Eric Liu: You're More Powerful Than You Think

What happens when a reasonable constitutionalist meets a reasonable progressive? A useful conversation ensues.

Eric Liu, CEO of Citizenship University and author of You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen, joined Glenn in studio to discuss the destructive nature of politics and how to push back against a rigged system.

Enjoy the complimentary clip or read the transcript for details.

GLENN: Eric Liu is a new friend. We started to get to know each other maybe two months ago. He came down from his hometown of Seattle, which is also my hometown.

He is a CEO of Citizenship University. He teaches civics at the University of Washington. Just that is enough to say, I don't think we're going to have a lot in common.


GLENN: He is -- he was described by a mutual friend of ours, Matt Kibbe, as a progressive who wants to talk to the other side. And I -- I sat down in my office with Eric, and I said, "This is going to be an interesting conversation." And you -- you pretty much, if I remember correctly, started the conversation with, I'm not an early 20th century American progressive.

Is that -- am I remembering that right? Or did I hear that in my --

ERIC: Well, you asked if I was.

GLENN: Yes. And so your answer was?

ERIC: Yeah.

Well, my answer was, I'm a progressive in the sense simply that I believe you can't just let things be. I think that society, a community, a political system, an economy is like a garden. You know, when you leave things be, for a while, things grow awesome. They're great. Right? They grow like gangbusters.

But after a certain point, noxious weeds take over, and they start to kill the whole thing. After a little while of letting things go, the garden tips over and it dies.

GLENN: Well, there's a difference between that and to use your garden -- let me take it to a farm. Theodore Roosevelt. So I'll take it out of the Republicans. Talked about breeding of humans, in compared to breeding like cattle, because noxious weeds -- people will marry, and they're too stupid to know who to marry and who not to marry. I mean, there is -- there is a place to where the farmer or the rancher takes it too far.

ERIC: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I think, you know, there's a good wide open space between that vision of, hey, we're citizen gardeners. We own responsibility for making sure that we tend, that we weed, that we see the plot between that. And eugenics. You know, that whole world view --

GLENN: Yes. Yeah.

STU: Just a personal thing for us. But would you mind using an analogy that isn't related to vegetables? We're not familiar.

ERIC: You don't get what I'm talking about?

STU: Yeah, we just don't understand.

GLENN: He's a vegetarian and still doesn't understand them. He hates the fact that he's a vegetarian.

You write, 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 if I can summarize, a couple things that you say: There are three laws of power. The first, power concentrates, that it feeds itself and it compounds, as does powerlessness. Second, power justifies itself. People invent stories to legitimatize the power that they have. And third, power is infinite. There is no inherit limit to the amount of power people can create.

Take me through those three points.

ERIC: Yeah. These are pretty fundamental to any understanding, I think, of whether you're on the right or the left, how we live in this incredible age right now of bottom-up citizen power. People all across-the-board are knocking over entrenched monopolies, knocking over entrenched systems of status quo. And so when you look at those three laws, number one, power concentrates. You know, when you have it, you tend to get more.

GLENN: Yeah.

ERIC: When you don't have it, you tend to get less. Right? And that plays out in economic terms, in terms of the rich get richer and so forth. But it's also political.

GLENN: You see it honestly with the conservatives. Progressives have control of much of the media, and the conservatives struggle to have a toehold in that media. And we seem to get less and less.

ERIC: Well, I think that's right. I mean, I think there is a way in which -- okay. So that's number one: Power concentrates.


ERIC: But what you're touching on is also law number two: Power justifies itself, right? So people who tend to be in power, and from your perspective, that's progressives in the media. In other times in American history --

GLENN: Well, let's take it in your field, I mean, in the university, you can't tell me that you think that progressives don't control the universities and manipulate and justify itself?

ERIC: Well, I think progressives dominate the academy. Progressives dominate the media.

GLENN: Yeah.

ERIC: But domination is one thing. It's justifying itself as telling these just so stories about why that ought to be so. Right?

GLENN: Correct.

ERIC: And so an example I'll use more from the left is the classic case is trickle-down economics. To me, the idea that people who are already wealthy and already privileged telling you, you've got to take good care of us, man. You've got to coddle us and make sure you give us nice tax breaks because that's the only way any of my wealth is going to leak down to the rest of you, right?

Economic theory tells you, there's not actually a whole lot of truth to that. But it's a story. It's a way of justifying people having what they have. Right?

White supremacy has always been that kind of story line. You know, that, hey, look, whites are better and more suited for governing and governing themselves and running the show than non-whites, so this just ought to be the way it is. Right? You non-whites ought not to be kind of crowding into the public square.

So if all you had were these two laws here, that power compounds and it justifies itself, you get into a pretty grim doom loop. Right? You get into a situation -- well, you get into a dictatorial authoritarian situation. The only thing that busts you out of that doom loop is law number three, which is that power is infinite. And that people, wherever they are, even if they're outside of those circles of concentrated power, can generate new countervailing power out of thin air, simply by organizing.

And, you know, I actually on the road have been completely consistent in saying exhibit A is the Tea Party. The Tea Party, 2010, arrived without clout, without connections, without permission, without anybody saying, "Hey, go on and kind of lead a movement here to challenge the entrenched status quo in both parties." But these people remembered that they had infinite power, and that if they simply began to organize with another, which is simply asking one other human to join you in a common endeavor and say, you know what, let's make some plans here. Let's get on a common message. Let's do some things together. They began fundamentally to change the game, right?

And I think this age that we're in right now is one that connects the Tea Party, with Occupy Wall Street. With $15 an hour. With Black Lives Matter.

You may think, wow, all these people. I don't agree with all these people. But the reality is, all of them are remembering that in this bottom-up way, citizens can exercise far more clout and muscle than most of the time we remember we have.

GLENN: So this is -- and I know this audience is -- is feeling it. And I say this in the spirit of just defining where we are. Okay?

As I'm listening to you and I heard about, you know, trickle-down economics, I wanted immediately to stop and battle you on that.

ERIC: Yeah.

GLENN: There's several things that you said that I immediately wanted to say, no.


STU: That's okay though.

GLENN: It's okay. It's okay. But that's where we get lost. Because we don't listen -- we don't let the other person finish. And so we're not listening to each other.

But let me -- instead of battling on those things, let me take you here on that. I agree with your three points. And I agree with you on the last point. And I -- you know, I -- I'm sorry, I have to say it, but not only power is infinite, with power comes money too. Money is infinite. So we spend so much time telling people, sit down, shut up, to protect your own power. Okay?

And I can't -- you can't do it because that guy is in your way. You can't make money because that guy has it all. Money and power. They're usually put together. And they are infinite. As we see in Silicon Valley. You can dream, you can do. It's the idea of America.

Here's the thing that I want to get to on this -- on this power: There are progressives on both sides of the aisle. There are progressives that are Republicans, progressives that are Democrats. And the -- the original idea was either fascism in the early 20th century. They thought fascism and communism was neat. So the early guys were, who is going to control the cows? Who is going to be the rancher on the cows? Who is going to tell these dummies that don't get it how to live their life? We'll protect them, and we'll have the power.

And so there's fascists, and there's communists, if you will. Both of them end the same way in authoritarianism.

How do we get to a point to where the people who are truly constitutionalists -- this is what makes us different. What the progressives started in the early 20th century is just to bring us back to the European model. Look what's happening in France: Communism or fascism. Forty percent is voting for fascism or communism. That's craziness.

How do we get to the point to where we can say, "I want you to -- I want you to have the power that you want. I want you to have all the success that you want." But I -- I don't want you telling me what success I can have or what I have to believe or what line I have to tow. I don't want control of your life. I want -- I want 330 million experiments happening that will pop up, and I'll go, "My gosh, look at that life. I'd like to pattern my life after that." Instead of somebody trying to cookie-cutter us all. And I think that's what a lot of people on the left are feeling, especially youth. They're seeing that -- that -- that current running through the right, that says, I want a strongman. And they miss the strongman on the left.

So how do reasonable people come together in the middle that are saying, "Eric, I love you and I respect you and I don't have a problem. Don't control my life. I won't control your life."

ERIC: So I want to start with appreciating what you said at the outset, which was, there were three or four moments when I was speaking earlier where you just wanted to hop up and say no. Right?

I think that's huge. I don't want to just kind of skip past that. I think it's really worth naming that. And I'm sure many of your listeners are like, no.

JEFFY: A couple of people in the room.


ERIC: Yeah, I'm sure. So I think that ability to hear that inside yourself, to kind of sit with that and say, "Hold on. Let's let this play out."

GLENN: And not -- and hang on. And not stew on that like, okay. I got to wait until he stops. I got to remember this.

JEFFY: That's hard. That's hard.

GLENN: Because I couldn't remember -- I couldn't remember -- I know there were three or four things that I thought of that I wanted to say no. But it's stop yourself and let it go. And listen to the other side. That's really hard.

ERIC: That verb right there, man. I think politics, especially in DC, is filled with what I call debaters listening. Right?


ERIC: You're just listening inasmuch as you need to get the quick gist of what the guy is saying. And then your wheels are spinning, how am I going to pound him back? How am I going to destroy what he just said, right?


STU: Yep.

ERIC: And what I'm talking about is basically citizens listening.


ERIC: Like humans actually full-body listening. Right? And checking yourself and saying, okay. Before I react -- I know my talking points I'm going to kind of wheel out here. Right? And the same thing just happened for me.

GLENN: I could see it.

ERIC: You were describing this vision of what you're articulating. You know, you're describing progressivism as top-down, cookie-cutter, controlling either fascist or communist, you know, the state solves everything or tries to solve everything for people.

GLENN: And the reason why you're here is because I don't believe you believe that.

ERIC: I don't believe that, right?

GLENN: Right.

ERIC: And I don't accept that definition in the first place.

GLENN: But do you believe there are those that do that?

ERIC: I do. And I think we're here because precisely as you say, because there is a space between that caricature and the caricature that I could throw out, you know, that all Libertarians are just complete individualistic kind of, you know, sociopathic selfish people that just want to go their own -- that would be equally wrong and stupid, right?

GLENN: Correct. Correct. We've made the media and sound bites. And we are reflecting it in our own conversation. If we can't judge each other in one sound bite, then we don't engage.

ERIC: Yeah.

GLENN: We get lost. And those sound bites make us into cartoon characters.

ERIC: Yeah.

GLENN: And we're not those cartoon characters.


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