Where Does Power Lie?
A Case Study of Power in the American Government
“He who controls the gates, controls the city.”
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of modern politics is that it isn’t even clear who we should be mad at. Government? Capital? The Man? Far too often these are mere abstractions that allow us to impotently express our anger at a shadow and then get back to our lives. Understanding where power actually lies is critical to understanding how to oppose it, undermine it, and/or seize it. I wish to take a look at the development of the nexus of power in American politics, with a focus on 4 distinct periods where the Nexus of power shifted:
Period 1 (1780s-1820s [Washington -> JQ Adams]) = Congress
Period 2 (1820s-early 1900s [Jackson -> TR]) = Party
Period 3 (early 1900s-1960s/70s/80s [TR -> LBJ-Reagan]) = Executive Bureaucracy
Period 4 (1960s/70s/80s-Present [LBJ-Reagan -> Now]) = Blue Empire
Then, we can begin to piece together how Blue Empire established and maintains its power so that we can better understand how to undermine and destroy it. In order to understand this, we need to understand the relation of People to Government in each Period.
Period 1: The Founders Vision Reigns Supreme
It should come as no shock to anyone familiar with American politics and history that the Founders wanted Congress to reign supreme. They had just freed themselves from the yoke of what they perceived to be an oppressive king and wanted to prevent such a situation from ever occurring again. Furthermore, they were skeptical of mass democracy, unsure if the People would be able to make good choices. So, they instituted a republican form of government.
But something important to note: the relationship of People to Power in this sense was still direct. The People chose lower-level representatives who then chose higher-level representatives. Mediation (in the modern sense - i.e. by institutions) did not exist yet. Instead, all power relations from the Bottom (People) to the Top (Presidency) were direct. There was no intermediate institution yet fully developed to play a major role.
Period 2: The First Mediators
The Party Period, stretching from the late 1820s to the early 1900s formed a distinctive era in American politics…where parties dominated political participation and channeled the flow of government policies.
Following the Corrupt Bargain of 1824 and the populist fervor that swept the nation, Jackson won the presidency in 1828. Jackson’s policies themselves aren’t that interesting for this discussion, but his “Spoils System”/Patronage State helped bring about a change that would define the next 80-100+ years of American politics: The Party Period/The Rise of Party Machines.
From the 1830s until the early 1900s parties shaped campaigns and elections into popular spectacles featuring widespread participation and celebration. Three-quarters of the nation's adult male citizens voted in presidential elections and nearly two-thirds also participated in off-year contests. Most of them cast straight tickets conveniently supplied by the party organizations. While illicit voting may have swelled the electoral totals and fraudulent counting likely reduced the recorded levels of split ballots, it is probable that the great majority of adult males voted honestly, enthusiastically, and partisanly.
The Parties became the first true institutions of mediation. The politicians may pick the policies that pass, but the parties picked the politicians. The first formal extra-governmental mediation between People and Politician/Government had developed. Power had completed its first major shift, out of the hallways of formal government: now, Party Elites and their shadowy nomination decisions (popular vote primaries didn’t start until the early 1900s) carried the real power.
Period 3: The Presidency Strikes Back
Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Presidents began to re-assert themselves against Party control. Combined with the rise of popular primaries in the early 1900s, and mediation/intermediate institutions began to lose a grip on the People-Government connection. In this vein, no one President was as transformative in this process as Franklin Delanor Roosevelt.
As he attempted to remake the Democratic Party into a unified and ideologically pure national entity, FDR openly declared that he wished to rid the Democratic Party of its foolish traditions; such a statement marked a very clear beginning of the end of the Party Period, as the Party began to cede its power to the President. No longer would the Party act as a powerful, external check to the President; instead, the President would remake the Party in his own image and use it as a tool. Only a national party, could capture the reins of government and mobilize support for a national agenda: in this case, his ambitious New Deal.
So, how did FDR accomplish this? Largely, by seizing an opportunity: technological change (we will return to this shortly). Advancements in technology now made it far easier to disseminate information and for the audience to absorb it passively as opposed to having to actively absorb it. The rise of electronic mass media, notably the radio, allowed FDR to speak directly to the people in his famous “fireside chats”. No longer would the President’s message be delivered to the People through the lens of party newspapers; instead, the President himself would directly engage with the people. Intermediate Institutions had been cut out.
An important caveat: there was nothing inevitable about the rise of technology that demanded the parties would be side-stepped. Parties had repeatedly adapted to technological change throughout the previous century. FDR’s entreprenurial and innovative presidential leadership made him as much a contender for a Great Man of history as anything else, as he sidestepped party apparatuses and directly built a mass political base by using radio addresses to generate intimacy with the people and strengthn the President-People relationship at the expense of the parties.
But while FDR had de-obfuscated power for a time, he also brought about another change, which would allow for a new set of intermediate institutions to establish themselves and obfuscate power once more: the rise of the administrative bureaucracy.
Period 4: The Rise of Blue Empire
During the Party Period, not only would the party elites be the driving force behind nominations, but they would also be the ones directing the party in its role as a check on presidential power. This gave an immense amount of power to a group of nameless, faceless elites who make these decisions in manners completely hidden from (and unaccountable by) the people (sound familiar?). Perhaps FDR’s greatest success was his de-obfuscation and re-formalization of this power within the government. Perhaps FDR’s greatest failure was his establishment of a strong administrative bureaucracy/State that would end up being captured by another set of intermediate institutions.
FDR engaged in a massive expansion of government (really, executive) power, as he not only took and expanded the Patronage State from the Party Period (think Civil Works Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Works Progress Administration, etc.) but added to that a Regulatory State (Securities Act of 1933, Fair Labor Standards Act, FTC and FDA expansion) and a Redistributive State (establishment of the FDIC, Social Security Act, Farm Security Administration, etc.).
The issue with this is that the administrative bureaucracy was now far too large and unwieldy to be meaningfully monitored by a single man, or even a party. The administrators themselves now held the reigns of power. And here, we see the first area where Blue Empire arises: who becomes an administrator? Just as the party elites of the 19th century determined who the nominees were that the People would vote on, Blue Empire controls the vast majority of credentialist/status-conferring institutions in the U.S. and therefore determine who is eligible to be selected as an administrator.
Academia is the premier credentialist institution, and is basically entirely captured by Blue Empire. The NGO universe (including lobbyists) as well. The ideology of Blue Empire, Rainbow Neoliberalism, holds all of the power (the social, financial, physical, and human capital) in these areas. It determines who may access the avenues to power. Mainstream media organizations act in alignment with this, (de)legitimizing anyone they (dis)like, empowered by their capture of the new technology that FDR had used. Instead of allowing for greater directness, mediation became universal and inescapable. Ultimately, the “Long March through the Institutions” was completed by the Rainbow Neoliberals, not the Marxists.
So Now What?
Where do we go from here? How do we establish a new system outside of Blue Empire? Considering the utter dominance of mediation in today’s world, it seems unlikely that a re-establishment of directness will arise anytime soon. Certainly regulating social media platforms as pseudo-utilities might provide a serious opportunity for directness between President and People, but I do not see that happening under a Biden or Harris administration and Trump doesn’t appear competent enough to do it either. Furthermore, radical reform of the Hatch Act, might allow for a “cleaning of the slate” of entrenched Blue Empire administrators. These are two areas that must be part of any serious platform moving forward.
If this demonstrates anything, it is that organization is absolutely paramount. I discussed in my previous post on alternative institutions that building institutions that evade Blue Empire’s current hegemony will require lots of local, semi-autonomous groups (I used the term “cells”). But what is clear is that these “cells” need to be unified under a new set of status-conferring institutions. These institutions need to provide a new pool of people that are granted status to be administrators and they need to absolutely lock out the status granted by current credentialist institutions. In effect, I am calling for the construction of a Red Empire.
Red Empire (since the Dems are the party of Blue Empire/Rainbow Neoliberalism and the current GOP is useless) must shape their ideology around individuals like Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt, and their conduct around individuals like Jackson and FDR. It is our only hope.