Tag Archives: powerlessness

The Question We All Must Answer

In a recent column for the New York Times, Charles Blow gave voice to a question with which I continue to struggle–a question that (I assume, albeit without evidence) bedevils most thoughtful people: what can I do? What difference can one person make?

Blow recounted his family’s history of poverty, and told of a trip back to visit a favorite–very poor–aunt. By the time of the visit, he had moved into a more favorable economic position, but was certainly not able to ameliorate the conditions of the impoverished folks in his family, let alone others similarly situated.

I sat there thinking about the great divide among us, about how far removed I now was from this life, but also about how very connected I was, spiritually, to it.

And I was conflicted. How much could I or should I help? I have had long talks with my mother about this. Other than a little money in greeting cards, there wasn’t much that I could do for all the people I knew in need.

Blow concluded–accurately–that the problem of poverty was not going to be solved by  personal generosity. It would require public policy– and public indifference continued to impede passage of such policies. He decided that, given his particular skills and his position with the Times,  the best thing he could do was advocate.

Blow’s column really resonated with me, not because of the specific issue he identified, but because that issue–poverty–shares an essential component of most of the issues Americans face right now. It is a problem that’s far too big for an individual to solve, or even substantially affect.

I don’t know about those of you who read this blog, or other people generally (it may simply be my own personality defect), but what depresses me are not the sorts of problems and challenges we all face in life. I can deal with those, because in most cases, if I work hard, I can do something about them. What depresses me is powerlessness-– an inability to solve a problem, whether personal or social, or even make a dent in it.

Most of what I see around me these days reinforces that powerlessness.

Any reasonably well-informed person in today’s America cannot help but see what seems to be the disintegration of our society in the face of the truly massive threats we confront. Yes, some of those threats have been with us a long time, although (thanks to the fact that we currently marinate in media and social media) we have become much more aware of them. But others, like climate change, pose challenges that are new–and monumental.

And then there’s gerrymandering, and a global pandemic and the utter insanity of a significant portion of the American population.

If we are sentient and even remotely aware, each of us has to ask ourselves the question Charles Blow posed in his column: what can I do? What possible impact can an individual make on problems that are national or even global in scope?

I suppose one answer is to work for the election of reasonable, competent people who take these problems seriously, although gerrymandering frequently defeats that effort. Another is to model appropriate behaviors in our own lives–to work for equity and inclusion and rational public policies in our own communities. But–in the absence of widespread public participation in those activities or the emergence of effective social movements devoted to them– any rational evaluation of their efficacy will conclude that they have very little impact. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things, but neither should we exaggerate their importance in the scheme of things…)

Charles Blow concluded that advocacy was the best thing he could do; as someone with a “bully pulpit” at a national newspaper, he is in a position to affect the national discussion. Most of us involved in advocacy don’t have that sort of audience. We are left feeling powerless–because in a very real sense, we are powerless.

Maybe that feeling–that acute awareness of a loss of agency–is why so many people are looking for someone to blame…






How Gerrymandering Gave us Donald Trump (And Bernie, too)

Last night was another Republican debate, this time minus “The Donald.” It’s difficult to believe that this assortment of wannabes is the best a once-serious political party can muster.

How have we come to this?

David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, is a thoughtful observer of the American scene, and while (in my opinion) he often misses with his analysis, he also often contributes to our understanding of the America we inhabit.

In a recent column, Brooks honed in on the public’s pervasive feelings of powerlessness:

The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do. The Pew Research Center asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of Americans, with majorities of both parties, believe their side has been losing more.

These days people seem to underestimate their own power or suffer from what Giridharadas calls the “anxiety of impotence.”…

There are, as Brooks points out, many reasons for these perceptions of powerlessness, and certainly not all of them are political. That said, however, a case can be made that one of the great frustrations fueling the palpable anger in today’s electorate is the realization by so many citizens that their votes don’t count.

The American message has always been that we have political choice. If we don’t approve of the behavior of our political representatives, we can vote them out. Increasingly, that’s not true; gerrymandering has produced Congressional districts that would re-elect dead people if they ran with the correct political label.

At the federal level, the House of Representatives is unrepresentative of the American public, and likely to remain that way. In the last Congressional cycle, Democrats garnered a million more votes than the Republicans who nevertheless remain firmly in control—and, thanks to checks and balances—able to obstruct and defeat policies favored by a popularly-elected President.

I’ve written previously about the lack of competitiveness that gerrymandering produces, and about other deleterious consequences of the practice. Brooks points to one I omitted: the frustration experienced by citizens who feel—with considerable justification—that they have no voice.

Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain. Donald Trump says stupid elites are the problem. Ted Cruz says it’s the Washington cartel. Bernie Sanders says it’s Wall Street.

When voters feel powerless, they are vulnerable to simple messages, identifiable villains, and candidates who channel their anger.

If history is any guide, that has never turned out well.