2018 Will Be a Battle of ‘Power With’ Versus ‘Power Over’

Over the long weekend I read something that does a great job of describing the meta-struggle that is going on in our country right now. It comes from an interview Kathy Caprino conducted with Carla Goldstein, chief external affairs officer at the Omega Institute. The question Caprino posed was, “Carla, what is ‘power’ today in your view, and how has that definition changed for women and men?” Here is Goldstein’s answer:

You can’t look at power without looking at patriarchy. Patriarchy — domination of men over women– has been around for about 5,000 years, which is relatively short in human history. It has been perpetuated by the idea that the inequality in power is inherent, and has been a foundation for dividing us in other ways, including race, class, country of origin, religion and sexuality. But patriarchy arose out of a complex set of historical conditions, overcoming the primarily egalitarian relationships of indigenous cultures that preceded it – therefore we know it can be transformed. At the Omega Women’s Leadership Center we believe it’s time to move away from “power over” to “power with.”

Goldetein is referring to something Riane Eisler has been talking about for decades.

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.

What all of our “isms” have in common is that they spring from an understanding of power that is hierarchical, where one group dominates another. That is the nexus that connects sexism, racism, classism, imperialism, etc.

I appreciate that Goldstein points to patriarchy as the problem, which takes it out of our gendered way of talking about these issues. She goes on to say this:

Talking with women leaders from all fields—be they in non-profits or Fortune 500 businesses—the challenge seems to be finding ways to shape a new kind of leadership that is values-based and relationship-centered. Rather than just mimic the heroic leader archetype we inherited or grew up learning from—women are eager to use our unique experience to shift the way that power is expressed.

This shift won’t come just because more women gain power because it’s not just about making sure women get an equal piece of the pie. It’s about creating a new kind of pie—together, whatever our gender identity. We need to use our power to transform the very nature of power itself from a paradigm of dominance to cooperation.

Liberals who equate power with dominance find themselves in the position of either mimicking the patriarchal view of dominance or critiquing power altogether. The former leads to the kind of authoritarianism that we abhor on the right, while the latter leaves us weak and ineffectual.

It was a distaste for both of those options that originally led me to be curious about the campaign and eventual presidency of Barack Obama. It became clear to me early on that he was a national figure engaged in transforming our vision of power. We saw that first with his community organizing approach to the 2008 campaign, where the mottos were “Respect, Empower, Include” and “Yes We Can.”

There were a lot of critiques of Obama that were grounded in the idea that he abandoned that community organizing approach to governing once he was elected. Those have a lot of merit. But he never abandoned his transformational view of power. Here is how he articulated it during his first trip abroad to an audience in Cairo, Egypt.

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.

If you look back at the course of Obama’s presidency, that view is repeated over and over again, through both his speeches and his actions. Some of his biggest accomplishments—the Iranian nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accord, etc.—came through the use of “power with” as opposed to “power over.” I would suggest that it is the reason conservatives criticized him as weak on foreign policy, and a lot of liberals echoed that critique about his approach to dealing with Congress. All are based on an assumption that dominance is the only form of power.

When we consider that Donald Trump is, in many ways, a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama, it is his all-encompassing need to dominate that is most helpful in understanding the threat Obama posed to a patriarchal view of power. Here is how Frank Foer summarized Trump back in March 2016:

…there’s one ideology that he does hold with sincerity and practices with unwavering fervor: misogyny. Trump wants us to know all about his sex life. He doesn’t regard sex as a private activity. It’s something he broadcasts to demonstrate his dominance, of both women and men. In his view, treating women like meat is a necessary precondition for winning, and winning is all that matters in his world. By winning, Trump means asserting superiority. And since life is a zero-sum game, superiority can only be achieved at someone else’s expense.

Not only is that demonstrated by Trump’s need to undo the accomplishments that were attained via the use of partnership, we see it with this president’s desire to renegotiate trade deals bilaterally rather than multi-laterally, as well as his attacks on groups like NATO and the United Nations. Multi-lateral trade deals and global alliances are all dependent on recognizing the power of partnership, undermining Trump’s need for dominance.

These are not notions that are particular to Trump. While it is true that he takes dominance to a whole new level, he is lining up with a conservative tradition that eschews partnership in favor of global dominance. For instance, a recent headline at the conservative Washington Examiner read, “Joy to the World! The UN Budget Cuts Have Come.”

On a more intimate level, when we talk about the politics of resentment that fuel the nostalgia voters, the changes they fear all stem from an assumption that patriarchal dominance is threatened. For those who can’t envision a way to transform power, that signals a kind of death. Back when Obama was re-elected in 2012, David Simon called it “the death of normal.”

Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.

Like many of us, Simon obviously misread the huge backlash the death of normal would ignite. But the struggle continues. What we’re seeing from the resistance on the ground, if sustained, could lead to a blue tidal wave this year. The fact that this time there isn’t a national figure like Barack Obama at the helm means that it is truly a people-powered endeavor (and explains why mainstream media outlets are often missing the story). When I think of what 2018 will bring, it looks like a kind of backlash to the backlash…or “power with” lining up to challenge “power over.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.