Frederick Douglass, in his West India Emancipation Speech of 1856, famously stated that “power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will…” It’s not hard to understand why a former slave and tireless human rights advocate would have an acute sensibility to the nature of power. He was, of course, correct. Without significant resistance from the grassroots no empowered institution has ever voluntarily reduced their power.
But what’s significant from a sociological perspective here is that Douglass used the general term “power” rather than be more specific and refer to powerful “people” or people in power. True, people in power would have to surrender personal power in order for power in general to be acquiesced to a willing and waiting citizenry. But this is not how it works.
Perhaps Douglass realized that power is not necessarily posited into the hands of select individuals, but is rather an institutional arrangement. People in power are those who are ensconced in institutionally legitimized power arrangements. People may use and manipulate the power of institutions, but power itself is a property of the institution.
This works well as there’s little incentive for individuals who rise successfully through the institution to limit the very power dynamics for which they aspire.
So what the hell are you talking about, Mike? Well, I’m watching the Obama administration and the liberal pundits who supported it. Such commentators like Rachel Maddow are understandably weary of the concentration of power in the electorate that seemed to grow exponentially under Bush. Now they are waiting for Obama to make right and start dis-empowering the Executive in the interests of…oh, I don’t know…democracy! It’s unlikely to happen.
If we are waiting of Obama, a person in power, to limit the exercise of his own power…we shouldn’t hold our breath in the meantime. The power of the Executive is inherent in the office. Every man who has exercised that office has endeavored to increase his power, not decrease it. Some were more talented toward this end than others…a la Bush.
This being the case, it is in the nature of institutions, especially institutions directly involved in the distribution of power, to become more and more powerful. Obama is unlikely to reverse this trend.
So let’s not be surprised about Obama’s “Friday Night News Dumps” that Rachel Maddow is so adept at digging out. He’s not going to reverse policy such as the denial of habeas corpus; he will not lead the debate regarding personal privacy in the postmodern world. He will do what everyone before him has done. Concentrate as much power behind his desk as he can and justify this through some contortion of logic to convince us that doing so is in the best interest of the country.
This brings the second variable of Douglass’ statement to the fore, “without demand.” If we want Obama (or any politician) for that matter, to concede power, we must demand it. We cannot rely on the president to make such a concession when it is not in his best interest. Nor can we rely on the system of checks and balances established by the founders to act as a natural buffer to power concentration in the executive.
Think about it. Almost all of the leadership in Congress aspire to the presidency. Are they going to allow any legislation that significantly limits the power that they ultimately aspire to? No. That’s why Obama voted for the FISA amendment that he campaigned against. That’s why Congress never shut down Guantanamo. That’s why there was never–and never will be–a serious government investigation into the abuses of the Bush Administration.
We are dealing with power institutions here. And those who participate in power institutions are interested in accessing power. There’s no incentive to limit that power regardless of the rhetoric.