Power and Powerlessness in the Georgia Senate Race

In the closing weeks of the Georgia Senate runoffs, Republicans charged that the Democrats would cancel Christmas, ban hamburgers, and destroy the fabric of America. Democrat and preacher Raphael Warnock would be “America’s first Marxist senator”; his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff was compromised by the Chinese Communist Party. Now, I’m no expert on Christmas, hamburgers, or fabrics, but I am somewhat of an expert on Chinese Communism and Marxism—so I can say with some confidence that these claims are, in technical parlance, completely bonkers. 

Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, despite being incumbents, are not running for something; they are running against the impending onslaught of socialism, which, by their telling, is basically already here. (This would be news to the DSA, but nevermind.) With only rare exceptions, the Republicans’ campaign is about warding off the arrival of some sort of invasive species that feeds on the blood of innocent Americans and will overrun the state of Georgia in copies of Das Kapital and veganism. Nevermind that Loeffler is a billionaire whose husband owns the New York Stock Exchange and Perdue is a millionaire corporate executive whose policy priorities of promoting outsourcing are anathema to rural Georgians. Loeffler and Perdue (and Donald Trump) claim that they are on the side of Georgians against “people who don’t share your values.” In other words, as one of their mailers says, “Joe Biden, the Hollywood Elite, and DC Liberals Want to Steal Your Future.” 

Regardless of who ultimately wins, the fact that such bonkers claims carry such power is worth trying to understand. Why are Georgia voters, especially rural voters, receptive to these messages, and to believe wholeheartedly in the imminent death of Santa and meat-based cuisine? And why do liberals and Democrats have such trouble gaining political traction or combating these attacks? The political dynamics at play call to mind multiple episodes in John Gaventa’s excellent book Power and Powerlessness about coal miners in rural Appalachia. Rather than attribute support for exploitative local elites to condescending assertions that rural citizens have a “false consciousness,” Gaventa argues instead that understanding power requires thinking harder about powerlessness. Power corrupts the powerful and shapes their worldview; in the same way, powerlessness shapes the way that those on the outs of society come to understand the world. Similar to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony or studies of how colonized populations often end up accepting colonial ideologies, this understanding of powerlessness creates conditions in which the ideological narratives of local elites become the prevailing “common sense” of society, shaping the field of what is believable to the powerful and powerless alike.

Miners in the communities Gaventa studied in Appalachia faced terrible conditions and were completely at the whim of large mining companies, yet workers only rarely pushed back. More often, they actively supported the dominance of exploitative local elites. Multiple waves of social reformers who tried to help the miners failed miserably as local elites portrayed attempts to empower grassroots society as the work of hostile outside forces. Local citizens believed these claims, often made on the basis of cultural affinities, and fought to preserve the ideology that supported their powerlessness. 

At the time of the Great Depression, unrest in the coal mines attracted national attention from writers, journalists, relief organizations, and other nonprofit groups. Local elites, threatened by these rebellions and the outside attention, had to rely on a new ideology to frame these events in order to maintain their power over the miners. Gaventa writes: 

The ideology which emerged appealed to the forces of law and order, respectability, and patriotism as opposed to the forces of disorder, anti-religion, and anti-government brought in by the outsider. ‘Communism’, as interpreted to the population by ministers and government officials, meant belief in the principles of: 1) hatred of god, 2) destruction of property, 3) social and racial equality and class hatred, 4) revolutionary propaganda leading to the stirring up of class hatred, advocating of violence, strikes, riots, etc.; destruction of all forms of representative and democratic government and the rights of liberty guaranteed under the American Constitution—the right of free speech, free press, and the freedom of worship; 6) world­wide revolution overthrowing all capitalist government and the re­ establishment of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat, with head­quarters in Moscow and with the red flag as the only flag.

Liberals’ well-intentioned efforts served only to alienate local communities and further empower  exploitative local elites. The liberals were so concerned with “rights” and pushing their own narratives of exploitation that they shunted aside local voices and generated backlash from the people they wanted to help. 

The liberal northerners sought in good faith to help the miners. But, through their efforts, the emphasis of the con­flict shifted from the miners’ conditions to the outsiders’ civil rights. A careful study of the chronology of conflict shows that the miners’ own internal organization and level of challenge diminished as the groups of investigators came in. With the ‘invasions’, the local elites were able, apparently with some success, to shift the perceptions of the conflict from that of an emerging class struggle to a more ‘national­istic’ cleavage of ‘mountaineers v. outsiders’.

Meanwhile, communist-backed unions, who also sought to empower workers and take power away from local bosses, lost support when citizens found out they did not believe in God. Even when workers were attracted to the communists’ economic entreaties, their rejection of God meant that they could not fully comprehend the local basis of trust and morality. The communists’ skepticism of local church activity also blinded them to the importance of the church as the only arena in which miners had been able to carve out a sense of power over their own lives. In other words, it was clear to local miners that even if their economic programs were attractive, these outsiders did not “share their values,” and were thus a potential danger not just to their wallets but to their entire way of life.

Those who sought to alter the oppression of the miner­—the northern liberal and the Marxist radical—failed partly because they did not understand fully the power situation they sought to change. The northern liberal sought to allow freedom of expression for the miners by challenging the barriers to the exercise of his civil rights; yet the consequence was the transformation of the substance and arenas of the issues away from those originally expressed and felt by the miners. The radical sought to develop a revolutionary class consciousness, but he misunderstood the prior role of power in shaping the consciousness which he encountered. It was the local mountain elite, who knew best the uses of power for control within their culture, who effectively capitalized on the mistakes of the others.

Just a few years earlier, on the other side of the world, political activists also realized that cultural symbols were instrumental in attracting rural populations to support their cause. As Elizabeth Perry describes in Anyuan, communists in Republican era-China were effective in organizing coal miners when they used the myths and symbols of traditional Chinese culture, even those that were anathema to modernizing communists, in order to gain trust and connect to the community on its own terms. When their comrades in the United States stuck to their dogmatic ideology and failed to incorporate local culture into their efforts, the result was that local elites were able to portray themselves as the guardians of local interests, even as they were ruthlessly exploitative.

Then, in the late 1960s, union reformers under the banner Miners For Democracy (MFD) challenged existing union bosses, leading to similar tensions. Even though the reformers sought to empower miners and were themselves members of the miners’ union, local elites in the community that Gaventa studied again leveraged myths about cultural protection to create a sense of existential fear among the powerless.

Local elites claimed that the MFD was actually “financed by coal operators and rich people” who would destroy the union from within, not other miners who wanted to help improve conditions. They accused outside experts like Ralph Nader of being “instant experts” or “finks” who didn’t understand local culture and wanted to factionalize the union to weaken miners’ power. They claimed (falsely) that the MFD would eliminate miners’ pensions, which would threaten miners’ ability to survive. And, finally, they blasted the reformers as being the tools of “outsiders” trying to “control” and “destroy” the union and the miners. Gaventa cites the union journal expressing its distaste for why far-left newspapers supported the challenge to union leadership: 

Why are these radicals part of the MFD campaign team? We don’t profess to know for sure, but the people who back these papers either want to nationalize (socialize or communize) American coal mines or they want to destroy the [union] and thus knock down what they call the Establishment. What they really want is to destroy the American form of government. Radicals still believe that the only way this can be started is through control of the labor movement, or second best, by neutralizing it. Coal miners! The Three Stooges are being backed by these people. Why? What have they offered the militant, radical, non­-miner left-wingers? These outsiders are bad news for you diggers, just like the clique of Washington lawyers and foundations, they want to destroy your union.

Whatever forces attract the support of The Three Stooges, Washington lawyers and foundations, and radical newspapers could never be on the side of rural people and their way of life. Gaventa notes that local miners were ready to believe even the most outlandish claims because of their experiences with powerlessness: these myths and claims “had special meaning gained from past experiences of exploitation.” Miners had come to accept the existing consensus about power and powerlessness, and the local elites’ outlandish claims were believable because they further corroborated this consensus. Some miners believed these claims so ardently that they participated in the gruesome murder of the reformist leader and his family. 

The miners knew that they were powerless, internalized this as an immovable fact, and focused on small ways in which they could express their own authority (e.g. church). They felt their powerlessness as cultural precarity, and they could only imagine the horrifying, uncertain depths of powerlessness that might exist if they couldn’t rely on the local elites, no matter how terribly these elites treated them. Exploitation was bad, sure, but the miners were still able to survive and live up to their moral values. The people who came in threatened even the crumbs of power and sources of cultural meaning that they had left. As Gaventa writes, “Such invasions demanded the response of militant loyalty to one’s nation and one’s culture,” even though their nation and culture had been exploiting them for a century. 

In this year’s elections, Loeffler and Perdue are staking a claim to being the local elites who want to protect Georgians and their way of life. They claim to be part of local Georgia and on the side of local Georgians against outside forces that want to not only destroy economic livelihoods, but destroy the cultural touchstones that give the powerless some meaning. The myths of “socialism” and “radical liberalism” drive a wedge between local Georgians and these Democrats that seem to be offering positive economic programs. AOC and the Green New Deal have replaced the Three Stooges, but the power dynamic is the same. 

Georgians who feel powerless today may not have unions to turn to, but they still have remnants of rural culture. The political right has ably created a prevailing “common sense” that makes outlandish claims about socialism, radicalism, and liberalism believable. Many of the recent well-intentioned liberal efforts to help the powerless who live under this prevailing common sense have, like their forebears in Appalachia, focused more on staying faithful to their own cultural and ideological pillars rather than finding ways to work within local culture to expose this powerlessness for what it truly is. 

Pushed to the brink by the forces of Trumpism, Loeffler and Perdue have abandoned any pretense of hiding their efforts to promote a shared common sense among voters that the Democrats are secretly funded by the CCP and want to turn Americans into godless vegan hippies. Even if this is certifiably bonkers, it corroborates the genuine belief of those in Georgia whose experience with a certain strand of powerlessness has primed them to interpret the world in this way. It makes sense that they believe the bonkers: under the feeling of insecurity that comes from powerlessness, they would prefer the status quo of local elites than be subject to the rule of uncertain outsiders. Until forces on the left can effectively work with local cultures to undercut this hegemonic rule, powerlessness will prevail.