Thursday, June 29, 2006

Diffuse Power

Wandering over to comment on some left-leaning blogs, I was puzzled yet again by the accusations of tyranny, of fascism, and of the new pet phrase Unitary Authority, referring to Bush, of course. This rhetoric is so common on the left, with frequent mentions of how the Republicans "control" all branches of government, worries of imposed theocracy, and fear of multinational corporations (or "corporate interests").

Conservatives see this as merely bizarre, that anyone could think that Chavez, the Saddam of yore, and Bush differ in national authority only in small degree. Liberals think conservatives blind for not seeing it. It is for this reason that protestations that the left is being paranoid and hyperbolic fall on deaf ears. They really believe that a president wields enormous power, and any move by the Bush administration to assert authority in an unclear area is an attempt to capture that last few percentage points of power and bring us close to autocracy.

Power is quite diffuse in American society. The power of a president, or a Supreme Court Justice, or a Senator is much less than - I suspect - liberals know. The TV news likes to use phrases such as "the most powerful leader in the world," but that gives a very false impression. There are many kinds of power, and many players in the game. There is power to do as one pleases, there is power to influence, there is power to be left alone; cultural power, financial power, political power, military power. Bush is limited in his power not because of the unceasing efforts of progressives fighting brilliant rearguard actions, but because of the basic structure of American society. No one has that much power, and none of us are without some power.

Libertarians understand this better than conservatives, conservatives better than liberals. I wish I could penetrate why this is. Small businessmen perhaps have a realistic understand of the contradiction between having great freedom and limited power. It is hard to influence others, hard to make the world work the way you would like it. Government employees, on the other hand, may see themselves as powerless to change top-down authority, and see politics as working in much the same way. They may believe that some few get to tell others what to do, and the trick is to become one of the few, or band together to push one of the few around. Perhaps this is particularly strong in African-American and other minority communities, which believe that only by banding together do they have any power at all.

Bringing up children teaches both the hugeness and limitation of individual power; multiple children even more. I have had enormous influence on my sons - but they are who they are and they go their own way. And they in turn have influenced me, from their earliest days.

Do liberals feel personally powerless? Or more subtly, do they believe they have a measure of control over their destiny but the great mass of American society does not (the rubes)? They believe advertising drives purchasing more than personal choice. This would go some way to explaining why they believe that elections are stolen from them or that Darth Rove tricks the public.

If they believe that some few pull most of the strings, it would explain their paranoid reactions to the normal ebb and flow, checks and balances of political life. As I'm writing off the top of my head here, I welcome comments to help clarify this.


David said...

Peter Drucker, who was born in Austria, was struck when he came to the US by the impression that every single group--businesspeople, labor, academics, doctors, whowever--felt underappreciated and pushed around by all the other groups. And he thought this was wonderful, because it meant that there wasn't really a single group that was as powerful and entitled as groups tend to want to be...

nash said...

Conservatives had their own version of derangement syndrome going on when Clinton was in office. But these voices have a bigger outlet now with talk radio and the internet. It's sad that mature, adult thinkers (not necessarily moderates) don't speak out against those idiots.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, I always thought it was deranged to complain about a president whose first act led to the deaths of thousands of Haitians, misused the FBI files of a thousand of his political enemies, sold important nuclear weapons operating systems to the Chinese, refused to let the FBI investigate the office of an important staffer who committed suicide...

Anyway, david, I'm going to use that Drucker comment in another post soon.

katje said...

AVI, maybe they believe Bush wields so much power because their concept of the proper governing system is still modelled on the communist / socialist line, where the state maintains sole control over the lives of the workers. The checks and balances built into our system were put there by our founding fathers, men who understood that human nature drives us toward certain biological impulses which pull us away from civilized behaviour. I would suggest that Liberals also practise that "banding- together- as- a- group" behaviour when responding to what they see as conservative aggression (ie. people asserting their rights to hold other, dissenting opinions).

I would agree with what you said toward the end of your post, namely that they believe that they have control over their destiny, while the rest of the rubes don't. (This would explain their implicit assumption that if -when- the country realizes its grievous error and resumes its proper -Liberal- leadership, they'll be the ones in charge of making and enforcing the policies to improve the lives of all the rest of us poor yuckapucks who are obviously too stupid -Republican/Libertarian/Conservative to know what's best for them.) Lest this sound too bilious, let me mention that I'm from Corvallis Oregon - the presumptious, wannabe town that tries to push its way into national news from time to time with a stab at some inane Liberal cause celebre or another, though all they've succeeded in doing so far is embarrassing themselves on the national, or occasionally even international, level, as a bunch of pretentious gits (some of my friends from England still call me up laughing about some of their antics).

I'm still waiting for some of my friends back home to grow up and realize that my going to Mass and believing in God does not mean I seek to force everyone else to do so (although the Jihadi's they often sympathize with would), and they don't realize that just because I support the war as a vital and necessary measure (not only to stem the threat of a right nasty bugger intent on killing off the better part of his country, and others as well, but with full legality given their refusal to comply with the UN- mandated resolution 1441 (see:

- still learning how to do html links, sorry) rather than an illegal invasion for purposes of aggression and colonialisation, and so on...

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that if we really were experiencing the "censorship" and oppression that the Lib's claim our gov't has clamped down on us, why is it that they're so free to spout off on every blog, show, newsprogram, radio, tv, newspaper, magazine and so on? Where exactly are those jackbooted policemen stomping down doors and hauling people off to the gulags? Or did they all stop off for donuts on the way?

copithorne said...

To me, your post seems strangely abstracted.

Is it truly unfathomable to you that some people might be angry about starting a war that resulted in the death of 2500 of their fellow citizens, the wounding and maiming of 20,000?

Is it such a big mystery that people might be angry about thousands of dollars stolen from our children for this purpose?
If I took out a credit card in your children's name and ran up thousands of dollars of purchases, would that be ok with you?

George Bush and his partisans manifestly have the power to do those things. He doesn't seem to have the power to protect New Orleans but he has the power to start a land war in Asia.

People might also value the checks and balances set forth in the U.S. Constitution and see the exercise of power by the Bush administration as unchecked because party loyalty has replaced patriotism. But the concerns are rooted in specific policies and their consequences.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Copithorne, you prove my point so well! Did you think Bush "started" a war, with no input from Congress, from other nations, from advisors, from citizens, from the actions of terrorists, from the actions of Saddam? George Bush "and his partisans..." that seems to be a description of a form of government called "democracy." Coalitions are by definition formed with other nations.

The weather may have had something to do with New Orleans. Also, FEMA, local and state governments, the national guard, individual actions, the police and emergency services.

You keep bringing up this deficit thing. As a percentage of GDP it's not any worse than usual. It's not great, but it's not emergent either. And Bush doesn't run the budget.

This is exactly the misunderstanding of how the world works that I was writing about. Bush has power only in a context, and that context includes a thousant points of input. This is not to absolve any elected official of decisions they make, but to keep critics from fevered interpretations of tyranny and fascism when nothing remotely like that is going to happen.

copithorne said...

Well, AVI, you kind of prove my point. The decisions and actions of George Bush just sort of happen to George Bush.

Whoever is responsible for starting the war in Iraq had the power to do so. Because I value the lives of my fellow citizens, I am angry about it.

You didn't answer my question about whether I can come by and steal thousands of dollars from your children. The current deficit does represent thousands of dollars a year from each child. Are you sure you would be OK with that -- because thousands of dollars is now just a small part of their future earnings? It is OK for Republicans to steal money from my children because you think it isn't very much?

The Republican party controls the executive and legislative branch. But when it suits you, the buck stops.... somewhere in the ether where nobody can really find it, so why doesn't everybody just relax?

2500 dead? Que sera, sera. 20,000 maimed and wounded? Que sera, sera. New Orleans abandoned? Que Sera, sera. Trillions of dollars stolen from future generations? Que sera, sera.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"controls" the executive and legislative branch? What does that mean, then?

You present a false dichotomy. Your way, nobody dies, nobody gets hurt, no money gets spent. Bush's way, people die, people get hurt, we spend lots of money. The day you recognize that all courses of actions have consequences, the actual moral choices of the world will not seem so simple to you.

Peace also kills.