Rich Vial: How a community defines power defines its politics

Oregon could and should be an example of politics focused on sharing power, rather than dividing it.

Rich Vial is a former Oregon State Legislator, former Deputy Secretary of State and founder of the law firm Vial-Fotheringham, LLC.  He provided legal assistance to hundreds of Homeowner Associations throughout the West for four decades and has always had a passion for how communities organize and govern effectively. 

As soon as Joe Biden finished speaking for the first time as the presumptive President-elect, I felt compelled to write this piece.  I believe Biden is sincere in calling for a coming together of Americans, putting aside party politics in favor of unity and purpose.  This belief is based on Biden’s nuanced perception of power. I was struck by his observation that we should “we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”  In saying this, Biden identified two very different styles of the exercise of power. His understanding of power gives me faith that Biden will earnestly pursue a more unified country.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, politics is defined as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”  Conflict and power, then, are inherent to politics.  It is this dynamic—the tension presented by conflict and power—that determines the success of political systems.  Is power being shared with empathy, or is power being hoarded as a finite commodity. 

Power in the hands of political groups

Brené Brown, the author of Dare to Lead, visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, and host of the podcasts “Unlocking Us” and “Dare to Lead”, has studied and communicated extensively on the various ways power is held and used.  Her observations about the nature of leadership and its relationship with power reflect a decade of in-depth research about the nature of our human relationships.  She is fond of quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., who had a simple definition of power: “[T]he ability to achieve purpose and effect change.”  This definition does not reflect a bias toward power as a positive or a negative, but merely reflects the relationship of power in human interaction. 

Brown’s extensive work on the subject has led to the conclusion that there is more than one type of power.  In her work she discusses power “over”, “with”, and “to”.  The exercise of power “over” depends on fear to maintain itself, refusing to be vulnerable in any way and making it impossible to exercise empathy with or recognition of the legitimacy of the “other”.  A person exercising power “over” others sees it as finite and, therefore, necessary to hoard. Comparatively, the leader exercising power “with” and “to” sees power as an infinite commodity and believes it grows when shared with others.    

With King’s definition of power in mind, the organization of all political groups is ultimately based on a belief that change is needed, and their purpose is to achieve that end.  The pursuit of change, like the pursuit of power, is not inherently good or bad. A political group can pursue change without leading to the disintegration of a community. In fact, the steadfast pursuit of change by one group can instead spark necessary conversations among many that cumulatively result in needed change.  After all, most groups or organizations actively participating in politics are sincere in their belief that they exist for the betterment of the community. 

Whether a political group’s pursuit of power is good or bad for a community depends on how that group perceives power. Long ago, we received a warning of what would happen if political groups viewed power as something to be exercised “over” others. By now, we have all heard that George Washington warned that parties could destroy this nascent experiment in democracy we call America.  But what was it that Washington was really worried about?  In his own words, Washington warned:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Farewell Address, Saturday, September 17, 1796.

Clearly, his concern was that our lawmakers would become more loyal to their own political parties than to the Constitution and the people, so much so that it would cause our democratic republic system to collapse.  Today, the parties exist almost exclusively to defeat the “other”.  They strive to “own” the causes that will attract the most voters, and every action is justified to maintain their power.  In short, they seek power “over” others.

Making the pursuit of power a positive

President-elect Biden also called for an end to “partisan warfare”.  The problem with that, however, is the fact that war doesn’t stop until weapons are cast aside.  Currently, the parties exist to develop and employ weapons that are designed to destroy “the other”, and until we stop enabling them with public money and resources, they will only increase in their efforts to exercise power over the “other”.  There is simply no structural incentive for either party to change to a shared power approach.  

Consider the power that the parties currently yield over our elections. They have finagled the State into subsidizing their closed primaries—primaries that deny approximately one million Oregonians the chance to determine who will be in the general election. Those non-affiliated and third party voters pay taxes that fund those elections and, yet, the parties have managed to shut those voters out of their private nominating processes. Unsurprisingly, both parties have actively campaigned against any proposal to rid them of their power to shape elections for all Oregonians. This refusal to open the primaries demonstrates that parties see power as something that’s finite, not something to be shared.

We need to wake up to the insatiable hunger these parties have for power. They’ll feed on good governance until we face the reality that this system no longer works for our interests; it merely serves those of the parties.  While I absolutely support President-elect Biden’s call for a renewed spirit of cooperation and unity, our legislators will not be able to do so as long as the two parties live to fight over a supposedly finite amount of power. 

Once again, I urge a reformatting of our electoral and legislative system.  A quick survey of the recent elections shows that we are being robbed of a more competitive, inclusive process.

In this last election, two Oregon Senate seats and one House seat appear to have been decided by razor thin margins, which, if Ranked Choice Voting were adopted would have given the folks who voted for a third-party candidate a real voice in the process.  In many other races there was no challenger to the incumbent.  And, yet again, not a single “non-affiliated” candidate was able to muster the 1000 “in-person” convention in order to get on the publicly funded ballot.

I don’t believe parties will ever change how they define power. That’s why we need to seize the definition for ourselves. It is time for a non-partisan legislature.  Oregon could and should be an example of politics focused on sharing power, rather than dividing it. That example could light a fire that spreads across the country.  But in the meantime, let’s recognize that simply expressing lament over our current disunity and suggesting that we just “all get along” isn’t going to be enough.  It’s time for structural change. It’s time we take power back from the parties.

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