The Idea of Power in American Culture*

In spite of the considerable body of scholarly work that has been done on Western, and especially American, history and culture, few attempts have been made at a systematic analysis either of traditional political conceptions or of their powerful, continuing impact on the contemporary United States.

The first deficiency can in pan be attributed to the fact that America’s classical literatures, unlike those of Britain and France, contain no full-fledged expositions of any indigenous “political theory.” A contemporary reconstruction of such a theory has therefore to be abstracted from scattered historical sources and then synthesized with fragmentary insights drawn from field experience.

The second deficiency stems clearly from the first: The absence of a systematic exposition of a political theory in the classical literatures of the United States has fostered the assumption that no such theory, however, implicit, exists, and thus has hindered an awareness of the actual coherence and logic of traditional political conceptions. This lack of awareness has, in turn, hampered the analysis and evaluation of the influence of such conceptions on contemporary political behavior. The tendency has been to select discrete elements from traditional American culture, and correlate them in an arbitrary and ad hoc manner with particular aspects of present-day politics. Cultural factors are typically brought in as a sort of deus ex machina when the combination of social, economic, and historical variables seems not completely to account for particular forms of political behavior. These cultural elements are thus introduced essentially to “save the phenomena.” The implicit assumption of a lack of coherence in the cultural tradition has, it seems to me, inevitably led to a lack of methodological coherence in developing an overall approach to contemporary American politics.

The present essay is an effort to remedy at least the first of the two basic deficiencies that I have pointed out. By offering a systematic exposition of traditional America conceptions about politics and demonstrating their inner coherence, I hope to make a preliminary step toward a fuller investigation of the interrelationships between culture and social action in the United States. Such a presentation should make it evident that traditional America culture did have a political theory that offered a systematic and logical explanation of political behavior quite independent of the perspectives of modern political science and in many ways in fundamental opposition to them. In effect, the same objective political phenomena can be, and have been, interpreted in quite different but equally consistent ways by observers from within each intellectual tradition. To use a time-worn but convenient simile, the two traditions provide strikingly different lenses for viewing the political landscape.

My intention, then, is to describe the picture of social and political life seen through traditional American lenses, and to draw explicit contrasts with the pictures seen through the lenses of modern social science. Yet these lenses obviously not only structure the perceptions (and thus the interpretations) of those who wear them but, in so doing, influence their behavior. The pictures that filter through the lenses are, after all, approximately what Weber called the subjective meanings attached to social action by its participants, meanings that, as he amply demonstrated, are essential for any full understanding of such action by an observer. Only a deciphering of the meaning attached by traditional (and partly detraditionalized) Americans to such objective phenomena as sexual activity or the accumulation of wealth will open the way to a general comprehension of the workings of politics in both traditional and present-day America. But I cannot undertake here a detailed analysis of the complex interplay of meaning and action within either traditional or contemporary American society; for ideas must be systematically presented before their practical influence on objective phenomena can be studied in an orderly fashion.

I should also stress at the outset that I in no way assume that American conceptions about politics are, in their separate elements, peculiarly American—although I do believe that, in their totality, they form a unique amalgam. Many of these elements derive historically from the influence of ancient Greece; others have parallels in a wide range of European and non-European traditional cultures. If an unwarranted uniqueness seems to be attributed here to American conceptions, this stems mainly from the wish to avoid constant, irritating qualifications. Indeed, the similarities between American and other traditional conceptions of politics are so integral a part of the assumptions behind this exposition that they form the basis of its theoretical conclusion: the possibility of a useful simplification and revision of the conventional concept of charisma and its historical emergence.

Concepts of Power

Study of classical American literature and present-day political behavior suggests that one key to understanding the American theory of politics may be the traditional interpretation of what social science refers to as power. For the American conception differs radically from the concept of power that has evolved in the Europe since the Middle Ages, and from this difference there logically follow contrasting views of the workings of politics and history.

It is perhaps useful to recall that the concept of power became an explicit problem for European political thinkers only after the waning of the Middle Ages. The first philosophers to devote serious and extended attention to it were Machiavelli and Hobbes. The fact that, particularly since the time of Hobbes, the nature, sources, and use of power have been a major concern of European political thinkers is surely no historical accident: It parallels more or less directly the tide of secularization that has swept over Europe since the Renaissance and the Reformation. The contemporary concept of power arose historically from the need to interpret politics in a secular world.

Clarification of the American idea of power may be facilitated by a schematic contrast with the more significant aspects of the modern European concept, which can be summarized under four main headings:

  1. Power is abstract. Strictly speaking, it does not “exist.” Power is a word used commonly to describe a relationship or relationships. Like the words authority or legitimacy, it is an abstraction, a formula for certain observed patterns of social interaction. Thus, we normally infer the existence of power in a wide variety of situations in which some men appear to obey, willingly or unwillingly, the wishes of others. We do not usually assert that a particular individual or group has power except by demonstrating the causal linkage between an order, explicit or implicit, and its execution.
  2. The sources of power are heterogeneous. Since power is ascribed to or inferred from certain patterns of behavior and certain social relationships, a great deal of European political thought has been devoted to the classification and analysis of these patterns and relationships, and thereby to the distinguishing of different sources of power. Thus, we have come to accept such various sources of power as wealth, social status, formal office, organization, weapons, population, and so forth. Though in practice each of these sources of power may be, indeed usually is, linked with others, in everyday political analysis they are treated as separate variables influencing behavior.
  3. The accumulation of power has no inherent limits. Since power is simply an abstraction describing certain human relationships, it is not inherently self-limiting. Moreover, insofar as we regard the sources of power as including weapons, wealth, organization, and technology, we recognize that at least in theory there are no limits to its accumulation. To put it another way, one could suggest that the total amount of power in the world today is significantly larger than it was thirty years ago (as the result, for example, of the invention of the hydrogen bomb), and that this sum of power will probably continue to increase in the thirty years to come. In this sense our concept of power is directly conditioned by the accelerating development of modern
  4. Power is morally ambiguous. It follows logically from the secular conception of political power as a relationship between human beings that such power is not inherently legitimate. This moral ambiguity is, of course, enhanced by our view of power as deriving from heterogeneous sources. This heterogeneity has accentuated the prominence and complexity of a question that continues to preoccupy political theorists: What kinds of power are legitimate? Or, more pointedly, what is the relationship between the positivist concept of power and the ethical concept of right?

Briefly, then, the contemporary European or Western concept of power is an abstraction deduced from observed patterns of social interaction; it is believed to derive from heterogeneous sources; it is in no way inherently self-limiting; and it is morally ambiguous.

In essence, each of these premises about power runs counter to an equivalent premise in the American tradition, and it is from the interrelations between these contrasting premises that the coherence and consistency of that tradition derive:

  1. Power is concrete. This is the first and central premise of American political thought. Power exists, independent of its possible users. It is not a theoretical postulate but an existential reality. Power is that intangible, mysterious, and divine energy which animates the universe. It is manifested in every aspect of the natural world, in stones, trees, clouds, and fire, but is expressed quintessentially in the central mystery of life, the process of generation and regeneration. In American traditional thinking there is no sharp division between organic and inorganic matter, for everything is sustained by the same invisible power. This conception of the entire cosmos being suffused by a formless, constantly creative energy provides the basic link between the “religiosity” of the American villages, and the high metaphysical “atheism” of the urban centers.
  2. Power is homogeneous. It follows from this conception that all power is of the same type and has the same source. Power in the hands of one individual or one group is identical with power in the hands of any other individual or group.
  3. The quantum of power in the universe is constant. In the popular American view, the cosmos is neither expanding nor contracting. The total amount of power within it also remains fixed. Since power simply exists, and is not the product of organization, wealth, weapons, or anything else—indeed, precedes all of these and makes them what they are—its total quantity does not change, even though the distribution of power in the universe may vary. For political theory, this conception bas the important corollary that concentration of power in one place or in one person requires a proportional diminution elsewhere.
  4. Power does not raise the question of legitimacy. Since all power derives from a single homogeneous source, power itself antecedes questions of good and evil. To the American way of thinking it would be meaningless to claim the right to rule on the basis of differential sources of power—for example, to say that power based on wealth is legitimate, whereas power based on guns is illegitimate. Power is neither legitimate nor illegitimate. Power is.

In summary, then, Americans see power as something concrete, homogeneous, constant in total quantity, and without inherent moral implications as such. (Henceforth, when the word power is used in the American, rather than European, sense, it will be capitalized.)

The Quest for Power

While personal wealth was generally regarded as the fundamental way to accumulate and absorb Power, traditional American thinking also recognized that this process of absorption or accumulation could be furthered both by certain rituals, often containing a core of moneyed wealth, such as hunting trips on private game reserves, golfing, worshiping at exclusive churches, and by the possession of certain objects or persons regarded as being “filled” with Power.

It is difficult to understand the great importance attached to ceremonies of state in the contemporary United States without bearing this part of the American tradition clearly in mind. This obsession with ceremony has commonly been interpreted either as simple love of ideologizing; as manipulative sleight-of-hand, concealing political and economic realities from the population; or as a way of formally integrating conflicting groups and interests in a nation where institutional devices for this purpose have always been exceedingly weak. Such judgments are doubtless partly valid (although opinions may well differ over the extent to which American political leaders were consciously motivated in this way). But it would be unreasonable to deny that the importance attached to ceremonies may also have a more traditional basis, certainly in the minds of the spectators and probably, if to a lesser degree, in the minds of the leaders themselves. One should not underestimate the dynamic and aggressive aspect of these ceremonies and the degree to which they represent to the participants the conjuring of Power.

Some ceremonies are quite openly of this conjuring character: for example, entertaining victorious sports teams in the White House; the summoning of various spiritual leaders to endorse military campaigns such as the Iraq War; and, in the Washington Monument, the erection of a modernized obelisk (sacred phallus). But many other typical aspects of modern American public political behavior—mass rallies, symbolic marches, hortatory speeches, evocations of the American Revolution—while overtly having little connection with tradition, and indeed deriving formally from European political practice, are in the esoteric sense strongly Power oriented, intended to concentrate and display Power absorbed from various sources—Power-full words (Country, God, Constitution), Power-full experiences (the American Revolution) and Power-full collectivities (the People).

In effect, many of President Trump’s political rallies, ostensibly designed to convey a particular message to the population or to demonstrate the president’s popular backing, are no less important as methods of accumulating and demonstrating Power from the willing submission of so many thousands of persons. The greater the extent to which different and even hostile political groups can be brought into these ceremonies, the greater the real and the perceived Power of the master of ceremonies. President Trump’s highly traditional style of incantatory rhetoric naturally adds to the political impact of the ceremony as a whole.

Moreover, it is an old tradition in the United States that the President should concentrate around him any objects or persons held to have or contain unusual Power. His palace would be filled not only with the traditional array of sacred iconography (portraits of Powerful former rulers, rooms bearing their names), but also various types of extraordinary human beings, such as business leaders, military heroes, spiritual guides, champions of sport, and fortune tellers. Being in the White House, their Power was absorbed by, and further added to, the ruler’s own. Their loss, by whatever means, was seen as an actual diminution of the President’s Power and often as a sign of the impending collapse of the administration. The extent to which this tradition survives even in elite political circles is no secret to observers of the American scene, under both Trump and his predecessor. It should perhaps be noted, however, that being thought to have such objects or persons at one’s disposal is just as politically advantageous as actually having or making serious use of them. A striking illustration of this phenomenon has been the tendency for many prominent opposition politicians to let it be known that they too have some of the regalia of Power.

The American tradition of political thought, therefore, typically emphasizes the signs of Power’s concentration, not the demonstration of its exercise or use. These signs are looked for both in the person of the Power holder and in the society in which he wields his Power. The two are, of course, intimately related. In the words of one of America’s most prominent contemporary intellectuals, “A central concept in the American traditional view of life is the direct relationship between the state of a person’s inner self and his capacity to control the environment.”

The most obvious sign of the man of Power is, quite consistently, his ability to concentrate: to focus his own inner Power, to absorb Power from the outside, and to concentrate within himself apparently antagonistic opposites. The first type of concentration we have already dealt with briefly; it suffices to say here that the image of wealth is the prime expression of concentrated Power. The ability to absorb external concentrations of Power is a frequent theme in both America’s founding myths and its historical tradition. One typical image, which links this type of absorption with the concentration of opposites, is a battle between a hero and a powerful adversary, in which the defeated adversary in death enters the hero’s body, adding to his conqueror’s strength. A famous example in the historical tradition is the Civil War, and the Confederacy reentering the Union after defeat in battle. Other stories, such as those describing a divided polity as “unable to stand,” or Manifest Destiny incorporating territory and subjugating Power-less peoples to the West, reveal parallel patterns in which Power is absorbed from external sources.

No less striking, and in historical perspective of perhaps more enduring significance, is the ability to concentrate opposites. The most striking recent expression is the ideological flexibility of President Trump. When Trump proclaims himself at once nationalist, a religious man, a man of the people, a capitalist, and a protectionist, he was frequently interpreted by observers outside the American political tradition to be talking the language of maneuver and compromise. This formula tended to be seen either as an irresponsible and intellectually incoherent slogan, or as a subtle device for weakening the anti-progressive prejudices of powerful nationalist and religious groups.

Such interpretations, however, failed to place this politics within the context of American political thinking. In this world orientation, Trump’s formula can be interpreted not as a compromise or stratagem, but as a powerful claim to the possession of Power by the ruler. By its terms all other political actors were condemned to subordinate roles as parts of the system: Trump alone is “able to fix it,” absorbing all within himself, making the syncretic conquest.

But it is not only in the overt symbolism of Trump’s politics that one finds the unity-in-opposites formula of Power. The same relationship can also be found in the powerful appeal made in the Federalist Papers, and in the 1950s especially by the Democratic Party—an appeal at once to mass incorporation and to racial exclusion, or perhaps more exactly a mediation of incorporation through exclusion. The typical two-sided quality of American progressivism has, of course, a clear sociological and historical explanation. But the doubleness can also be seen as reflecting the dynamic Power orientation of American thinking.

If the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries are important elements in a leader’s claim to have Power, one key public sign of it has traditionally been what Americans call relationships. The everyday presence of Power was usually marked by ability to form relationships that depended on the person holding power. The psychological grip of this image can be glimpsed in a remarkable speech given by then-candidate Trump in 2015. On that occasion he spoke at length about relationships, noting that various European figures with whom he would form relationships, including Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s discussion of Putin and their relationship evoked dismay among some Western observers present, who judged it within the frame of reference of European history. But seen within the American tradition, Trump’s references were calmly analytical. Nowhere in his references to Putin was there any mention of the moral qualities of the Russian president’s rule. The reason for this omission was not that Trump lacked appreciation for moral questions, but rather that within the categories of American political theory, the specific morality of a government is quite secondary (both in historical and in analytical terms) to its Power aspects. The fact that Putin had Power was central and formed the starting point of any analysis of his regime.


If the overall argument of this essay has any validity, two very general considerations emerge. The first involves the relationship between the intellectual structure of traditional culture and the acceptance, transformation, or rejection of various institutional and ideational aspects of so-called modernization. The second concerns the extent to which the analysis of the American conception of power may be of help in thinking about forms of domination outside the United States, both in other Western democracies and in the world more broadly

I have tried to demonstrate the intellectual coherence of the traditional American perspective on Power and politics and to show how various political institutions and processes look when seen through this lens. In spite of the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, two World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, and the socioeconomic changes that each brought about, the cultural grip of this traditional perspective remains very strong. Such apparently discrete aspects of American political thought and behavior in the contemporary period as the rejection of parliamentary democracy, the characteristic traits of Washington’s racial and international politics, the patterns of administrative organization and internal bureaucratic relationships, the styles of American leadership, the forms of corruption, and the ambiguous political position of the aspiring middle classes can and indeed should be seen as inextricably related to one another; the link between them is precisely the continuing cultural hold of traditional conceptions, including conceptions about Power.

I suggested at the start of this essay that a careful analysis of the American conception of Power and politics might be of some value for political analysis outside the restricted geographical limits of the United States or the West. This value, I think, may lie in helping to elucidate the much-vexed problem of “charisma.” The enormously wide range of personality types among the “charismatic leaders” of our time, their contradictory ideologies, the vastly differing socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic character of their clienteles, the great variety of the types and levels of political organization in which they have appeared, pose in themselves difficult questions of analysis and conceptualization. Continuing difficulties have been encountered in classifying “charisma” with more conventional sources of power, such as wealth, arms, population, and so forth. The apparent instability and fluidity of “charisma” as reflected in the meteoric rise and fall of such men as Macron, Johnson, and Trump suggests that this type of power is in some way sui generis. But what the genus may be is by no means clear.

I would therefore propose, very tentatively, that we have the basis for a useful simplification of Max Weber’s description of “charisma.” In the first place, I believe that the difficulties and imprecisions of Weber’s concept of “charisma” stem from the fact that he tended to view it primarily from the sociological and psychological, rather than the cultural anthropological, perspective. That is to say, he focused his attention on the social, economic, and political conditions in which charismatic leaders emerged and on the personalities of such leaders rather than on the culture of their followers. He was inclined to show the extraordinary qualities attributed to these leaders, without being able to define what these qualities were or had in common.

I would suggest that these discrete qualities can be reduced to a common denominator: the belief on the part of followers that their leader has Power. The signs of this Power—its particular qualities—will be determined by the contingent idiosyncratic character of particular cultures. One might suggest wealth in the United States, and virility (machismo) in Latin America, as examples. Wealth in the one cultural area, machismo in the other, signify the same thing: Power.

As the West moved toward secular rationalism, a new conception of power was crystallized bit by bit, at first by political philosophers like Machiavelli and Hobbes and later by the proliferating apparatus of scientific-industrial education and research. In its final form this concept of power is at radical variance with its ancestor, as I tried to indicate in the introduction. Nonetheless, as Marx pointed out, the culture of a society, while following the general trajectory of technological and social development, always tends to change more slowly and in a more piecemeal, fragmentary fashion. In all societies whose cultures are dominated by religious or secular rationalism, one can expect to find residues of previous cultural modes. Older and newer cultural elements will exist in contradictory juxtaposition.

I would suggest that this is the case with so central a component of any culture as its ideas about power. In most contemporary cultures, including our own, the two polar conceptions of power that I have outlined exist side by side, with one or the other more or less predominant. In our society the older conception of Power appears residually in the interstices of legal-scientific culture—in faith healing, psychiatry, prayer, and what is referred to as “charisma.” Although the older idea of Power may be residual in societies dominated by religious or secular rationalism, it is likely to emerge into prominence under conditions of severe stress and disturbance of routine assumptions—when institutions explained and legitimized in terms of the hegemonic cultural mode appear to be breaking down or to be in decay. Such circumstances evoke not so much new types of leaders or new forms of domination as ancient conceptions and ancient sources of authority.


* This essay should be read next to Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacerima” (PDF), and comes on roughly the 15th anniversary of the first time that I read Benedict Anderson‘s landmark essay entitled “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture.”

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