People, Power and Perseverance

There was an election, and an inauguration. Then a transition of governmental power. Followed immediately thereafter with some mammoth marches. Wow! Many kinds of power have been on display the past few weeks. Power is a fact of life; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It all depends on how it is used. Certainly it gives one pause that now one of the most powerful people on the planet is a person of such disreputable character. But as recent events demonstrate, we all have power and now is not the time to relinquish it. As Yoda says:  “Do . . . or do not.  There is no try.”

At this telling moment in American democracy, the power of human agency is being expressed in mind-boggling ways. Like it or not, Trump galvanized lots of people to step up and use their latent power to outwit and defeat the entrenched political establishment. In a pre-inaugural speech, Trump referred to his supporters as “the forgotten” and vowed that they would be forgotten no more.  

Eight years ago, Barrack Obama fired up millions of people—many who also felt forgotten, disenfranchised or dismissed--and encouraged them to exercise their power. But Obama never lived up to the expectations of those who voted for him. The tremendous “people power” that propelled Obama to the presidency was not magically conferred upon him in taking the oath of office—as too many people imagined would happen. Those who did not share the values of the Obama administration acted tirelessly and relentlessly to make sure he would accomplish little. Though many worked diligently to support Obama’s agenda, in the end, it was not enough to counter-balance the force of the opposition.

Democracy functions through the power-sharing of those who take human agency seriously.  Remember Yoda—“Do…or do not. There is no try.” A one-time vote is not enough to maintain an inclusive and healthy democracy. And a one-time march however large is not enough to sustain a movement. Power is only as good as the quality and consistency of those who own it. Everyone who exerts their power of human agency with the skills, effort, oratory, and yes—even money—with which they have been endowed helps determine the course of our common life. Democracy, by its very nature, is power-sharing and power-balancing among those who participate.

And there’s the catch—participation. In the U.S., when people feel aggrieved by circumstances beyond their control, some can be motivated by the right leader to exercise their civic duty—to vote—from time to time. Many of us argue that too many people are unjustly denied the right to vote, but it is most certainly true that even more, having that right, never bother using it. And then, most people relinquish their power after they do vote. Too few take up the discipline of democracy. History proves over and over again that the race belongs to the tactical and the tenacious—whether it be in ending slavery or war-mongering, advancing women’s rights, civil rights, workers’ rights or environmental protections.

Star Wars is perhaps not the right allegory for our times. In the real world, it is not enough for a Luke Skywalker to embrace his power of “the force.” Or even a Princess Leah her power. A strong leader is important but only a part of the story. When we set our goals to make a world where all can thrive, everyone must be engaged in the work. Continuously and cooperatively--like an ant colony or bee hive. The campaign does not end when a leader is chosen; it is but the beginning of the work that lies before us. Whether it be to support or thwart the leader of the day. 

A better story to inspire us might be the old folktale—The Tortoise and the Hare. To live with greater purpose for the long haul, one must have the mindset of the Tortoise--and not the Hare who is unduly impressed with his speed and agility. Human agency entails many attributes and each of us must contribute what we can to maintain a healthy and thriving society. Humanism not only embraces the dignity and worth of everyone but also affirms our ability and responsibility to affect ethical change in our lives and world. Democracy is collective human agency in action; it is not entertainment, spectator sport or self-aggrandizement.

The way forward, however, need not be as hard as some might imagine in these times. Many good organizations have been doing the work of compassion and justice and democracy and environmentalism and sustainability for a long time. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel to get the world moving in a better direction. But more of us do need to take up our own mantle of power to help shoulder the work. Our community of humanists can and should join forces with other advocacy groups on our shared goals. Let’s challenge that hare! And let’s do it now!