Is the Decentralized “New Power” of Peer-Led Social Movements a Blessing or a Curse?
A new book by two social media strategists says that the way power works has radically changed. A skeptical Jay Michaelson asked them to persuade him.
On its surface, New Power looks like a breathless book by two social media experts about how decentralized power is changing the world for the better. Occupy, MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and even Oreo Cookies have shown, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms say, that New Power is people’s power, decentralized power, peer-generated power that can be channeled but not managed from on high. “It’s only a movement if it moves without you,” they say.
Reading the book, however, I found myself growing more pessimistic, conservative, elitist, and crotchety. After all, right-wing populist movements like the Leave campaign in Britain, the Tea Party and MAGA movements in the U.S., and many others utilize “New Power” too, often more effectively than their progressive or centrist opponents. The more I read of New Power, the more old and embittered I felt.
So I decided to ask them about that. Both are experts: Timms launched the Giving Tuesday campaign, which is now part of our holiday season calendar, and Heimans co-founded the online activism platform Avaaz and Purpose.org, which has built activist campaigns for Google, the ACLU, and the LGBT group All Out, among others. Their TED talk on “new power” has gotten over 1.25 million views and CNN called “new power” one of the “top ten ideas to change the world in 2015.”
Lucky for me, both are also in my own New York, Jewish, and (in Heimans’ case) gay orbits, so I decided to treat this interview like getting a round of drinks with these guys, playing devil’s advocate, and leaving the jokes in the final transcript. Here’s what went down.
Jay Michaelson: So, as I mentioned over email, reading your book turned me into an old, bitter, conservative, Dick-Cheney-like figure.
Jeremy Heimans: That’s a lot.
JM: It reminded me of the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson. Jefferson believed that the rural people of America had an innate goodness, and he delighted in giving power to the people. (Of course, he also owned slaves.) Hamilton said that the people are like a great beast —that they needed to be managed, not unleashed. Given how the book talked about how the NRA and Trump, among others, have used New Power effectively, are the benefits really worth the costs?
JH: Well, it isn’t a coincidence. The forces of co-optation [i.e. co-opting New Power techniques for Old Power values] do start at a bit of an advantage. They are less constrained by truth, by reason, or by fact. They can play to emotions without moral constraints. So of course, the people who are using New Power for extremism and hate tend to be more effective. Take the example of Brexit. The Leave side basically said, “Don’t believe these experts!” and made a real appeal to emotion and to essentially a kind of downward envy. Whereas the Remain side were wheeling out economists saying, “This is good for you.” They had none of the intensity that is the currency of New Power movements.
JM: It feels like a built-in intensity gap. More pessimistically, New Power can feel like it’s empowering a mob.
Henry Timms: Well, it is empowering toward justice as well—Black Lives Matter is one good example. Now, there’s no question that New Power tends to gather around the extremes rather than the middle, leading to a kind of hollowed out middle... We don’t think New Power is headed in the wrong direction—it’s tending that way a lot right now, but part of the reason we wrote the book is to get it on the side of the angels. We need to recognize that if people with enlightenment values aren’t using New Power, we’re ceding terrain to the extremists.
JM: I want to pick up on the theme of the hollowing out of the middle. It’s easy to talk about the “bad guys.” But also among progressives, there’s been a growth in what I see as a Romantic-in-a-bad-way, performative politics of gesture. For example, and this is controversial, I think the protests about the Dakota Access Pipeline during the 2016 election siphoned off a tremendous amount of energy from the election. Even on the “good side,” does the hollowing out of the middle lead to an Occupy-style idealism that can actually lose things?
JH: There are a few dynamics to impact there. One is that in the New Power era, you get these constant surges of outrage—surges of compassion too—that move optically… I’m not sure that’s really new. Movement builders have always tried to find moments on which to hook their mobilization efforts. As far as DAPL, we can have a strategic conversation about whether that was the right hook. Second, in the 2016 election, it was very hard to get millennials excited about the election itself. They were excited for a period about Bernie Sanders, but after Hillary won the nomination, they were not engaged, even though many identity politics issues that millennials care so much about were on the line. Here was this candidate that addressed all of those values and was trying to defile them. And yet millennials were not engaged. The reason for that is that they were less compelled by the institutional apparatus of the election, and more compelled by participating in decentralized social movements of the kind you described. That is a bit of a danger, because the institutions are not good at engaging people, and so people are more interested in engaging in these new social movements, even though we desperately need people to engage in the electoral process.
HT: I want to add that the most obvious displays of New Power are at the extremes, but actually there’s much more mundane progress in people’s lives every day, in small ways. They aren’t necessarily these moments of outrage, but people do find meaning in them. People are engaging in non-extreme ways all the time… In the world of pulses and spikes, we spend all of our attention on the spikes right now: the latest outrage at the latest Trump tweet, and so on… But there’s also the pulse: more meaningful moments of civic participation, which happen day after day after day, which are never going to be the #1 thing trending on Twitter, but, for example, the work of local libraries in local communities, that kind of stuff is actually super-meaningful and we want to spend a lot more attention on the pulses, not just the spikes.
JM: Let’s move to another devil’s advocate topic: curation and expertise. I definitely became more of an elitist reading the book.
JH: You really are a great template of everything that goes wrong when you read our book.
JM: That’s fair—the book made me long for the days when there were gateways to power and no one else could access it. For example, you talk about the idea of a Yelp for drugs—that seems very problematic. Or teachers going rogue to select their own books—you seemed to say that was good, but to me that will lead to a lot of anti-science bias in schools. Do expertise and curation still have a positive role?
JH: Let’s unpack that a bit. We are equally horrified by an idea of Yelp for drugs, which is why we characterized that as a reductio ad absurdum of Silicon Valley ideology. For something like that, you definitely need Old Power. But at a counterpoint to that, look at something like PatientsLikeMe. What we see is really inspiring. When self-organized people get together, they do get solutions that the rarefied expert alone does not. The world we want to build is one where the experts and the community are embedded together and talking to each other, in which the best of New Power and best of Old Power coexist.
HT: We agree with you that we want experts—we just need a different kind of expert who can combine the best of Old Power and New Power. Take the example of climate science: the job now is to work out how to engage people who expect to participate more. Being published in the New England Journal of Medicine doesn’t naturally equate to being able to influence people the way you’d like to influence them. So part of the dynamic going forward is rebuilding some of those enlightenment values and institutions in ways that are much more participatory and rewarding, to guard against the polarization you’ve talked about. Otherwise you get people who can use the New Power tools but who have no expertise. You’ve ceded to the anti-vaxxers.
JH: The perfect outcome is the doctor who gets better at taking on the anti-vaxxer because they’re actually able to spread their ideas more effectively… There are ways to integrate the best of these newer, more decentralized, more devolutionary impulses into those older systems. And if we do, those systems are likely to endure more, because people won’t lose faith in institutions that are not delivering or providing any feedback loops or any engagement. So that’s where we come out. We’re secretly sympathetic to a lot of these Old Power institutions and we think they fulfill really important social functions. But we want them to thrive.