Prior to entering politics, Barack Obama taught classes in the community about power. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the attendees have written much about the content of those sessions. But in watching him over the last seven years, we can begin to understand his view of the topic.
As Riane Eisler pointed out in her book The Chalice and the Blade:
Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.
She posits that we are living in the era of the blade (domination), but that archeology tells us that once human beings were more organized around the idea of the chalice (partnership).
When it comes to power, those ideas can be summarized like this:
Dominance assumes unequal power wielded over others, whereas partnership assumes power shared by equals. The truth is that every progressive movement in this country’s history (women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, civil rights, anti-war) has harnessed the power of partnership. And yet today, most political analysis relies on an assumption that dominance is the only form of power.
The power of partnership requires identifying common interests (see “relationships based on self-interests” in the photo above) and building on those. Another name for this is “coalition.” As Bernice Johnson Reagon pointed out in one of the most important speeches ever given on the topic, we’re not talking about some kumbaya feel-good coming together. Its hard work.
There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.
Dominance is the method of choice for the ideologues among us because it eschews that kind of thing in favor of “my way or the highway” or “you’re either with us or against us.”
It should surprise no one that Barack Obama, as a former community organizer, would embrace the power of partnership. We saw that immediately in how he ran his campaign in 2008 with the slogan “Respect, Empower, Include.” And then in his first address on the world stage, he said this:
For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
This message of partnership permeates almost all of President Obama’s speeches. For example, his entire speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention was devoted to citizenship – and that the very idea of our democracy is rooted in partnership.
We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
We’ve all watched that power of partnership be used to develop the global coalitions that the President has formed to bring Iran to the negotiating table, halt Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria (bringing together both Sunni and Shia Muslims in the process).
But the power of partnership is no more a guarantee of success than is the power of dominance (which most often leads to blowback). Domestically, when the Republican Party abandoned any self interest except that of obstruction, partnership became all but impossible. So now we’re witnessing – via the pen and phone strategy – a President who is willing to go it alone when he has to. Commence blowback.
What the Republicans fear most is the loss of their power to dominate (either globally or domestically) via a rise in the power of partnership. Then-Senator Barack Obama explained why back in 2005.
A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate…
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.