Here on DKos, as on most political websites, we use the word "power" every day. Indeed, it's been said that politics is simply the allocation and use of power. Friedrich Nietzsche described the fundamental drive of mankind as "the will to power." We've all experienced power, at least in the negative sense of powerlessness. But what is "power," exactly?
It turns out there's no easy, universally accepted answer. Power theory is among the most debated topics in sociology, and for good reason: most of the definitions offered are or at least seem to be normative; they define right and wrong uses of power. And of course those whose power would be diminished by a normative definition that disagrees with their practice ... will use what power they have to argue what "power" means.
I'm not going to offer a normative definition. Instead, I'm going to work from a relational perspective. One theorist - whom I once found online but sadly can't find the citation now - offered a four-paned window of power relations that I've found very useful:
This theory examines power along two axes. The right and left halves ask whether power in a relationship is equal or unequal, and that requires no explanation. But the top and bottom halves ask a different question, and one that is central to understanding President Barack Obama:
Is the person seeking "Power Over/Against" or "Power To/With?"
Most Americans - and that includes most Kossacks - think in terms of "power over/against." Here the options are Competition (equal power) and Dominance (unequal power). And unless you're the kind of person who likes to compete constantly, the objective is Dominance: unequal power over/against. One common expression of this is the popular saying, "If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."
Dominance is a binary concept. You have it or you don't. Either you get all of what you want when you want it, regardless of others' interests ... or you feel completely powerless. Mitt Romney expressed something like this back in the primaries, when he said that if the U.S. adopted Barack Obama's policies, "We may as well be France."
Romney could as easily have said "We may as well be Togo," because what he meant was that the U.S. wouldn't "get all of what we want when we want it, regardless of others' interests." We would, Romney was warning, lose our dominance.
You can read that same concept of power daily here on DKos, in diary after diary bemoaning President Obama's and the Democrats' refusal to, as Kos once encouraged, "put a foot on Republicans' necks and crush them." If that view, President Obama doesn't get all of what progressives want when we want it, regardless of others' interests ... "why bother electing Democrats?" In Romney-speak, "We might as well be France."
Perhaps no one sought dominance to a greater extreme than former Vice President Dick Cheney. In Cheney's view, it wasn't enough to "get all of what we want when we want it, regardless of others' interests." That, after all, includes the possibility that others might agree, and if they agree how can you be sure you've dominated? In order to prove the unitary executive theory, Cheney wanted to "get all of what we want when we want it, in defiance of others' interests." If they're not squealing, you're not squeezing hard enough.
And you can read that same extreme concept of dominance here on DKos, in diaries calling for Obama and the Democrats to not only pass legislation regardless of whether Republicans cooperate, but to write the legislation to guarantee the Republicans will object, and pass it anyway. If the Republicans aren't squealing, and if progressives don't still "get all of what we want when we want it," Obama and the Democrats must not be squeezing hard enough.
Yes, I'm comparing Kos - and many Kossacks - to Dick Cheney. The obsession for dominance is often that bad.
And that is not what Barack Obama wants.
As a community organizer, Obama cut his teeth on the bottom half of that window, "power to/with." There the options are Partnership (equal power to/with) and Nurturance (unequal power to/with). Obama campaigned on these frames of power. He promised to talk with both allies and adversaries, both abroad and in Washington. John McCain called Obama "dangerously naive" for proposing to do that abroad. And many Kossacks call him "dangerously naive" - albeit using different words - for proposing to do that in Washington.
I believe most of America's problems - overseas and here at home - stem from our construct of power as dominance. Either "We get all that we want when we want it, regardless others' interests," or "We may as well be France." Too many of us think we should never have to take "No" for an answer, as a nation or as individuals. From the Iraq War to our exploitation of agriculture worldwide, from Wall Street greed to buying the iPhone or plasma TV we can't afford on a credit card, from "Bring it on" to "step on their necks and crush them," we demand nothing less than complete dominance.
Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to "not only end the [Iraq] war, but end the mindset that got us into the war." That mindset is all about our concept of power as dominance. He's trying to deliver on that promise, to change how we think about power, and he's facing resistance from both right and left.
Barack Obama's concept of power means that sometimes we do have to take "No" for an answer, as a nation, and as individuals. That's what I think he meant in his Inaugural Address, when he quoted the passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthians about "putting away childish things." If we are to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mindset that got us into those wars, if we are to rebuild our collapsing economy and end the mindset that led to that collapse, we must "put away childish things." We must learn that sometimes even America, and even we Americans, have to take "No" for an answer.
If Obama can't deliver that change - a shift in mindset from "power over/against" to "power to/with" - anything else he does will be merely cosmetic. He knows that, and that's why he's working so hard for something so many of us don't understand.
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