Power in Politics and Why it Matters
In this day and age, it is almost impossible to have a conversation with someone about real systemic change. It isn’t easy convincing someone that you don’t support authoritarianism when they don’t even understand what authoritarianism is and assume that just because you use certain words or support certain policies that you must want to eliminate their freedom. I guess having a degree in political science helps in that I actually studied government and how it works as the core of my college curriculum, but the different sides of the debate have poisoned so many of the words that we use that getting around that is near impossible. Each side tries their best to demonize every term used by their opponents in such a way that just mentioning certain words will cause a person to shut down and stop listening. So, one thing that I’ve been thinking about is this, how do we do it? How do we get past the miscommunication over terms and really understand that ultimately, we the general populace want the same kinds of things? In my mind, one thing we should be talking about is power.
Power is a concept that most people can easily digest. Although certain people hear the word power and immediately think of it in negative terms, everyone has kind of a vague understanding of power and what it is politically because of all of the books and movies where the villain just wants power and does whatever they can to get it. I can summarize it from an interpersonal and societal standpoint as: if I have power over you, then I can make you do what I want in order to get the outcome that I want, and you don’t have much of a choice in the matter. It is key at this point for me to say that power is a tool, it is a means to an end; who uses it and how they use it are very important pieces of the puzzle.
In a job setting, it works to think of it as your boss has power over you. If you don’t do what they want, they can fire you or make your life miserable. Obviously, in the best situations, we accept the power dynamic because it means we get a steady paycheck, and presumably our bosses are not assholes and don’t abuse that power in any way. Even if you haven’t had it happen to you directly, we’ve all heard horror stories of bosses on power trips treating their employees like shit and basically getting high off the idea that they can make you do what they want you to. So, although your boss has power over you, the type of person they are and how they use it affects your opinion of them and your job. It is the same when it comes to our greater society and the systems we use to organize ourselves.
Especially in America, we bristle at the idea of having other people lord their power over us. Our country’s inception was a revolt against power. The king and parliament of England basically said, “Hey, we make the rules for the colonies, so we tell you what to do and you don’t have a say in it,” that’s where it started. Taxes were a proxy for the power struggle, but not the underlying cause. Power was. The problem is that things have become so overly simplified that I have to write an essay like this to try and get my whole point across without being misconstrued. As such, in order to get the point across hopefully as clearly as possible, I am going to try and avoid all kinds of identifying ideology words and just talk about power in politics.
The first thing to understand, as I mentioned earlier, is that power in and of itself is not inherently bad. Power is a means to an end. It is how you get things done. Power is a tool that can be used for the betterment of others or for personal gain. If you are talking about running a country, the ideal should be to work for the betterment of others and not for personal gain. As such, the premise that I base my political philosophy on is that people using their power to help themselves and not everyone else need to be removed from power, or even better not allowed to accrue that much power in the first place down the line after we’ve dealt with the ones in place. Thus, what everyone needs to let sink in and really, truly, comprehend is that what IS bad is concentration of power.
Concentration of power means that the power to do one thing or another is in the hands of a single person or a relatively small group of people. When power becomes concentrated in too few hands, that is how you get corruption. To be certain we’re on the same page here, we all agree that corruption is bad, correct? So what ends up happening is that when a person or a group of people are essentially free to do whatever they want without meaningful checks on their power, then they WILL become corrupted and they will work for their own gains at the expense of others. Another point I want to make clear is this, excluding the most steadfast and perfect of human beings, everyone is susceptible to the corruption of power. I mean everyone. You, me, our friends and family, we all have the potential to become corrupted by power. It happens time and time again with new examples cropping up every single year and yet this very simple concept is largely overlooked. This has implications in both economics and politics, which is essential in understanding where our nation and the world should be heading.
Power in politics is generally thought of as being on a continuum. On one end is being under complete control of a person or persons, while on the other end you are completely free to do whatever you want without any interruption or interference, however, that isn’t how it really works. Power is actually represented better in my mind by a triangle. In one corner, you have what I am going to call public power. I use the word public because it is widely used to mean something governmental. So going forward I will be using the term public power to represent the power of a government. When all of the power in a society is concentrated in the government, regardless of the labels used to describe that government, is what authoritarianism is. You can have individual tyrants who are authoritarian or you can have parties or other kinds of groups, but ultimately the essence of the problem is that all of the power resides in the government and they control everything. Libertarians understand this very well. They hate public power; however, public power organizes society. From the smallest polities to the largest, you need some kind of organization, some kind of structure that helps to bring the people together.
This would be what is referred to as “the state.” The definitional problem that comes from the concept of public power is that you need some level of organization, and the term “the state” is automatically equated with a tyrannical government; however, without organization, you have chaos. When I say chaos, I don’t mean the term anarchy. For those interested in political theory, anarchism has a much different meaning. Anarchy would be as little state/organizational power as possible. People have a tendency to refer to these organizations as something other than government, or state. That is because they misconstrue those terms to mean an overbearing and authoritarian organizational system, but that isn’t the case. In reality, again, government in its most basic definition is just how a territory is organized.
To get back to the chaos point, that would mean no organization at all, which would mean everyone is free to do whatever they want, which sounds great in the most simplistic and naïve understanding possible, but in reality means if your neighbor is bigger than you, or better armed than you, and wants what you own they’ll just take it, and possibly kill you. Thus, the public sphere needs enough power to function, but you don’t want that power to be concentrated. It needs to exist in a form powerful enough to keep order and make sure that things get done, but we really don’t want it to control everything. As always, more power in fewer hands means corruption. Always! The ideal would be as little power in as many hands as possible. Again, we are not talking about any specific terms or definitions here, all I’m trying to advance is that people who value liberty, regardless of the side of the aisle they’re on, the goal should be to spread power out to avoid corruption and authoritarianism.
The second corner of the triangle is what I’m going to call private power. Private power represents entities outside of the government that can influence society. I take this term from the economic term the “private sector”, which hints that this corner is the territory of wealthy individuals and businesses. These people represent the dynamic of a society and reflect people’s ability to gain more than what they were born with. As such, there needs to be power in this corner as well. If there is no power in this corner, then there is repression of potential. People love to create and build and explore, and giving them the power to do so and to make their lives better because of it is vital to the human spirit. This is the basket where most conservatives put their eggs. They feel that allowing people to reach their greatest potential on their own is the highest order of good in the world, which is true, in a sense.
However, what they don’t recognize from a fundamentals standpoint is that concentration of power in the private sector still causes corruption. When you don’t check the power of wealthy individuals and corporations, they will abuse that power. People pay off officials and police to avoid the consequences of bad actions. They manipulate governments to write rules that help them while keeping others down. This isn’t conjecture; it is a proven fact year after year after year. When you lament that celebrities get away with things normal people wouldn’t, complain that there is too much money in politics, or when you read about businesses destroying our environment and not even getting a slap on the wrist these are all consequences of too much power being given to the private sector. They are the direct costs of allowing people to use money and power to get their way at the expense of others under the premise that it would be wrong to stifle their “liberty.”
Thus, like with public power, the ideal is also to spread the power of the private sector. This does not mean that people should be forced at gunpoint to give everything they own to others. People should still be allowed to pursue their personal dreams and endeavors, and they should be rewarded if they succeed. The problem is when a system is set up to elevate these people to positions of societal power that allow them to exploit and oppress others. If we can disallow the accumulation of societal power in private individuals and businesses, then we can prevent them from destroying lives in the name of pursuing wealth.
Under the spectrum model of power, you are essentially stuck with a struggle between these two extremes that both represent bad news for the average person. You can either have too much public power or too much private power, and those who want neither are stuck trying to find a way to balance in the middle of a see-saw, perpetually having to referee the two sides and never getting to just sit and enjoy life. This is why I see the power struggle as a triangle, because there is a third option, people power. We don’t need to settle for a constant struggle over abuses of power if we’re willing to consider other ways of looking at things.
By people power, what I mean is that the ultimate power within the system lies with the people as a whole, with the community. The government and the businesses work for the betterment of the people and not themselves. Governments cannot ignore the will of the people and enact laws that ultimately harm us because there are real consequences for those actions and the people have a more direct role in governance. Businesses create and grow and thrive by existing to help, and not just for the sake of profit. Now, I want to be clear. This does not mean that people are not allowed to follow their dreams if their dream is to own a business. It doesn’t mean that we are destroying innovation by not allowing individuals to be themselves. People power is actually quite the opposite. By developing a society that keeps both governmental and business powers in check, the people are free to pursue their passions more freely because not only do they not have an oppressive government telling them what to do and who to be, but they also don’t have to waste their lives slaving away in some job they hate, just to sit in traffic on their way back to a home where they end up stressing about bills and wishing they could be doing something else. Less wasted time and effort for everyone would be a good thing.
This is the third path that we can pursue if we stop treating our problems as if there are only two answers and the majority of people can only see the problem with one side and not the other. One thing I love to say when discussing our options is that we live in a three-dimensional world, and yet all we ever seem to seek is two-dimensional answers. It’s one or the other, never something more.
So, where does this leave us? First, let’s talk democracy. A lot of different kinds of governments are referred to as democracies, including our own, but the definition of a democracy and how it is practiced are not the same things. The definition of democracy is a government run by the people. In Ancient Greece, that concept still left out a LOT of people but just because they didn’t include everyone doesn’t mean we can’t. So in this case, when I’m talking about a “Democratic” system, I mean that I want less governmental power, just like conservatives. How I want to achieve that is by having more direct democracy, more referendums but not just in some but in all states. I want less power for the parties. They need to be brought low. There should be more parties and less collusion. Elections should be free and fair. No gerrymandering at all. No money in politics at all; debates that include all of the parties. Ranked choice voting coupled with multiple representative districts, along with other potential options that will take power away from those who use it to keep others out of the process and get more people involved.
Presumably most people agree with those premises. Establishing a more inclusive and less obtrusive democratic government can be done. We may need to tweak things along the way, but ultimately what we get is a government that both does not discriminate and does not work for outside influences; a government that doesn’t oppress but meets the needs of the people. If the people want to fix a problem, it will be fixed, rather than having two corporate-backed entrenched parties maintain the status quo purely because it means more money for their pockets and the pockets of their friends. This means not a government that works for any one group no matter how big or small, but works for everyone because everyone can exercise their power within the country.
Additionally, by righting our government, we can also fix our economy. There are a myriad of options we can employ once private power loses its hold on our government that will free up the population to pursue their potential without exploitation by private interests. We can create a country where everyone has their needs met without any surrender of freedom. All we have to do is shift the power of our society into the hands of the people.