Politics is about power. And power is everywhere. To locate it is to locate the social agents who have the ability to shape our lives and the processes by which they can do so. Social and political theorists have debated about the concept of power, and the sources and locations of power, for many decades. These debates have often centered on the idea that power has “faces” and “guises” and is apparent in different forms. Decades ago I contributed to these debates in an article that was the basis of a book. The article, entitled “Beyond the Three Faces of Power,” argued that behind the apparent sources of power there were deeper sources of power that enabled some groups, classes, and individuals to shape the life chances of many others. I still believe this, though in a different way than I did back then. But I also believe that the “faces” of power are themselves revealing. They reveal kinds of social and political action, and they reveal the obstacles to but also the possibilities of the kinds of social and political change that we need, and might even believe in.
Last week’s Kavanaugh hearings were a grueling, agonizing experience for all of us who paid attention to the live-streams and to the non-stop coverage of and commentary on them. We were treated to three visible and particularly noxious “faces of power.” But we also witnessed the possibility of something beyond these faces of power, in the equally visible faces of what we might call “counter-power.”
The three faces of power are easily identified.
The first requires little introduction. It belongs to Brett Kavanaugh (especially from minute 5 in the video below), enacting his outraged sense of white, upper class, male grievance, angrily denouncing and attacking Democratic Senators and “the left”, and demonstrating in pure form the Republican approach to law in the age of Trump: a tool of power to be wielded brazenly by the rich and well-positioned against all who question or challenge them.
The second face belongs to Lindsey Graham, far-right Republican Senator from South Carolina, golfing buddy and chief enabler of Donald Trump, erupting in outrage at the treatment of Kavanaugh and, absurdly, at the politicization of the Senate, that august body led by that most even-handed of statesmen, Mitch McConnell. If Kavanaugh embodies the Republican approach to justice, Graham embodies the Republican approach to legislative deliberation: steam-roll a right-wing agenda by any means necessary, protocol be damned except when it suits your purposes to feign indignation (and also marginalization: “I know I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up, if that’s OK.”)
The third belongs to the Man of the People to whom Kavanaugh and Graham pledge their allegiance: Donald Trump. Here is Trump, days before the hearing, angrily defending Kavanaugh and casting aspersions on his female accusers:
And here is Trump, a month before, whipping up his crowd against the press:
Those are the faces of power in our national politics. Defensive. Angry. Hostile. Outraged that an independent press, or constitutionally prescribed checks and balances, or a lone and frightened (and also brave and impressive) woman with a story of sexual assault, might uphold certain rights, or delay or limit the Trumpist agenda. To be sure, they are not the only faces of power, only the most publicly visible ones. Behind them, or alongside them, are other powerholders, many indeed “faceless” and not publicly recognizable, some wielding their power in a corporate boardroom, some in a blue uniform, and some simply by virtue of having a penis. These forms of power are important. They must be understood, exposed, and challenged. It is the purpose of democratic politics to allow for their public exposure and political contestation. And all of this is in jeopardy so long as the embittered faces of Kavanaugh, Graham, and Trump glare at us from the heights of governmental power.
At the same time, in the past week we have seen some very visible, and exemplary, faces of counter-power.
One is the face of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, an accomplished woman who embodies a quiet dignity, honesty, and desire to “help” in the conduct of the “public business” of government, who courageously came forward to testify in the face of death threats and calumnies and the harsh glare of the cameras. Blasey Ford had nothing to gain by her public appearance, and she spoke, and presented herself sincerely, as a decent ordinary citizen who hoped that the normal processes of public deliberation would work fairly to the benefit of the republic:
A second is the face of the Democratic Senators who have steadfastly challenged the Kavanaugh nomination, in the original hearings by raising fundamental questions about his constitutional values and his solicitude toward the powerful, and more recently by defending the importance of giving Blasey Ford a fair hearing and by taking seriously their constitutional duties to “advise and consent” on Court appointments. In my opinion, every Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee acquitted themselves admirably during the hearings, but special plaudits are deserved by the four women Senators: Amy Klobuchar, Mazie Hirono, Kamala Harris, and Diane Feinstein:
I mention Feinstein last because she is the senior Democrat on the committee and because of her role in the way the Blasey Ford allegations became public. I stand by what I wrote about this last week: “There are many reasons to dislike Feinstein for being too centrist, or too corporate, or too much of a Washington insider and game-player. There are many reasons to support Kevin de Leon, her progressive Democratic challenger, in November’s general election. But if she preserved the confidentiality of Blasey Ford’s allegations only eventually to leak them or to allow them to be leaked, is this a reason to condemn her or to applaud her for bringing a genuine public concern to the attention of the public in a way that was sure to have maximum impact?” I would go further: Feinstein surely did play hardball with her unscrupulous Republican colleagues, and she surely did use these allegations strategically, with the purpose of obstructing the Kavanaugh confirmation “at the last minute,” and causing maximum crisis for the Republicans in the process. And she succeeded, even if it turns out only temporarily. And this is the reason why Lindsey Graham and his Republican colleagues were so angry at her, and so outraged at the “unfairness” of the situation — because Feinstein has been in some ways publicly disingenuous about what she has said about her role in all of this, in precisely the ways that successful politicians are sometimes disingenuous, and in the way that Republicans have not simply been disingenuous but lying. And while Senate Republicans have gotten used to playing their Democratic colleagues, who have more or less remained true to Senate norms that the Republicans have travestied, Feinstein has now given them a taste of their own medicine. And the Senate Democrats rallied to her side. The face of the Democratic leadership, led by Democratic women, standing strong against Graham and Grassley, is a sight for sore eyes. And we will need to see more of this in the future if there is to be a successful defeat of Trumpism.
The third face of “counter-power” is the face of Ana Maria Archila as she confronted Jeff Flake outside the elevator in the Senate building:
I want to focus on this “face of power” for a moment, because it is one that we truly need to see more of in the weeks, months, and years to come.
The first thing to note is that Archila was outraged and angry and loud. And she, a private citizen, yelled at a Senator in the official building of the Senate to demand attention and accountability. Archila defied the norms of decorum in the Senate and perhaps the norms of “femininity,” she pressed the bounds of “civility,” and she contested power — and she was heard, and it made a difference.
That it made a difference is due to the character of Jeff Flake (I mean “character” in two senses: his [ambivalent, wishy-washy, and sanctimoniously “communitarian”] personality and disposition, but also the fact that, unlike his Republican colleagues, he does have a modicum of integrity, and was willing to listen, and was clearly cowed and moved in ways that caused him to change his mind). But there are always some people in power like Flake, who are somewhat ambivalent or confused or who take their self-righteousness too seriously, and who can be pressured.
What there is not always is the kind of pressure that was exerted by Archila and her fellow women in that hallway, and by the many outraged women and men demonstrating in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country, demanding that Kavanaugh be seriously judged by the Senate, and threatening political leaders — Republicans, but also red-state Democrats like Manchin and Donnelly — that if their voices are not heard, they will get louder and more insistent, and they will exact retribution at the polls.
The second thing to note is that Archila is an outraged and outspoken citizen, but she is not simply an ordinary citizen: she is a long-time activist who currently serves as Co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy. (In the way her very public act of defiance is linked to her organizational ties, she vaguely brings to mind Rosa Parks.)
This is her biography as posted at the Center’s website:
Ana María emigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at the age of 17 and has become a leading voice for racial justice, economic justice and immigrant rights in New York and nationally, first as co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York (MRNY), and now as co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD).
During Ana María’s 13 years at MRNY and its predecessor organization, the Latin American Integration Center, Ana Maria helped build a build the organization into a powerful force for change in New York and nationally. The 16,000+ members of Make the Road New York, mostly working class Latino immigrants, have led some of the most transformative victories for low-income New Yorkers over the last decade: With their determination and strong advocacy, members of MRNY have helped put millions of dollars in the pockets of low-wage workers by winning increases to the minimum wage, paid sick days, and strong protections from wage-theft; and they have led the ambitious campaigns to win public policies that make New York City one of the leading Sanctuary Cities in the country. By organizing in neighborhoods across New York City and Long Island, MRNY members are bringing the experiences of immigrants to the forefront of the public debate and are shaping public policy on housing, education, health care, policing, civil rights and more.
In 2014, Ana María stepped into a new role as Co-Executive Director at the Center for Popular Democracy, and helped build it into one of the largest community organizing networks in the country, with 45 affiliate organizations in 32 states. CPD and its affiliates represent a powerful multi-racial alliance of immigrants, African Americans and white working class communities working to advance an agenda of racial and economic justice, and a vibrant democracy. CPD and its affiliates have played a major role in the national movement to raise the minimum wage and win family-sustaining jobs, resulting in raises for close to 11 million workers. Working with local progressive elected officials, the CPD network has helped elevate the role of cities as places for policy innovation that advances immigrant rights, workplace justice, and economic opportunity for communities of color.
In this moment of increased threats from the federal government, the organizations that are part of the CPD network are helping drive participation of people across the country to protect our communities, and advance a vision for justice and opportunity for all.
Here is the Center’s mission statement:
The Center for Popular Democracy works to create equity, opportunity and a dynamic democracy in partnership with high-impact base-building organizations, organizing alliances, and progressive unions. CPD strengthens our collective capacity to envision and win an innovative pro-worker, pro-immigrant, racial and economic justice agenda. CPD builds the power of communities to ensure the country embodies our vision of an inclusive, equitable society — where people of color, immigrants, working families, women, and LGBTQ communities thrive together, supported by a resilient economy and political institutions that reflect our priorities. CPD’s role is especially important at a time when our communities are being threatened and the institutions that sustain us are under attack.
The Center is an important source of grass-roots democratic activism with affiliates across the U.S. It is what it says it is: an agent of insurgent citizenship and “popular democracy.”
At the same time, it is closely linked to, and has the support of, major progressive institutions, including some very important if “mainstream” ones. Its Strategic Advisory Council includes the top leaders of the Communication Workers of America, the SEIU, the United Federation of Teachers Program, the NEA, and the AFL-CIO; the leaders of think-tanks such as Demos and the Roosevelt Institute; a Program Officer of the Ford Foundation; Dan Cantor, Executive Director of the Working Families Party; and Professor Frances Fox Piven, the most prominent analyst of and participant in “poor people’s movements” in the American academy.
The face of Ana Maria Archila is the face of committed citizen activism and savvy institution-building.
There are many reasons I present her angry and insistent face as the counterpart to Trump’s angry face. The simplest one is because there is not yet an individual who can be regarded as the likely opponent to Trump in the 2020 elections. At this moment, while the Republican Party has a leader and indeed a Duce, the Democratic Party is leaderless. A deeper reason is that there could not be a stronger contrast: on the one hand, the bitter, angry, and powerful face of Trump, representing a politics of racial, gender, and class resentment, and on the other, the outraged and indignant face of a woman who enacts civic dignity and demands justice, and who is passionate but not resentful. And an even deeper reason is this: because what we most need if we are to resist, defeat, and surpass Trumpism, is many more faces like the face of Archila. We need to join her, to “be” her, to seize the public stage, and demand to be heard.
At the same time, while we need the “face” of activism, most of us are not and will never be activists in the way that Archila and her colleagues, and the leaders and militants of many other community organizations, are activists.
And it is important to appreciate that if we are to move beyond the three faces of Republican political power, we will need at least the three faces of “counter-power” I’ve identified: the face of quiet dignity, middle class professionalism, and honest truth-telling epitomized by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford; the face of indignant and insistent citizen activism epitomized by Ms. Ana Maria Archila; and the faces of Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, elected leaders and legislators who stand for progressive values, but also the faces of Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Liz Watson, and the many other insurgent Democratic candidates seeking to lead a blue wave in November.
All of these things are important, and it is possible for each of us to support these things in the ways that make most sense for us as individuals.
We can act with integrity in our private lives, do “public work” in our professional or work lives, insist on due process and justice when we are harmed, and come forward as conscientious individual citizens when the situation presents itself.
We can support, and sometimes participate in, community organizations and activist groups that struggle for justice and grass-roots empowerment, and we can do what we can to encourage and support those fellow citizens who commit themselves to lives of activism.
And we can work to invigorate and empower the Democratic Party, and to support Democratic candidates in November.
Each of these things is important in the long term.
At the same time, it is in the next month or so that it will be decided whether or not Trumpism will be halted politically, and whether come 2019, we will see more faces like those of Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham or more like those of Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris.
There is little time, and much work yet to be done.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.