Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power


Eric Liu is a former speechwriter for then-president Bill Clinton and founder of ‘Citizen University’ which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship.


We are currently confronted with an apathy for power – people are afraid to acknowledge the word and see it as evil. But power is simply the capacity to have others do what you want them to. People have delegated to a professional political class – lobbyists and media managers who hold the power to themselves and happily keep the rest of us ignorant. When a politician retires, they join a business and continue to use their political contacts to wield power. Those on the extreme left think only corporations wield power, and those on the far right think the government itself has too much power, while others with too little power will just think they deserve their political weakness. Eric wants us all to learn about power in civics class, to counter the ignorance or apathy most of us feel.

Think of your city, and something you want to achieve with it – what to do with a piece of abandoned land for example. The types of power at play could be financial, people, informational, misinformation, the threat of force. How could you use or neutralise these to get what you want? Cities are also one of the most interesting forms of power remaining. Federal politics has become so partisan and gridlocked that it is difficult to change anything. In contrast cities are becoming more dynamic, and good ideas spreading faster from one city to the next. For example, local governments are implementing programs to reduce greenhouse emissions, and bypassing the difficulties of federal government.

Eric’s organisation “Citizen University” is building a curriculum of power – to educate lay people in power. He wants us to help build the curriculum, by imagining the future of our city if we could implement our pet project. By looking from that future point back at how it got there we can think about how to achieve it. If we can make civics sexy again we can make it safe for amateurs and allow us to self-govern.

My Thoughts

He had a good start about a general apathy and fear of power that created a political class. His talk had plenty of examples of power, however none of them seemed to go anywhere (hence they were omitted in the summary). The ending of the talk was also disappointing – this talk contained very little discussion of power and how to use / achieve it. It was more a call to arms for people to get interested in power.

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