Republicans spent the past eight years opposing President Obama, and now Democrats are calling for “resistance” against President Trump. But opposition alone isn’t enough to win converts to a cause or enact a political agenda, argues Eric Liu, the founder of the non-profit Citizen University and author of the new book You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.
Instead, Liu, who served as an aide to President Bill Clinton and describes himself as progressive, argues that anyone looking to create enduring political movements must outline an alternative narrative of what life should look like, and work to sell people on that vision. His book draws lessons from case studies across the ideological spectrum, from fossil-fuel divestment to gun-rights activism, rooted in local and national action alike.
I recently spoke with Liu about his book and the state of civic engagement and political activism under the Trump administration. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Clare Foran: The premise of the book is that average citizens have more power than they realize to bring about political change. But you note that there are reasons to believe the system is rigged—arguing in the book that Congress is walled off from reform and that the demands of the rich typically win out in American politics—and you talk about a creeping public apathy. How can all these things be true at the same time?
Eric Liu: The reality of our time is that political and economic inequality have rigged the game in favor of the already privileged. But if you take the time to understand how that came about in the first place, then you can realize that it’s a man-made state of affairs that can be re-made.
There are plenty of real-world examples of how citizens can exercise bottom-up power to change the rules of that game. There’s been the Arab Spring, the Brexit, and surges of anti-government protest from Spain to South Korea. And then in the United States, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and now the populist-nationalist surge that got Donald Trump elected. These are all part of the same shift in power.
You can’t have decades of rising inequality in a country without having a profound counter-reaction. I think right now we are in the age of counter-reaction, both from the left and the right. I think that’s what propelled Trump to office, and now we are seeing his administration provoke a counter-reaction from the left.
Foran: How effective do you think Trump has been at diagnosing problems in American politics? And do you think that the political left has paid enough attention?
Liu: To start, there’s trade. Trump has talked about the ways transnational capitalism has undermined nation-based labor. That’s happening all around the world, but here in the United States we hadn’t been having much of a debate about it in recent years. Trump and Bernie Sanders both forced that debate.
At a minimum, Trump has been usefully honest in the ways he has talked about the problems with our campaign finance system, like his comments about how he bought access to politicians throughout his career as a business man.
But one thing that Trump’s political rise has laid bare that I think the left would be wise to pay more attention to is that many Americans are willing to support a political leader who denigrates American traditions and democratic norms. Trump has attacked the press, and he has attacked the judiciary, but for many Americans that wasn’t disqualifying in a president. I think the message is that so many millions of Americans have felt so disenfranchised and helpless for so long, that they’re just glad to see somebody give the finger to the system.
Foran: You mean a lot of people believe there’s no reason to venerate American institutions because they feel like those institutions have done nothing, or little, to help them?
Liu: Yes, I think so. I think it shows how profoundly the political system has failed so many Americans. But it also shows how deep frustration on the part of voters can translate into political power when it animates people to take action, like voting for Trump.
Foran: How would you critique the current activism and civic engagement—including marches, rallies, and protests—we’ve seen since the election?
Liu: I think the power of that activism is that it’s surging up without any kind of formal, top-down, or planned mechanism. The fact that it’s diffuse and decentralized is a strength, in my view. There needn’t be a central command driving the resistance. But I also think that resistance is not enough. Protest is necessary, but insufficient. What people need to remember to do, wherever they are in the civic ecosystem, is tell a story of an affirmative alternative.
I think the left may be in danger of overlooking the need to offer an affirmative economic story that people believe and want to be part of. Right now, the left is attacking Trump, but it isn’t really telling a story of what a progressive populist economy would look like. You can’t beat something with nothing. You have to offer a something else.
Foran: Do you think that conservatives have deployed grassroots activism more effectively than liberals, and what do you think liberals can learn from conservative activism like the Tea Party movement?
Liu: I’m not a Tea Party supporter. But the Tea Party, I believe, recognized the power of having a story. A story that explains how we got here, why we’re getting screwed, and what we need to do next. As simple as that sounds, that’s so crucial and so often overlooked. The second thing that the Tea Party can teach is the power of peer-to-peer lateral organizing. There are a lot of people on the left who later said, “Oh the Tea Party is just astroturf, it’s the Koch Brothers propping this up.” And it may be true that down the road the movement became co-opted by establishment money, but in its origins it was as spontaneous as a peer-to-peer self-organizing movement as we’ve seen in modern politics.
When Obama got elected, a lot of people on the left looked at him as a savior. Trump famously said that he “alone” would fix things, but I think people believed that of Obama too. And many of the people who helped elect him did not do the work of continuing to organize and building face-to-face relationships in the places where the left did not already dominate. They let the work and infrastructure that helped deliver his victory atrophy. This is a lesson that citizens both on the left and right have to continually re-learn.
Foran: Your book strikes an optimistic tone by arguing that anyone can become empowered to bring about political change. Can you elaborate on why you feel optimistic right now?
Liu: I think it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Right now, people are responding and mobilizing in reaction to threats to our democracy, and it’s not just the left that’s responding. Libertarians are finding that there’s heightened interest in their approach to politics. Reform conservatives are realizing that if they were ever going to take seriously any notion of limited government that they have to fight creeping authoritarianism under this administration. All of that shows that our democracy is still alive and functioning, and that working to defend it is not a partisan project. That’s why I’m an optimist.
Foran: Do you think there’s a risk in being overly optimistic? At what point does that become an obstacle to accurately seeing reality as it really is?
Liu: Optimism to me is the result of a clear-eyed assessment of how bad things are, and then finding the reasons why you can and will be able to remedy what’s ill and broken. So, I’m not saying we should kid ourselves. There is so much that is sick and broken in our politics. But optimism is important, too. People need to remember that they can be, and are, part of something greater than themselves. You can only sustain rage for so long, and that’s true even for liberals right now reacting to Donald Trump and his administration. What is more durable and renewable as a source for affirmative power building is a sense of purpose and ultimately hope—and coupling that with a literacy in power: knowing how to organize and activate other people for change.
That’s how this country has renewed itself in periods of decline. The civil-rights movement had grim and dark chapters, but every one of its catalytic leaders who were organizing around civil rights in the 1960s did so with a spirit of optimism and joy, in quoting the American creed, believing in it, venerating it, and saying we’re going to redeem it.
In the book, I talk about how power compounds, it justifies itself, and it is infinite. Power compounds by making the already powerful even more powerful, and it justifies itself as people in power find ways of making arguments to sustain and legitimize their power. Those two factors alone could create a doom-loop of power becoming increasingly concentrated, but what saves us is that power is also infinite. Power is something that any one of us can create. And civic power is not zero-sum. So, there can be protests and activism on the political left, and on the political right, and they won’t cancel each other out or become self-defeating. Instead, that could end up generating more civic engagement and a more vibrant democracy overall.