Thanksgiving dinner, year 2000, all the grown-up talk was about the election and the unfolding travesty of the Florida recount. Around our all-progressive table the consensus was that Gore had won despite gross violations of election law, but that the Republicans were waging a better recount battle.
I surprised myself remarking that it was probably better if Bush won, because if his side lost they would get really angry, then hostile, then violent.
From election night forward, the Bush gang made my case: the mob of political operatives that terrorized the vote counters; the rolling of the pathetic Joe Lieberman on military votes; and, especially, the contrasting styles of pitbull James Baker versus pussycat Warren Christopher.
Add a right-leaning Supreme Court and Al Gore never had a chance.
Gore’s main mistake, which the nation made with him, was believing in an American democracy where having the law on one’s side matters and where voting decides elections.
In fact, America is a nation where having the power to force one’s will on others generally trumps the law and where money, not voting,Â decides elections.
Power-with vs Power-over
In any government, business, organization, club, family or relationship there are two fundamental approaches to governing, making decisions, and resolving conflicts.
The first — “power-with” — draws on the combined powers that we have when acting cooperatively. This approach stresses the importance of hearing everyone’s voice, of including diverse opinions, and of striving to reach consensus versus deciding things by majority rule.
Power-with is really the heart of a genuine functional democracy: people acting in concert for the greater good. To the extent that power-with exists in our decidedly dysfunctional democracy, it has long been the province of progressive democrats (but not the ruling wing of the party — corporate democrats).
The second approach to governance is “power-over”: the most dominant individual or group wields their powers over others. Power-over decides matters according to which side is biggest, strongest, and the better fighter; or has the most money; or, depending on the culture, is the dominant family, race, religion, or gender.
Power-over has prevailed in our world for thousands of years because it most always defeats power-with. Moreover, every successful application of power-over increases one’s power: the rich get richer, the strong get stronger and the big get bigger. In American politics, power-over describes the ways and means of the right, the republican party, and the corporate democrats.
Fight Back and Lose
The public healthcare meetings of the past few months were a clear instance of power-over versus power-with. On the one side, we had groups of reform-minded individuals coming peacefully together to have a national conversation. Despite serious differences of opinions within these groups, the assumption was that with calm speech and respectful listening we might craft a policy that best served the majority of Americans.
On the other side, we had screaming obscenities and shoving matches and men with guns.
One side in pursuit of power-with, the other imposing its power-over.
As has happened throughout history, power-over prevailed. Moderate politicians squirmed to the right. Some town hall meetings were cancelled. The national conversation about reforming healthcare devolved into a national shout-fest in which no anti-reform lies were too ludicrous to dominate a news cycle or two.
Overtly racist attacks on the President increased, along with dishonest smear campaigns against his aides and appointees. Sitting governors (all republicans) talked openly about armed revolution and seceding from the Union. Reactionary southern politicians denounced the President at a joint session of the Congress.
While progressives urged the democrats to show some courage and fight back, it would never happen, for two reasons. First, because a good percentage of the House dems and a majority of the Senators (and, alas, the President) are corporate pols, snug in the cash-lined pockets of large corporations. However much they still believe in power-with, they’ve sold their souls to the merchants of power-over. Going against the system means losing power, which is anathema to most politicians.
The reason the rest did not fight back is because “fighting back” destroys power-with. It is the age-old conundrum: if we carry our own guns to the meetings not only does the likelihood of violence increase, but we lose any hope for power-with. We become that which we fight against.
This is why it so hard to overcome the dominators, whether they are well-armed bullies or wealthy bankers or religious pontificators.Â They have no interest in power-with — they do not negotiate with their lessers — and they are driven to constantly increase their power-over. Can’t reason with them and can’t fight against them.
Once Was Democracy
Democracy was supposed Â fix this: when everyone has one, equal vote then, theoretically, power shifts from tiny elites to functional majorities of the people. Unfortunately, there are too many flaws in America’s system to call it a real democracy any longer, the final nail in our collective coffin being the Supreme Court decisions equating corporate spending with free speech. Classic power-over politics: those with the most power used it to greatly increase that power.
There are only two ways out of this mess. The best solution is a bit counter-intuitive: Those who are at the top of the power-over pyramid willingly and freely come to their senses and do the right thing. This was (and still is) the great hope with Obama — that he would lead a top-down revolution that would change everything.
Those who rule via power-over must freely choose power-with. In this way, the revolution happens with a minimum of power-over force and violence. And those who are already committed to power-with do not have to sacrifice their principles.
Lacking such change from the top, we’re left with a horrible quasi-solution: the gross inequities and inhumane excesses of the power-over world bring us to widespread system collapse. Chaos ensues. If we’re lucky, something better emerges.
Michael Sky | Thinking Peace