a phenomenon to understand and master. That metaphor treats power as a tool. It suggests that power doesn’t corrupt character so much as it reveals it: What will you do with this flame?

Here is another metaphor: power is like water. It flows all around us at all times. Sometimes it takes the liquid form of politics-in-action, a turbulent flow with crosscurrents and strong undertows. Sometimes it takes the solid form of settled law: policy is power frozen. Sometimes it is like vapor in the air, invisibly shaping the climate and our behavior in just the way beliefs or ideology or emotions do.

But how we see is not just a matter of language. It is also a matter of moral imagination. Whether you conceptualize power as fire, water, mass, force, or something else altogether, the deepest truth is that we the people are not merely the passive receptacles or objects of power. We are the very source of power. We do not just receive power as it passes through us or acts upon us. We generate it. We give it.

What I am saying is that power is a gift.

This is the most basic reason that you’re more powerful than you think. And it is a notion that, to some, sounds terribly naïve or wrongheaded. So let me explain.

True power demands that those who hold it, ever so briefly, must do so for others.

Power is a gift in several senses. First, it is something that emanates from us, that inheres in us. There is a religious way to put this, and many thoughtful believers would describe the life force that God puts in each of us — a force that enables us to exist, and then to make and repair the world — as a sacred gift. This is the power to create, and as the theologian Andy Crouch has written so eloquently, it has not the imperative spirit of “Make it so” but the invitational spirit of “Let there be.” The power of genesis is not to oppress but to actualize: to spark flourishing. I happen not to have been raised in any faith tradition. But in my own secular-spiritual American brand of civic religion — based on the texts and acts of our founding creed — I believe that human dignity requires freedom and the power to make of oneself and one’s world all that one can. Such power is a gift, a human birthright. Citizenship of the United States, for those of us with the dumb luck to have been born into it, wraps that universal gift in a particular form of privilege—unearned at birth, perhaps, but redeemable by a lifetime of deeds and contributions.

Second, power is a gift in the sense of a talent — and more than that, an obligation to pass the talent on. When we say someone is a gifted painter or singer or runner or healer, we mean she has been given something special and precious. We also imply she has a responsibility to cultivate and to share that something special with the world. She has been endowed not only with inalienable rights but also inalienable duties.

A kind of circulation is at work here, and it is perpetual. Lewis Hyde, in his classic bookThe Gift, describes the making of true art as an endless cycle of gift exchange and warns about the dangers of treating art and creativity as commodities. A commodity mindset deadens human bonds of trust and affection. In Hyde’s view, talent is not primarily a product for the market. It is first a gift for humanity. And the same holds for power. True power, which recycles endlessly, demands that those who hold it, ever so briefly, must do so for others.

The third, most literal, and most important way that power is a gift is simply that we give it. I cannot underscore that enough. We give it. Every person and institution with power in our society today has it because we give it to them. I know it does not feel that way. Most of us don’t remember actively giving power to those people and institutions. But we did. We do.

Trump “took” power, yes. But make no mistake: we made him possible.

Whether you live in a democracy that’s become sclerotic and corrupt, like ours, or an authoritarian society that wants to control what you do and learn, it is important to remember that others don’t take our power so much as we give it away. We give it away by not organizing or participating, out of a fatalistic sense that it doesn’t matter, that “my vote won’t count anyway.” But mark well: there is no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting — to hand power to others, whose interests may be inimical to your own. And not organizing is organizing — for the people who mean to dominate you.

Consider every form of power I listed earlier: force, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, numbers. Every one originates from us. From you. That doesn’t mean you can make yourself a millionaire by wishing it so. It does mean that money, which takes the form of a symbol, is an agreement between you, me, and the world to have that symbol mean something. If you refuse agreement, if you no longer honor promises made in that symbol, you are rediscovering your power. That is true whether you are an individual or a sovereign state.

No one can wield power except as others yield power.

Consider Donald Trump. This man gained power because — and only because — we gave it to him. We gave him our attention, our hope, our belief, our outrage, our fear, our anxiety. Many gave him their own unused, never-activated potential as change agents. We together gave him a vast voice and an omnipresent face because we lent him our many ears and our many eyes.

Trump “took” power, yes, in the sense that he initiated the exchange and invited it. He provoked us to yield power. But make no mistake: we made him possible. And it’s not just Trump. The same dynamic unfolded for Barack Obama in 2008. Candidate Obama had tried to remind us that “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.” But we did not have the courage of his convictions. We gave him our power, we invested our agency in him, and then many were disappointed when as president he alone could not deliver all that had been hoped for.

That we give power to make the powerful is of course a truth of human relations, not just of presidential politics. It is true with our peers and colleagues, with our friends and relatives. And it is true in everyday civic life, from the neighborhood level up. No one can wield power except as others yield power. The power that anyone holds over us originates with us — and can ultimately be reclaimed or redirected by us.

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