Opinion: In Washington, power puts itself on display

Nov 21, 2017

Before it adjourned last week for Thanksgiving, the U.S. Senate already had a lot on its plate, so to speak. Republicans were struggling with the Roy Moore fiasco, Democrats with the Al Franken revelations, and both parties were wrangling over the fate of a “tax-reform package” that uses a relatively small and temporary reduction in taxes for the middle class to disguise a massive giveaway to the wealthy and to corporations.

Those two issues — tax policy and sexual misconduct — might at first blush seem very different, but in truth they share a common root. Both involve power — political power, economic power, systemic power, celebrity power — and how it can be abused by those who wield it over other human beings. As Lord Acton reminded us, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,”

Take the $1.5 trillion tax-cut bill over the next decade. Of that total, $1 trillion comes in the form of business and corporate tax cuts, which are permanent. Another $200 billion comes from the permanent elimination of the estate tax, which affects only estates of $11 million or more for a couple. Just $300 billion — one fifth of the total — comes in the form of temporary tax cuts for individuals, and roughly half of that $300 billion accrues to the 6.2 percent of American households making $200,000 or more a year. The rest — roughly $150 billion — is shared among everyone else.

Put another way, for every $1 in tax relief for the vast majority of Americans, corporations and the wealthy will pocket $9. That, ladies and gentlemen, is power looking out for power. As we are witnessing, it almost dares its opponents to try to stop it.

That has also been true, up to now at least, of powerful men using their positions as a license for misconduct. Like many before him, Franken had apparently feared no consequence back in 2006, when he attempted to impose himself on a woman less famous and less well-equipped to fight back. As he himself acknowledged last week, “there’s no excuse” for his behavior, and there is not.

In the chorus of condemnation, however, one voice stood out, badly off-key. “The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words,” President Trump taunted in a tweet, blithely ignoring more than a dozen first-hand accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct lodged against himself. Such a statement is explainable only as the act of a man who believes that he has transcended accountability altogether, that he can touch but not be touched.

You can view American history a lot of different ways, but from one basic perspective it is a 250-year-old effort to mitigate the dangers of power, to use government to reduce the size, scale and danger of power differentials and to ensure that government itself doesn’t become a means by which brute power is wielded.

On the matter of sexual harassment, we are witnessing an important, historic and certainly overdue moment in which norms and laws are changing on behalf of the less powerful who have always had to suffer in silence. Power differentials rooted in race are in flux as well, forcing difficult adjustments for many. But in government and the economy, I’m afraid, we are witnessing the opposite. We are watching as the justified frustrations and anger of the less powerful are being hijacked by the powerful to serve their own purposes, to reinforce and make permanent the advantages that power provides.

As Lord Acton also reminds, “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in concentration of power.”