‘Power these days lies more with the people than the politicians.’ To what extent is this true?

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‘Power these days lies more with the people than the politicians.’ To what extent is this true? [GP essay]

2022 has been yet another unprecedented year in a series of unprecedented years. Russia is openly waging war on Ukraine, apparently against the wishes not only of the international community but also against the wishes of the Russian people, and Sri Lanka’s former President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has only recently been forced to flee his country and resign from his position, an act of people power accompanied by the spectacle of protestors lounging in the presidential palace’s bedroom and pool, filmed with the devices of numerous protestors and uploaded to social media websites including the apparently inconsequential TikTok. This can be a confusing time, and the idea of either the masses or our leaders being more powerful than the other can make sense at different times of the news cycle. While the currents of power in today’s world continue to shift in complex ways, to say that power lies more with people than politicians is true only to the extent that people most effectively exercise their power in the most desperate situations, which effectively means that in almost all other situations, power lies more with politicians, especially those holding positions in government. This remains true even if the masses of people hold significant levels of power that are formed mainly through belief systems of what is desirable and undesirable, and expressed mostly through apparently powerful communication platforms we find all over the internet.

Given the state of the world today, it is understandable that some may feel that power belongs more to people than to politicians. It is a common occurrence for certain individuals to go viral on social media for doing something that online users disapprove of, and more often than not, people end up tracking down who these individuals are, resulting in real-life consequences for those involved in a viral online story. Whether or not one agrees with mob justice, it is fairly obvious to anyone online that people massed together can be a powerful force. Moreover, the international political movement to fight climate change appears to be rooted in politicians’ responsiveness to the will of the eco-anxious masses, with the US Senate’s recent Inflation Reduction Act containing significant enough climate action, that The New York Times’ Paul Krugman could ask if his favoured political party just saved civilisation without coming across as absurd. Those with slightly longer memories will also remember 2016’s US presidential election which featured two ostensibly populist candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, that election slightly preceding Malaysia’s own 2018 general election which saw another populist movement that resulted in one of the world’s longest-serving ruling parties voted out in favour of the “Pakatan Harapan” coalition which literally translates into “The Alliance of Hope”. Given these recent developments, our era can feel like a time of people power, but while the masses hold significant amounts of sway, power still lies more with politicians these days with their position in our global social hierarchies.

Unlike most people, politicians holding positions in government have a hold on the critical areas of government policy, law, and an almost complete monopoly on the legal, or at least socially legitimated, use of force. Put in plain terms, those in political office can direct police and military force upon huge swathes of the population. While the Sri Lankan overthrow of their former President might come across as marking a watershed moment in history, the fact is that politicians tend to be able to find some way to re-establish their power, even bringing back the old rulers in some form—witness how the former ruling political parties are re-establishing themselves in Malaysia (the UMNO-BN coalition), or how Donald Trump seems to be facing the legal consequences of his alleged crimes, or how Bernie Sanders is now treated almost as an irrelevance. Even with climate change, the new “civilisation saving” US policies fall short of including degrowth, a solution to climate woes that the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) advocates for which prioritises human well-being and planetary health over economic growth. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and US action on climate can all be seen as arising from power exercised by the masses, but this has to be put into proper context. To wit, Sri Lankan politics in 2022 is often seen as a result of climate change, and their recent political upheaval is an indication that people are most powerful in desperate straits. However, this exercise of power activated by desperation dies out in directionlessness soon enough, and the task of directing that power is often taken up once again by politicians. Therefore, while people can be more powerful than politicians in desperate situations, that power often is undermined by politicians who rise up to bring power back to its usual balance, to lie firmly with politicians rather than people, and this is especially true in our times because the masses are not yet in desperation. After all, it is “only” in 2050 that climate refugees might number in the hundreds of millions, if not more.

It is almost self-evident that power lies more with politicians than with people these days. If this view may strike some as depressing or despairing given the apparently bleak state of our world, I would point out that politicians are nothing without the masses that they serve. The times ahead may hold immense suffering for many, but the direction of American policy thus far in 2022 (at least, in August) can serve as a beacon for those of us who prefer to be hopeful (even if we are not optimistic). Perhaps those who hold more power will realise that Uncle Ben was always right—with great power comes great responsibility!

942 words

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‘Power these days lies more with the people than the politicians.’ To what extent is this true?

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