A Test of Character
It was Abraham Lincoln who said that “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." With regard to human behavior, power is often defined as the ability to coerce someone to do something, even against their will. Character usually refers to the moral and ethical qualities of a person. If Lincoln was correct, the biggest challenge to a person’s moral and ethical quality is having and exercising power. Add to that the current concern about how few people in our country, for example, hold so much power to exert their will on the many who feel and increasingly are powerless.
As a sociologist, I am delighted that the public is being introduced to a concept developed by sociologist Robert Michels in 1911. He called it the “iron law of oligarchy,” a political theory that predicts rule by an elite, or oligarchy, is the inevitable outcome within any democratic organization. Specifically, he suggests that even representational democracies, such as ours, will inevitably succumb to rule by an elite few (an oligarchy). To this apparent tendency toward the rule of a few, add money and diminishing moral and ethical character and we again enter this New Year with leaders who in many cases were either not elected by popular vote or a non-gerrymandered representational vote. Specifically, our President and the current Senate majority did not receive the majority of the votes, and the current U.S. House majority holds 57% of the seats while receiving only 52% of the votes.
So we are living in an unfortunate circular conundrum: money buys power and power rewards the moneyed, and together they pursue the interests of the few to the neglect of the many. The sainted comedian, George Carlin, said this of what he felt had become of the American dream, “it's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” So now what?
I suggest that we consider living alternatively within the "Iron Law of Character." This “law” deals with the generally held perspective that political and corporate power must always be held in check by the superior power of social responsibility in order for a democracy to be maintained. Social responsibility, in this case, means putting people before profit, a sustainable planet before the pillage of it, and prioritizing the general welfare of both as a summary of the common good. Why? Because right now a very small handful of wealthy and powerful families and corporations control the destiny of our nation. Too many people, from the very beginning of this country, have struggled and died to maintain our democratic vision. We owe it to them and to our children to maintain it. May the words of Frederick Douglass inspire, encourage, and energize us to do just that. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”