Ruth Bass: So many things depend on having or not having power

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RICHMOND — So much of life is about power. In the 19th century, plantation owners became rich because they had power over slaves. John Adams often listened to and heeded advice from his wife, Abigail, but when she pleaded that he "remember the ladies" and consider their having a vote, he backed off. The country, he said, must not submit to the "tyranny of the petticoat." So men, until 1920, had the power to vote (and the power to not give the vote to women).

The arguments about equal pay for equal work are about gender power and the persistence of the notion that women in the workplace are not worth as much as men. Corporate America's dislike of unions connects to the fact that some power must be relinquished by the bosses when unionized employees get the right to bargain. In municipal settings, it took unions to persuade towns and cities that all teachers were created equal when it came to paychecks.

Domestic violence, whether it's a man beating a woman or a woman beating a man, is all about power. The victim is subject to the power of the fist, often too terrified to walk away. That is cruel power and may include money issues as well as violence. Before two-career families were common, husbands had more power with the paycheck. Many used it.

Power means control. Social scientists say it also can provide freedom, an autonomy that lets a person do what he or she wants, whenever. Power often depends on fear as its major maintenance tool, as in Vladimir Putin's Russia or Kim Jong Un's North Korea or, in the past, Hitler's Germany. But it's not always tyrannical. We've had many historic examples of people power, when a united group embraces a cause and makes it happen. That kind of power eventually gave women the vote, brought about greater acceptance of gender differences, pushed women's rights, has made us talk about climate change.

So, here's the puzzlement. The first article of impeachment brought last week by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives addressed the matter of the "perfect" phone call that sought foreign help with an election, One side either denies it entirely or says it wasn't wrong. The other says unconstitutional. Never the twain shall meet.

The other, charging obstruction of Congress, has brought what seems, in this corner, like a strange response from the 17 who voted against it. The charge came about because the president, unlike his predecessors, refused to let a long list of government officials testify before the Judiciary Committee. He ordered them to ignore subpoenas, something you and I would be unlikely to do. He refused to send the documents the committee requested.

It seems unlikely that the Senate will find the president guilty. So the question is: What power is the Congress about to give up? How equal can their segment of our government be — in accordance with the Constitution's separation of powers — if they've lost the power to get questions answered? How much will acquittal shift the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers figured would keep our democracy on an even keel? Tea went into the harbor, and we had a revolution in the 18th century because the colonists couldn't check the king. Why would Congress want to cede any part of its Constitution-given power to another of the three branches and thus shrink its own say?

It was a man named John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, an English Catholic historian, who is credited with a statement that's become part of the lexicon: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It was the president who at least twice in the primary campaign referred to George Bush's "reign" and who tweets fear into the hearts of his countrymen. We're walking a troublesome path.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is ruthbass.com.

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