In academic definitions of power, power is equated with influence over others. In Max Weber’s frequently-cited formulation, power is “the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others.” Harold Lasswell similarly describes politics as the art of determining “who gets what, when and how” and examines how individuals influence others to achieve those outcomes.
In the 21st century, the power to influence runs up against the internet-enabled equality of informational arms. When regular people can see how influence is being exercised, that influence can be highlighted and discussed — and is counterbalanced by public recognition of its antidemocratic effects.
In order for power to preserve itself, it now uses its influence to hide.
This act is particularly visible in the domain of campaign finance law at present. Note the exquisite outrage over the idea wealthy campaign donors should have to disclose their names the way that regular people do. This argument suggests that the rich deserve anonymity, that being known and associated with their large donations, by itself, inhibits their free speech.
Here at the level of people with sub-million-dollar incomes, we have been routinely and publicly disclosing our campaign contributions for decades. Look at any public campaign finance website and you’ll see thousands of small donor contributions, next to the names, occupations and addresses of all of the regular Americans who abide by our political laws.
If you’re powerful enough, you can successfully argue that you deserve an exception.
The way that power is used to win the right to hide from public scrutiny can be witnessed across many domains. Another visible recent example of this can be found in New York Governor Cuomo’s decision to abruptly shut down the Moreland Commission, an ethics commission that was actively investigating large and wealthy real estate companies for improper influence over New York politicians.
Meanwhile, what happens when you don’t have the money and power that allows you to exempt yourself from transparency rules?
Well, you become very visible.
The dramatic and coordinated efforts to render less powerful people as visible can be seen in a number of areas. In my home state of Maine — despite a variety of scandals connected to nepotism, the shredding of records connected with grant determinations and million dollar no-bid contracts — the governor has emphasized the need to make recipients of food assistance more visible through rushing to force users to feature their own photo on their EBT cards, despite these changes often meaning that a percentage of impoverished people will lose access to food when they receive non-functioning cards.
In Florida, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma and Rhode Island, a politically-motivated movement that ludicrously inflates the danger of voter fraud (while dismissing the authentic harm of voter suppression) has achieved the online publication of all voters’ names, home addresses, birthdates and political party registration.
The relationship between secrecy and power can also be seen in control over salary transparency. On multiple state and local websites, detailed salary information is available for every single employee, including for the majority of workers who make much less than the median national wage. This public access to salaries always extends to the personnel at state universities, despite the fact that many states now fund only a small percentage of their public university’s budget.
Salary transparency is not some cost-free thing that people and organizations who must disclose are giving up. Federal agencies feature much less salary transparency than their state and local counterparts. The notion of salary transparency in privately-held companies is understood to be so dangerous, so inflammatory, that companies can’t possibly publish payroll lists, even internally. Not even if the question was of such great interest that it consumed national media reporting for days.
Meanwhile, power protects both public and private actors from the dangers of too much sunlight. The obligation to disclose salaries does not extend to large public-supported entities like major US defense contractors, despite the fact that businesses like Lockheed Martin are nearly 80% funded through public money.
And most importantly, our snippets of information about NSA surveillance programs reveal the immense power that comes from getting to hold up a one-way mirror to the entire country. From the ability to intercept and bug consumers’ internet routers to the authority to monitor every phone call and email, the NSA enjoys the exercise of power with no visible external trace at all, except for what has been smuggled out by defectors threatened with death.
Power may be the power to influence others in public debate. But we also see that power being used to pressure us into allowing the powerful to remain secret — even as the rest of us become more visible.