Dealing with powerlessness: strongman or solidarity


By Tom Ehrich

Once the two candidates have exhausted their insults and snark, they might turn their campaigns to the issues.

The orange-haired bully, however, knows little about the issues and comes across as an empty suit. Hillary Clinton knows too much about the issues and comes across as a know-it-all. Knowing too much is far preferable to knowing nothing, of course, so if the presidential election focuses on issues, we can expect to hear bombast from the Republican suit and deft rejoinders from the Democrat.

But an issues-orientation won’t go deep enough. For the larger question has to do with what form of government can deal effectively with the spread of powerlessness, a contagion emanating from the gross raids on wealth and power by the privileged few.

This election is being fed by negative feelings: stress, financial insecurity, fear, anger, xenophobia, religious victimization, wounds from discrimination, helpless rage against predatory wealth.

This isn’t an aspirational moment, in which people are imagining what great things ought to happen next, or how to position their lives for opportunities, how to build a nation, a city or a dam. It isn’t about “possibility thinking” or any movements of uplift. It isn’t about improving the lot of the have nots.

It is a time of grievance, often expressed as whining. It is a time when people feel victimized by powerful forces, by privilege, by other races, by an unfair system. Some see a racial hand pushing them down, some see a gender hand, and some see greedy elites.

The common element is powerlessness. The political question, then, is what can be done about powerlessness.

In effect, the orange-haired bully is stepping up as the classic “strongman.” Elect me, he says, and I will make things right for you. Cede your power to me, and I will punish those forces holding you down, even if I have to do it alone. Make me the boss, and all will be well.

Hillary Clinton speaks from the pulpit of solidarity. It’s the ”occupy” movement all over again. It’s the energy of “sisterhood,” now broadened to embrace men: if we hang together and don’t allow power to pick us off and divide us, we can make things happen. We will be as smart as we need to be, not limit our smarts to what our opponents can accept. People are trusted to work together for a common good.

The strongman approach speaks deeply to some people, especially to people who have an authoritarian bent. But this is much more a solidarity moment in American life. Look at the aftermath of the Orlando shootings. The bully tried to make it about him. Clinton said little, leaving oxygen in the room for the people. They, in turn, rallied around the gay community, rallied around Orlando -- an entire planeload of passengers offering sympathy to the grandmother of one victim, legions showing up for Pride marches, preachers preaching words of hope to the oppressed. People rallied around gun-control with a moral potency that might not defeat the NRA in Congress but has claimed the visuals. Democrats sitting-in on the House floor carries much more electoral weight than one more photo of white men buying assault rifles.

Strongman systems never work. They turn despotic. The strongman cannot deliver on his promises, and in any event, he abandons the promises as soon as he gets the power. The strongman system turns corrupt and cruel. Witness fascism in the 20th Century. Count how many immigrants came here to get away from corrupt strongman systems in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Gaze upon the sorry spectacle of Russian strongman Putin, as well as the the sordid realities in world soccer and strongman-led religion.

Pope Francis has appeal partly because he doesn’t pretend to be the strongman. Although the occupy movement didn’t have enough leadership to sustain momentum, its instinct to seek horizontal leadership, rather than hierarchical, seemed spot on. Business and industry are moving away from strongman command-and-control systems. Look how even the loftiest tech giants work from desks set among the rank and file. Even though the military still has an ethos of top-down discipline, action in the field tends to follow the solidarity, horizontal model.

In effect, the strange candidacy of the orange-haired bully is reminding us why strongman systems have fallen out of favor. The would-be strongman simply isn’t smart and capable enough to pull it off, nor can he be trusted to consider any interests but his own. The would-be strongman is an advertisement against his own cause.

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