The Two Words to Watch For

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When some political entity feels backed against a wall, and in need of a knockout punch, one of two words will be featured in their language. This pair of terms provides clues about our political system’s structure. And you can learn a lot about an entity based on which word their statements emphasize.

For example, the CEO of Delta Airlines issued a release last week about Georgia’s election bill. The money line was concise: “I need to make it crystal clear that the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.

One can imagine his team of consultants carefully crafting the language …… debating the impact of phrases like “crystal clear.” By finishing with the word “values” they tried to establish an unassailable position. Who could argue with a company that defends its values?

A different kind of statement was also made last week: one I discussed previously. During an NCAA basketball tournament telecast, Charles Barkley said: ” I think our system is set up where our politicians …… are designed to make us not like each other so they can keep their grasp of money and power.” Here again, a sentence’s final word received the most emphasis: power.

These two words – power and values – sit at the heart of every debate in America. And it’s instructive to observe whether one (or the other) of these terms is left out of some entity’s effort to influence those debates.

In Barkley’s case, an indirect reference to values was added to his more direct reference to power when he said: “I think most white people and black people are great people.

On the other hand, Delta wasn’t fully forthcoming about its orientation toward power. The company was deeply involved in crafting the Georgia election bill, as were other corporations. But this attempt to influence politics was downplayed until others called the company’s bluff. Delta is organized around a top-down structure, with employees and customers arranged into silos. The company skillfully exercises centralized power, both internally and externally.

Americans were free to feature the values debate throughout the first two centuries of the country’s history because our initial governing framework featured a robust balancing of power. But that dynamic has gradually shifted as centralized institutions – corporations like Delta, and statist bureaucracies – have garnered outsized influence.

In our own century, the Power Question is no longer resolved. More citizens, like Barkley, are calling for a re-balancing between centralized and citizen-based power. But the elites insist on hiding behind indistinct assertions about values, without acknowledging their behind-the-scenes machinations.

The liberal versus conservative values debate can no longer be regarded as the primary conflict of our society. Instead, the late-1700s power conflict of centralized versus citizen-empowerment has reemerged. But a deeper conflict always lies below these two fundamental debates. The Power Question and the Values Question compete for every entity’s loyalty.

Barkley and Delta have made their choices on the deeper debate. Both are focused on power. Unfortunately, only one of them will admit it.

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