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How to understand power

Submitted by Emerson on May 23, 2016 - 2:02pm

Power is a word with many different associations. Some people associate power with knowledge. Some associate power with popularity. Others associate power with force. They are all right. Power comes in all of those forms (and more). Eric Liu defines power as the ability to make others do what you would have them do. Power extends to all areas of life, especially the civic arena. Liu goes on to say that “power governs how any form of government works. It determines who gets to determine the rules of the game.”

Civic power comes from six main sources: physical force, wealth, state action, social norms, ideas, and strength in numbers. Police officers have the power to enforce laws through physical force. Lobbying groups are able to influence policy through wealth. Lawmakers exercise their power by creating laws. Our communities have the power to influence what we deem acceptable and unacceptable in society through social norms. Great ideas often spread like wildfire and gain power through the number of people that support them.

There are three laws of power. The first is that power is never static. It's always either accumulating or decaying in a civic arena. The second is that power is like water. It flows like a current through everyday life. The third is that power compounds. Power begets more power. Each of these laws, in addition to the six main sources of power, determines who gets power and how.

You can exercise power by finding things you would like to change in your community and finding the power that is behind them. Once you have an understanding of who or what is in control of what you want to change, you must decide which source of power you will rely on to achieve change. You can study the strategies that others have used in similar situations to achieve change. Regardless, there are three things you must do: speak up, organize your ideas, and organize others around you.