The Politics Of Powerlessness

Elizabeth Bruenig describes the politics of powerlessness (boldface mine):

American democracy tells a certain kind of story about itself and its legitimacy: Our government derives its power and authority from the consent of the governed, which means that our government reflects, to some degree, our national character. Even if you look at the government and see nothing at all you approve of, the contractual story goes, you’re still following the laws and paying taxes, and that is sufficient proof of assent as far as we’re concerned. Thus we all toil under the suspicion that we really do have the government we deserve.

But that our government arises (as national mythology holds) from our own will says something about the government and something about us. If this is the kind of government we want and deserve — one permanently mired in controversy, much of it sordid and exploitative; one that never seems to operate with anything approaching full transparency or honesty; one that mercurially sets its sights on a rotating cast of enemies, blundering from one to another faster than it can dispense with its own personnel — then what kind of people are we?

But then there’s the clincher that turns a typical democratic concern into our current nightmare: You actually don’t have much control over what goes on in government, not because of widespread voter fraud or whatever fantasy but because a few wealthy donors and their underlings have the privilege of setting the political agenda, of selecting the choices you will be offered long before you have the opportunity to make them. A sense of bitter impotence underlies the political mood on both the left and right, I think, for precisely this reason. When you know that nothing you do matters very much, even victory is frustrating; defeat, meanwhile, feels like utter despair.

It is an unlivable paradox, knowing both that you’re implicated in the authority of your government and that you have little say in which decisions you will eventually be credited with, at least in part.

The other side of this coin is that much of our governance has been outsourced to the private sector, meaning we have very little agency in those spheres too. David Atkins made this point years ago (boldface mine):

But most of all, we don’t see the health insurance company as providing us a service. We see ourselves, rather, as indentured supplicants forced to pay exorbitant monthly rates for a basic need that responsible people with means can’t get out of paying for if we can help it. We don’t see ourselves as in control of the relationship with them. They are in control of us–and no more so than when we get sick and need the insurance most. If the company decides to restrict our coverage or tell us we have a pre-existing condition after all, we’re in the position of begging a capricious and heartless corporation to cover costs we assumed we were entitled to based on a contractual obligation. It’s precisely when we need insurance most that we’re least able to “fire” the insurance company.

The same goes for the rent/mortgage, for the utilities, for the car, for the cell phone bill, for nearly everything. Most of these things are necessary commodities for most Americans. Many are socially expected, even if not technically necessary. They all have (usually far overpriced) unavoidable monthly charges and premiums that fall on overworked and underpaid Americans every month like a load of bricks. We see many of them increase by at least 5-20% year over year even as our wages stay flat. All we can do is struggle to keep up, trying to find the least bad service for the lowest price we can afford, but knowing we’re getting gouged every step of the way.

Romney talks about paying for health insurance as if it were the same as getting a pedicure, hiring an escort or getting the fancy wax at a car wash. It’s a luxury service being provided to him, and he doesn’t like it, he can take his business elsewhere. Romney’s is the language of a man who has never wanted for anything, never worried about where his next paycheck would come from, never worried about going bankrupt if he got sick.

It is the language of an entitled empowerment utterly alien to the experience of most Americans, who feel victimized and bled dry without recourse by these rentier corporations. Romney sees himself as in charge of the relationship between himself and these entities. Most Americans don’t. That’s why the statement rankles and feels so off-putting to us. The mention of enjoying the act of “firing” them is just icing on the cake.

I know Republicans won’t do anything to address this. I wonder if the professional Democratic class will. They certainly won’t without pressure. And when politics doesn’t affect people’s lives for the better, it makes Palinism all the more appealing.

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1 Response to The Politics Of Powerlessness

  1. Chris Wegener says:

    Everything you say is true. Yet, what can we as individuals do?
    I advocate for increasing the size of the House of Representatives so that every Representative represents the original intent of the constitution of 30,00 to 40,000 persons. I think the resulting 8,000 representatives would be harder to bribe and at least for a short time might be able to actually represent the people of the United States before the are co opted by the corporate state.
    A man can dream.

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