There are some techies who think that the cure-all for power imbalances or abuses is simply more data and transparency, and that tech networks are inherently beneficial.
If you don’t learn how to practice power, someone else will do it for you—in your name, on your turf, with your voice, and often against your interests.
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.
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.
What starts out as a random distribution always ends up in clumps: certain trees get more of the light initially, which enables them to get even more of the light from then on and to grow taller, while other trees become stunted in the shade or simply die. Scientists who study networks and complex systems call this “path dependence” and “emergence.” Small initial variations are amplified by positive feedback loops, sending energy (“ buzz,” “heat”) to certain paths of evolution but not others. Nodes in a network that attract more links early on, even if randomly (that is, independent of whether they “deserved” the early edge), emerge over time as the dominant nodes and drive the evolution of the system as a whole. This is how VHS beat Betamax, how Facebook beat Friendster, how Silicon Valley beat any other region.
What these studies show, in the aggregate, is that with greater relative power comes greater sociopathy: more self-centeredness, increased sensitivity to affront, a sense of entitlement, a belief that high status is not just deserved but natural, deep ignorance about people with less power, a lack of inhibition and respect for social norms.
People with low power, these studies indicate, are significantly more trusting than people with high power. Specifically, they are trusting of the people with high power. Chalk it up to wishful thinking or what psychologists call “motivated cognition,” but when experimental subjects are placed in low-power situations, they very much want to believe that their high-power counterparts are benevolent and worthy of trust. This hopefulness—not based on any particular evidence—arises mainly out of a desire to evade the discomfort of being at the mercy of the more powerful.
In the words of one study, by Rob Willer of Stanford University and several other scholars, “The more participants reported feeling powerless, the more they believed that economic inequality was fair and legitimate.”
In politics, power is usually seen as a zero-sum game—your gain has to be my loss, because there’s a fixed amount of power in the system. But that is a law of thermodynamics, not civics. Citizens in fact can create power out of thin air—without taking it from anyone else—and often do. There is no limit on the amount of power in a polity. Power is positive-sum, not zero-sum. That is because power emerges from the imagined as much as from the material. In fact, it emerges first from the imagined. The material sources of power—whether violence or bureaucratic pressure or financial incentive—are only the manifestation of what is imagined.
Trickle-down economics says the rich are “job creators” who must be coddled in the tax code and economic policy so that their wealth can make its way down to the rest of us. Middle-out economics says that the working and middle classes are the real job creators. It’s their demand that powers a great economy and it’s from their paychecks that the system generates lasting prosperity. To put it simply: When workers have more money, businesses have more customers. A virtuous cycle begins.
There is no such thing as a neutral human system. There is no such thing as an apolitical process. Every human system is evidence of human preference or bias. Every human system is evidence of choices made—and forfeited—about how to allocate and distribute power. Facebook’s system for deciding what stories are deemed “trending” in its News Feed is run partly by algorithms but also by human editors and curators. Conservatives complain those editors have a left-wing bias—and even the supposedly neutral algorithms are of course made by humans with bias, conscious or not. The body of judge-made law that gives our Constitution life is partly the product of highly technical tests and universal axioms applied to particular circumstances. But all those jargon-filled tests and axioms were fashioned by humans with bias. Constitutional law is not primarily an expression of justice; it is primarily an expression of power: who has the power to define “liberty” or “equal protection” or “speech” one way rather than another and to make that definition synonymous with “justice.”
If we were now to pen the “New Federalist Papers,” based on contemporary society and our accumulated national experience, we would be tempted to rail against the failures of democracy, capitalism, and citizenship. After all, to be ruthlessly pragmatic, those ideas aren’t delivering much “cash value”—literal or figurative—to the 99 percent today. But if we were being as candid and self-critical as the framers were, we would have to admit that we haven’t really tried democracy yet. We haven’t really tried capitalism yet. We haven’t really tried citizenship yet. And certainly not all at once.
As E. E. Schattschneider wrote in The Semisovereign People, “All that is necessary to produce the most painless revolution in history, the first revolution ever legalized and legitimized in advance, is to have a sufficient number of people do something not that much more difficult than to walk across the street on election day.”
• Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all ￼ You must change the game. • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate ￼ You must change the story. • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum ￼ You must change the equation. These are the three imperatives of the practice of power. You change the game by interrupting the cycle of self-perpetuating, compounding power. This means being able to diagnose the game as it is. It means identifying just which rules are rigged to reinforce the power of those who have power and the privilege of those who get the unearned benefit of power. And it means relentlessly swarming the status quo with moves that disrupt the strategy of the status-quo powers. You change the story by rewriting the social contract of the situation. That requires more than decrying the current social contract; it requires envisioning and depicting an alternative. From there, you activate or “weaponize” your alternative story of the social contract—the new deal—by using it as the basis for all your organizing. And then you pick an emblematic battle that can be understood as a fable for your entire cause. You change the equation by creating power in positive-sum ways. First, you act exponentially by setting off contagions of attitude and action. Next, you design experiences of mutual aid and reciprocity that remind people of their inherent power and alert people not to give it away heedlessly. And finally, you perform power. You act it out, then change the theater of power by deploying the power of theater.
The radical-as-conservative stance is a strategy that made sense for the Seneca Falls organizers. For one thing, it calls to mind a key tactic later taught by the twentieth-century organizer Saul Alinsky: make the other side live up to its own book of rules. More broadly, it calls to mind Sun Tzu’s advice to attack not the enemy but the enemy’s strategy. That is the very essence of how to change a game. In a self-consciously democratic republic run by men, the core strategy of dominance is control of the meaning of “normal” citizenship. Seneca Falls contested that strategy the way a martial artist flips her opponent: by using his own energy and force against him. But fundamentally this stance was dictated by the sober inventory these proto-feminists had taken of their own power. They had to fight with ideas and principles as their weapons—with the country’s original ideas and principles—because at the time they did not yet have the people, the money, the allies in government, the social norms, or other sources of power.
Sometimes the situation will demand that you expand the field of conflict, so that others start seeing your fight as theirs, or at least usefully linked to theirs. Other times it demands that you contract the field, so that people who might otherwise be opposed to you don’t feel a need to get involved. This changes continuously.
The next dimension of adjusting the arena to your advantage is to decide whether to play an inside or outside game. There are two meanings to this. First, whether you want the decision-making to happen in private or in public. Second, whether to identify yourself as an insider or an outsider.
Many followers of Bernie Sanders in 2016 were white, educated, and upper-middle class. Yet they wanted revolution and identified as alienated outsiders. Meanwhile, millions of working-class right-leaning voters, for whom the economic system has decidedly not worked, have mobilized not around economic justice but around identity politics—religious liberty, hostility to immigration, resistance to a diversifying culture. This system—the cultural system that maintains straight Christian whiteness as Americanness—still “works for them,” at least for the time being. These citizens want to compensate for the reality that they’ve become economic outsiders with the belief that they are still identity insiders.
The third and final dimension of adjusting the arena is depth: deciding whether to change the institutional parameters you’ve inherited—or to eradicate and replace them at the root. When you are working against an entrenched power structure or in a situation where an imbalance of power has been in place for a long time, it helps to be able to distinguish between deep power and shallow power—and it is vital to decide which one is going to be the focus of your energy. Shallow power is trying to get police departments to do better training in communities of color. Deep power is trying to disarm, defund, and demilitarize the police. Shallow power is fighting over whether the top rate of the federal income tax should be somewhat lower or higher. Deep power is fighting to abolish the federal income tax. Shallow power is pushing to make it less onerous to unionize non-union workplaces. Deep power is inventing brand-new non-union vehicles for organizing workers.
One of Frank’s go-to phrases as a politician (with a nod to the comedian Henny Youngman) was, “Compared to what?” Whenever asked how he felt about a legislative proposal or a perhaps unsatisfying compromise, he would reply, “Compared to what?” His snarky but serious point was that politics is a choice among actionable alternatives. And the job of the powerful citizen is to put actionable alternatives on the table.
“Incrementalism is not the enemy of militancy; it is often the only means of expressing it.” But then something like the inverse is also true: militancy is not the enemy of gradual progress; it is often the only means of achieving it.
There are two broad categories of rules to pay attention to: agenda-setting rules, and rent-seeking rules. Agenda-setting rules are those that define what is even in play and what can be considered for action. Rent-seeking rules are those that provide certain privileged people unearned, continuous advantages and benefits just for being privileged—what economists call “rents,” meaning rewards without work. The key to changing both kinds of rules is transparency—and attention. You have to be able to see them. And you have to want to see them.
This is a matter of what gets onto the agenda—and what doesn’t. Social scientist Steven Lukes describes this as “the three faces of power.” The first is the formal agenda for action, say, at a city-council meeting. This is the docket. The second face is what council members do not include on the agenda because some interest groups or powerful individuals worked hard to block or to preempt them. This is what’s between the lines of the docket. The third face is the prevailing ideology. In a society that believes in market capitalism or white supremacy, ideology has the power to keep some things—such as “state ownership of the means of production” or “African American suffrage”—completely off the table. This is the vocabulary of the docket. Being able to truly read an agenda means being able to read all three faces of rule-making power: the docket as printed; what’s missing or between the lines of the docket; and the very language of the docket, which “rules in” or “rules out” certain approaches as a matter of conventional belief. All three create opportunities for challenge. To challenge a “rigged game” at this level means to ensure that what’s already on the docket goes your way and that what’s not on the docket (but should be) gets placed there.
Maneuver warfare, in layman’s terms, means relying on mobility, surprise, and combined forces to defeat the opposition. Or, as the United States Marine Corps puts it: “to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”
the “OODA loop.” Conflict, Boyd said, is a continuous loop of observation, orientation, decision, and action. You observe the opponent. You orient yourself to the terrain. You decide how to move based on that orientation. You act. At that point, circumstances change and you start again. The more rapidly you can move through this cycle, the more likely you are to gain an edge on your adversary. And that initial edge compounds as the conflict unfolds, building with each OODA loop, until the adversary loses cohesion and either panics or collapses. “Boyd-cycle” the enemy and you win. Throughout, you are seeking to redirect the other side’s energy and force rather than confront it head-on. This is true whether you are a pilot in a dogfight, an infantry commander in a land skirmish—or an activist mobilizing citizens against an entrenched or superior power. Maneuver is more than simple evasiveness or nimbleness. It is an approach to conflict in which you attack not the forces but the strategy of your adversary.
Coordinating with activists in other states and cities with direct democracy, we are working to seed gun-responsibility ballot measures across the country—and to force the NRA into a wide-open game of Whac-A-Mole. Now, in multiple jurisdictions at once, the gun lobby has to argue against common-sense measures before an entire electorate and not just a handful of captured legislators. That’s an expensive, sprawling proposition. And it will expose the fact that the NRA has less money than people think, less capacity to play outside of controlled state capitals, and less command over its own membership.
You can’t beat something with nothing. You have to expand the public’s sense of what’s possible—by asking provocative and audacious what if questions; by describing a better way in detail; and by offering a new values-based definition of what ought to be considered “normal.”
One of Gloria Steinem’s techniques, honed over decades of activism, is simple reversal. When presented with a frame of thought or judgment that implicitly assigns privilege to men or disadvantage to women, she asks what it would look like if the gender roles were reversed. Steinem started this in the 1970s with an essay called “If Men Could Menstruate” (she imagines at length how men would celebrate menstruation, make it the center of a manhood ritual, honor it in public spaces, and favor it in federal policy).
the demographic “silver tsunami” now transforming America: the aging boom driven by the life cycle of the largely white Baby Boom. What she has also realized, though, is that the people who will be caring for that aging population are largely nonwhite. This could portend an epic clash of generations and cultures.
Ganz uses a method for organizing that centers on three nested narratives: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. He teaches organizers entering into any setting to start not with policy proposals or high concepts like justice but with biographies—their own, and those of the people they hope to mobilize. What are the stories you tell about yourself? Why do you tell them that way? How can we find connections across our stories of origin that build trust and common cause? That work then flows into the story of us: the collective narratives of challenge, choice, and purpose that emerge from any community—that, in fact, help define it. This is how in a place like New Orleans after the flood or Detroit after the crash, residents can develop a shared identity of resilience and reinvention. It’s how anti–Common Core activists nationwide have been able to forge a cross-ideological crusade of parents and teachers tired of standardized-testing regimes that crush creativity and stifle liberty. Once that shared narrative is activated, the organizer can connect it to the fierce urgency of now—a story about why this is the “movement moment,” when individual and collective motivations converge, and when action is needed and possible. Why this and no other time is the time for change. This is how “Yes We Can” became more than a slogan in 2008, as “Morning in America” did in 1980. Or “Make America Great Again” in 2016. Of these three stories, the middle—about us—is crucial. Any effort to exercise citizen power depends on creating new answers to the question: Who is “us”?
Power justifies itself, in countless small ways. But one of the big ways it does so is by creating an ideological narrative about how things got to be this way—and what must now change. These narratives are more than technical explanations. They are epic morality tales, and they typically follow this sequence: Paradise ￼ Paradise Lost ￼ Paradise Redeemed They start with an ideal alignment of values and institutions that existed “once upon a time.” They describe how that ideal was attacked from without and betrayed from within. Then they make clear that the only way people can get what they universally want—happiness and a fair shot—is to realign people, money, ideas, social norms, and other sources of power back to the old array. To fight and to challenge the status quo.
What converts an interested bystander into an active citizen? The researcher Kate Krontiris recently led a fascinating research project for Google on this question. It focused on the nearly 50 percent of Americans who are aware of issues but who rarely voice their opinions or take concrete action. (This is in contrast to the 15 percent who are outright disengaged and the 35 percent who are more actively engaged.) These interested bystanders, Krontiris and her colleagues found, were most likely to get involved if they’d had prior personal experience on the issue, could get emotional fulfillment from engaging, or believed their own interests were at stake. Narrative—especially narrative with symbolic heft—is a way to weave together all three of those motivations and build coalitions that change society.
Society becomes how you behave. That is a statement of network science: your behaviors and attitudes are contagious, rapidly and often imperceptibly. It is also a statement of ethics: your behaviors and attitudes are contagious, rapidly and often imperceptibly. The takeaway, either way, is that small actions (and omissions) compound. When you choose compassion or contempt, courtesy or discourtesy, civility or incivility, you begin a cascade of mimicry.
the skills required for civic power more nearly resemble those of an epidemiologist: the ability to read a map of the spread of a virus, or to locate the concentrated centers of its activity, or to focus energy on containing it. But of course, in civic power, the virus isn’t always a disease—it might be an economic trend, or a spate of violence, or a growing social consensus on an issue. No matter what it is, if it’s happening, we can sense it. All of us can try to think, see, and act like an epidemiologist.
In a complex system, local insight is the key to adaptability. Trust people closest to the problem to come up with the most useful ways to solve the problem—indeed, to see it.
A democracy governs by majority rule, but it is moved by minority will. In every instance of significant civic change, it is the majority that bends to a minority. When we talk of the “will of the people” or ask whether there is “popular will” for change, we are never talking about all the people or even most of them. We are always talking about a minority—an activated, effective minority of people who act bigger than they are, change the agenda and narrative, and eventually move attitudes and beliefs enough to get a numerical majority of citizens to agree with or at least tolerate their stance. According to voter turnout data from the 2016 presidential primaries, just 9 percent of all Americans made Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the major-party nominees. In most local elections in the United States, the turnout of eligible voters ranges from single digits to 20 percent. They are the ones who decide. Their preferences advance. The minority that shows up, goes up.
For all the anger in our political culture today, it is not rage that most threatens the legitimacy of our democracy. Rage is healthy even when it is ugly. It forces reckoning. You can respond to rage, whether it comes from the left or right or the disenfranchised unaligned, with a call to action: Don’t get mad; get power. What’s far more threatening than rage is cynicism. Cynicism is self-confirming and self-fulfilling. Distrust of others and of our institutions spreads rapidly because it gives other people—gives you—permission to be unworthy of trust. Cynicism denies the possibility of remedy or the need for responsibility. Worst of all, it blinds us to this central truth: We can evolve. We have evolved. We are still evolving.
Ethics without power is philosophy. Power without ethics is sociopathy. The effective citizen practices both ethics and power. The effective citizen has integrity, in this sense of integration, of a wholeness greater than the parts.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned that as the economy and government of America got bigger, citizens could become smaller: less practiced in the forms of everyday power, more dependent on vast distant social machines, more isolated and atomized—and therefore more susceptible to despotism. He warned that if the “habits of the heart” fed by civic clubs and active self-government evaporated, citizens would regress to pure egoism. They would stop thinking about things greater than their immediate circle. Public life would disappear. And that would only accelerate their own disempowerment. This is painfully close to a description of the United States since Trump and Europe since Brexit. And the only way to reverse this vicious cycle of retreat and atrophy is to reverse it: to find a sense of purpose that is greater than the self, and to exercise power with others and for others in democratic life. To rediscover those habits of the heart, however, we have to cultivate a habit that precedes all this: being honest, especially with ourselves.
Every public policy should be put to a simple test in a politics against monopoly: Does it enable insiders to corner the market on opportunity and voice? Does it reward the already privileged and entrenched for being privileged and entrenched? If so, unwind it. But put aside policy. Every act of power in your own civic life, individual or collective, should be put to a similar test: Are your actions meant to get more people onto the economic and political playing field? Or to protect those who today dominate the game?
In his classic, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer examined the psychology of mass movements and described how in times of great turbulence, what many seek is not freedom but “freedom from freedom.” They want someone else to be responsible, both in the sense of “at fault” and in the sense of “accountable.” They become entranced by strongmen who will wield power in our name. Hoffer wrote in the wake of Nazism and fascism and in the midst of the Cold War. But he describes a strong current of our own times and the culture of Trumpism. Our choice is not about the presidency or any election. It is about whether we as free people respond to a sense of powerlessness by claiming our full actual power—or by surrendering it altogether. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” the civil rights activist Ella Baker once said. Are we strong people? We in the United States have an opportunity now to create the planet’s first mass multicultural democratic republic. Ancient Athens was a democracy but not mass, multicultural, or a republic. Rome’s republic was multicultural and democratic but not mass. The Soviet Union was mass, multicultural, and a republic but not democratic. No nation has ever hit all four marks. Including the United States. And it is unclear whether the United States will. What is certain is that we are at the birthing of a new America: the beautiful, painful, bloody arrival of a new majority that does not call itself white. This new America is arriving at precisely the same time when our national government is locked in sclerosis, our economy is warped to send prosperity to the already prosperous, and our sense of shared memory and common culture is dissipating. That all these circumstances are converging now guarantees nothing except contest and conflict. So then: Do you dare integrate character and power? Do you dare work to ensure that more people can participate in power? Do you dare define self-interest as mutual interest?