It’s human nature for the worst of us to want power.
The desire for power and the ability to shape society as we believe it should be is seemingly baked into the DNA of the most heartless, craven human beings. It is them -- not the do gooders, not those who live and let live – that capture power at any cost and wield it with impunity. For the power-hungry, there are no limits to what can and should be done to attain and keep power – political, cultural, or otherwise.
It’s a vexing problem in any society, but particularly so in a representative democracy, where we are told from our earliest days that the republic’s intricate power-sharing arrangements and myriad guardrails will buffer vulnerable people against the fiendish wishes of the madman. It will all figure itself out, we have been assured. There is no reason to fear the power-mad American because they will always be restrained by our god-given form of governance.
This, of course, is all a steaming, heaping load of bullshit.
We’ve watched helplessly over the past seven years as one so-called guardrail after another has fallen, with Big Daddy Trump barreling through (almost) all the little power-splitting arrangements government officials had made, especially since Watergate. He very nearly overthrew a free and fair election. There are no guardrails remaining, if there ever were, and what’s more: A huge portion of the American electorate detests these guardrails and safety measures against autocracy. The most vocal members of the country’s right wing have been clear about their aim: To install a unitary executive who can use the federal government’s agencies for his own gain and against his political enemies. The right gave up on representative democracy long ago; just listen to them if you don’t believe me.
They want power, they want it permanently, and they want to crush our skulls – sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally – with that power.
The left for too long has feared power. Liberals and progressives and mainline Democrats and even leftists have been reluctant to seize power and wield it against those who would harm marginalized people. Power, for many on the left, is something to be feared, something from which we must shy away. It’s an ugly word. It connotes domination and revenge and hubris. Just as the thirst for power is in the right winger’s DNA, the lefty’s DNA tells them to beware power, to avoid it, and to convince others that power can and should be shared among equals. It’s a nice thought. A dangerously naive one too.
Power is a fact of life in any form of governance and pretending it’s not only creates a vacuum for the most odious political actors – the most belligerent and proudly ignorant, perpetuators of social Darwinism, filled to the brim with hate and prejudice and an unshakable belief in their superiority. It is them who benefit from the left's allergy to power.
It calls to mind a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that should ring in the ears of anyone who cares to push back against the world’s rising tide of fascism. It is King at his most eloquent, practically begging good folks to take charge.
"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."
Republican lawmakers on the state level have long used their power recklessly and abusively, most recently against those advocating for racial justice and LGBTQ folks wanting nothing more than equal standing in our representative democracy. Republicans sometimes use their power to satisfy their rabid, nihilistic base, and sometimes to protect capital or the so-called traditional family or some imagined idea of men and women. Sometimes they use their power just for the fuck of it, just to be cruel and spread the pain that has festered, unchecked, in their black hearts for so long. Power is a useful tool for projecting inner pain, after all.
King is devastatingly correct in his assessment of power at its best. Contrary to powerless love – which is nice and all, but amounts to nothing – love with power seeks to deliver justice and stand against those who would violate the tenants of love.
What might a powerful love look like? It might be an expanded Supreme Court that would stop the fascist and wildly corrupt court majority from making American society less equal with every ruling. It might look like a Democratic congressional majority ready and willing to nuke the filibuster and discharge student loans and legalize all abortion care and pass comprehensive climate legislation and stop Republican-held states from infringing upon the voting rights of the poor and people of color and creating a national healthcare system. It might look like putting Republican officials and their co-conspirators in prison for their misdeeds and crimes against the republic. A powerful love would do what it took to fill the vacuum occupied by right-wing ghouls for far too long. It would be difficult and require immense political bravery, but it would be necessary if we are to have a less-than-dystopian future.
I’m so tired of the left’s anemic love. As King said, it’s purely sentimental, the kind of virtue signaling that makes one feel good about oneself and not much more. I’m guilty of it. Probably you are too. We must change our relationship to power if we are ever going to stop our backslide into autocracy. Power is the only thing that can save us now.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13. He's on BlueSky at @cdcarter13.bsky.social.