On a given day, my engagement with online quizzes usually consists of getting clickbaited by Buzzfeed into discovering what TV witch I am, what my porn name should be, or, in one case, if I am actually the worst.
This month’s issue of The Atlantic, though, has offered an alternative with a quiz titled, “How Much Political Power Do You Have?” Foregrounding its questions with the assertion that “many citizens are basically illiterate as to how power works,” author Eric Liu defines it specifically, for the purposes of the article, as “the power you have as a citizen to shape public life.” From there, he breaks it down into six categories: money, ideas, force, crowds, governmental authority and reputation.
The quiz proceeds along these lines, asking your household net worth, how much you contribute to political campaigns, the largest protest you’ve been to or organized, and your number of Twitter followers. Some more colorful questions (from the “force” category) revolve around whether or not you can “summon a militia to achieve your policy preferences.” For all questions, the responses are weighted. So, for instance, the ability to summon a 10 person armed militia earns you just 1 point. Granted, here, the ability to cull together a militia at all gets you 20,000 points. If you can send 10,000 armed people to bat for your cause, The Atlantic’s algorithms will add 1,000 points to your score, and the NSA will kindly place your name on a watch list.
One open-ended question asks if you have ever “developed a political, social, or economic idea or argument” that went on to became a social media meme (think #FightFor15), a political catchphrase (like the infamous Luntzism “death tax”), “the basis of a social movement, such as Occupy Wall Street” (worth 500 points), a law, or a Supreme Court decision (which would earn you the question’s top prize of 10,000 points).
An excess of any one category on Liu’s can render you a king maker. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, the super villain-esque conservative megafunder, who recently poured $50 million into stopping BDS campaigns nationwide, scored a whopping 34,310 — making him a “master of the universe,” according to the quiz’s results breakdown.
In some ways, Liu offers a helpful expansion on standard definitions of power, those which maintain that it can only be held by congressmen and CEOs. He highlights Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and comments that “by setting in motion a debate in America about race, crime and social justice, they showed that you don’t need celebrity to exercise civic power.” He also acknowledges the role of organizing, and the importance of social movements — which is more than can be said of most writers in mainstream publications. He’s careful to note that there are different kinds of power in the world, all of which can be leveraged through different vehicles toward a variety of ends. Still, the vision of power that Liu presents is severely limited, no less so than for those interested in actually building political power.
The question, “But what does power really mean?” is probably best left relegated to rooms of undergraduates grappling with Foucault. That said, for those interested in supporting (or even just understanding) social movements, there are some simple truths offered by the study and practice of transformative change-making that help to clear up confusion arising from Liu’s somewhat flawed take on power.
All power to the spectators
In Liu’s conception, power exists on a purely individual basis: the “Masters of the Universe” and “National Power Players” have it, while the so-called spectators (points ranging from 1-1,000) don’t. History tells a different story. Major periods of egalitarian reform in the United States — from agrarian populism to the Great Depression to the black freedom movement to that for immigrants’ rights — have all been the result of concerted, popular efforts that have shaken the country’s social, political and economic foundations to their core. “History is dotted,” writes sociologist Frances Fox Piven, with examples of “people without wealth or coercive resources … exercising power.” Gathered together, masses of organized “spectators” can have more influence over the country’s direction than any mover and shaker. Transformative change isn’t made by posing compelling arguments to CEOs, winning over politicians’ hearts and minds, or relying on the goodwill of congressmen; it’s made by rendering their business as usual impossible, and forcing decision-makers to re-align their priorities with those the people.
(Violent) force is not a tool of the people
For those who have followed his story, the fact that Cliven Bundy — the reactionary Nevada rancher who gathered a militia defending his cows’ ability to graze on federal land — scored just 1,600 power points overall might come as a surprise. Between Bundy’s low score and the wording of the questions on force detailed above, what Liu seems to be driving at is the fact that militaries and police departments hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. “So far,” he writes, “the federal government has avoided a direct showdown with Bundy, but if that were to change, we’d quickly see the limits of his power.” As Liu alludes, using violence to confront the state is a losing and profoundly disempowering battle, one that challenges the powers that be on the grounds they know best. Truly massive, well-orchestrated non-cooperation, on the other hand, has a better track record of backing them into a corner.
Ideas — and symbols — have power
Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black parishioners at a Charleston AME church last month stoked an already-burning national conversation about the continued and violent existence of white supremacy in America. In response, organizers around the country have narrowed in on the Confederate flag as a symbol of the kind of overt racism that, by now, should be an anachronism. That’s what led Bree Newsome to climb a flagpole outside the South Carolina state house in Columbia and tear it down. Today, that flag will come down by official decree — or, as it should be known, an official response to public pressure. As Newsome wrote on Twitter this morning, “Please remember this past week the next time someone argues against civil disobedience as an impetus for change.” Regardless of what score Newsome would get on Liu’s quiz, her action was an unmistakably powerful one that’s bearing real fruit. Importantly, though, she isn’t acting alone: While Newsome’s action triggered the state’s legislature to respond as soon as they did, the broader Black Lives Matter movement has for months been changing the political weather in which they operate. Will taking down a flag end racism in America tomorrow? Of course not, but it provides a tangible and visceral example that times are changing.
A quiz won’t tell you how much power you have, but it can spark a good conversation. Thinking deeply about power in relation to politics is an important exercise, and Liu packages it in a way that’s leagues more accessible than the majority of scholarly literature on the subject. That said, the best argument for how power works might be found, to use a cliché, in the streets — and the history books that tell the stories of what’s happened there.
As the COP 28 talks flounder, European movements are shifting their strategy in an attempt to emulate a major Dutch victory against fossil fuel subsidies.
A UMass Dissenters organizer discusses the growing youth-led antiwar movement and how they are organizing against weapons manufacturers and the war in Gaza.
A comprehensive new book by Vietnam War draft resister Jerry Elmer documents over a century of U.S. opposition to war and the military draft.