Power and Powerlessness
March 15, 2006
By Joseph Hughes
power hungry. I'm not afraid to admit that. So I'll say it again:
I'm power hungry. Guess what? There's nothing wrong with that. And
the time has come for we progressives to recognize that fact.
Sure, it's easy to harbor distaste for power, especially when
we see what those in charge today have done with it. But I contend
that power, in the sense that it represents the ability to achieve
a purpose, doesn't make people inherently good or bad. It just allows
them to make their vision of the world a reality.
If you have a positive vision, which we do, then to be afraid
of power is to be afraid of the means we need to see our hopes realized.
Powerlessness, therefore, is a far more dangerous concept, one that
prevents us from reshaping our world for the better.
Think of what good-hearted, optimistic Americans have been able
to achieve when they haven't been afraid of power. They ended slavery.
They got women and African Americans the right to vote. They helped
the poor, the sick and the elderly. Now, these achievements didn't
happen solely because people wished them so. They happened because
those with a progressive vision were able to use the tools of power
to their advantage. Those tools - organized money, people and ideas
- are at the core of true change.
When I look around the progressive world, I see an abundance of
great ideas. Ending the war in Iraq. Providing health care for all
Americans. Breaking our reliance on fossil fuels. Fighting for equal
rights. Protecting the freedom of choice. Lifting up everyone, not
just a select few. One of our strengths, therefore, is what many
would consider our weakness: A diversity of issues. We win on our
issues. Our issues built this country. And our issues will save
What I also see when I look around the progressive world are inspiring
people. Strong leaders. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds
armed with a desire to see things change. Not just those at the
national level giving voice to our concerns - the Russ Feingolds
of the world. But those on the state and local level, too. Everywhere
you look - except the Bush administration - you'll find people with
a positive vision and the desire to see it realized.
What I'm starting to see more of is money. Now, we'll never be
able to match the financial backers of the Republican Party, but
we shouldn't let that stop us from using what we do have wisely.
Those at the top need to realize the grassroots is more than an
ATM. Conversely, we need to do a better job of making our money
work for us. Because the key to each of these three tools - ideas,
people, money - is organization. Without that organization, all
we have is our hope. And that's great, but it doesn't get us the
power we need to turn things around.
If there's one thing my time at Camp Wellstone and my interactions
with fellow progressives taught me, it's that we can't rely on elections
alone. What we need is a progressive movement that leads to the
institutionalization of our ideals. In plain English, we need to
be in this for the long run, not just the first Tuesday in November.
Yes, elections are great and they can help give us the officials
and initiatives we desire, but they're not the end-all and be-all
of the progressive world. Too often, we move the big tent into town
right before November, only to pull up stakes immediately after.
This is a crucial mistake.
We can rectify those mistakes by recognizing the necessity of
both progressive movements and progressive institutions. While the
two tend to have an adversarial relationship, it doesn't have to
be that way. There can be a symbiotic relationship, one in which
the changes achieved thanks to movement progressivism are preserved
by long-lasting progressive institutions. Conservatives know this
and have been successful at it for decades. There's no reason we
can't do it better.
So how do we use the means at our disposal to achieve the ends
we desire? Well, we keep doing what we're doing, while taking time
to learn from our victories and our defeats. We continue to shape
the opinions of those in charge. We keep fighting to put our issues
on the agenda. We keep framing our progressive values in terms of
what could be. We embrace our differences and band together to work
to achieve everyone's goals. We find strength in numbers.
From a movement perspective, what I'd like to see is more institutional
support for the initiatives that will lead to a brighter future.
The organized people and ideas are, for the most part, already here.
What we need is that final component, the organized money. Too often
we've seen the blogosphere rally behind candidates and push them
to the top of the mountain. Only institutional help will allow us
all to push them over. Increased financial support would also mean
more think tanks, more chances to push our message in the media,
more opportunities to train the next generation of progressives.
Trust us, with your help we can do great things. Don't diminish
our efforts. That's what the right does.
What I'd also like to see is less timidity from our elected Democratic
officials. The world is with us. America is with us. We're ready
to fight. We've been ready. We're not afraid to take stands and
ruffle some feathers if it means our agenda gains prominence. What
is stopping our leaders from joining us? Surely they recognize how
terribly the Bush administration is doing. That they're not exercising
every last bit of their power to fight for our shared values is,
to say the least, disheartening. I understand that the Republicans
are in charge of everything, leaving our side with fewer opportunities
to show strength. But an opposition party isn't doing its job if
its leaders aren't opposing. The right didn't get to where it is
by building bridges and holding back when the left was down. They
stepped on our necks.
Conservatives mock us now. They see our opposition to the war,
the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping and call us the fringe.
They see our Web sites and tell us that the mainstream considers
us irrelevant. They see our $10 and $20 donations and laugh. But
they fear us. They fear what we can become if we organize around
our money, people and ideas. They fear that America is starting
to wake up, that people aren't being fooled by their distractions
any longer. They fear that their shortfalls are now painfully obvious.
So they mock us, ridiculing progressives in an attempt to make
us feel like the entire system is against us. That we don't belong.
That way, their thinking goes, we'll lose our hope, we'll feel powerless.
And if we lose the idea that we do matter, that we can make a difference,
things will stay the way they are. Someone is benefiting from the
way things are. It's just that those someones aren't us. But what
are we willing to do about it?
Joseph Hughes is a graphic designer and writer by day and a
liberal blogger by night. Read stories like this and many more at
his blog, Hughes