This is an age of epic political turbulence in America. From the fracturing of the major political parties, to the spread of bottom-up movements like Black Lives Matter, citizens across the country — and the political spectrum — are reclaiming power. The question that today’s citizens have to face is: Are you ready? Do you understand power? And if you want to make change in the world, do you know how?
Power is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It governs how any form of government works, and it determines who gets to determine the rules of the game. So, learning how power operates is key to being effective, being taken seriously, and not being taken advantage of. Below, we’ll look at where power comes from, how it’s exercised, and what you can do to become more powerful in public life.
Our focus is on the civic arena, where power means getting a community to make the choices and to take the actions that you want. There are 6 main sources of civic power.
First, there is physical force and a capacity for violence. Control of the means of force, whether in the police or the militia, is power at its most primal.
A second core source of power is wealth. Money creates the ability to buy results and to buy almost any other kind of power.
The third form of power is state action, or government. This is the use of law and bureaucracy to compel people to do or not do certain things. In a democracy, we the people, theoretically, give government its power through elections. In a dictatorship, state power emerges from the threat of force, not the consent of the governed.
The fourth type of power is social norms, or what other people think is okay. Norms don’t have the centralized machinery of government; they operate in a softer way – peer to peer. They can certainly make people change behavior, and even change laws. For instance, think about how norms around marriage equality today are evolving.
The fifth form of power is ideas. An idea, such as individual liberty or racial equality, can generate boundless amounts of power if it motivates enough people to change their thinking and actions.
The sixth source of power, then, is numbers – lots of humans. A vocal mass of people creates power by expressing collective intensity of interest and by asserting legitimacy. Think of the Arab Spring, or the rise of the Tea Party. Crowds count.
These are the six main sources of power. In the next post of this series, we will explore how power operates by highlighting the three laws of power.
From the TED-Ed Lesson How to understand power – Eric Liu
Animation by KAPWA Studioworks