The Strange History of Empowerment

Recently both First Lady Michele Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton have been promoting "women's empowerment." The normally reserved Clinton has discussed how the "double standard" for women shaped her career, and the First Lady promoted a song about girl's empowerment titled, "This is For My Girls."

Neither Secretary Clinton nor the First Lady Clinton have been the first or the last politician to don the empowerment mantle. But what does empowerment mean? My Random House College Dictionary offers the following definition of "empower": 1. "to give power or authority to; authorize. 2. to enable or permit. empowerment, n."

Sounds simple enough. In politics, however, empowerment has assumed a number of different, sometimes contradictory, meanings over the past sixty years. It began in the 1950s as a radical critique of the power structure; it was co-opted by various liberal and conservative groups in the '60, '70s and '80s; and it has wound up today as a political buzzword for mainstream politicians of all persuasions precisely because it has lost its power to threaten the establishment.

If there is a birthplace of the modern empowerment movement it is Montgomery, Alabama. When, on a cold winter afternoon in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to offer her bus seat to a white patron, she sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ignited the modern civil rights movement. Beyond precipitating the fall of Jim Crow laws, the boycott created a sense of community and power among people who had felt left out. As Jo Ann Robinson, one of the organizers, said of the boycott victory, "We felt that we were somebody."

At the heart of the early civil rights movement was a compelling vision of democratic reform based on the idea of giving power to disenfranchised people to challenge unjust laws. Though the word itself was not yet in fashion, this was "empowerment" in its literal form: The purpose of the movement was to put clout in the hands of African-Americans -- a group that had previously lacked the electoral, political or economic wherewithal to better their own lot. This particular vision of empowerment, as articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., depended on building "a beloved community" of enlightened people, black and white, that would, through the power of Christian love and nonviolent protest, transform American society. King's vision was revolutionary in that it challenged deeply held American faith in individualism and asked people to transcend race and class differences.

The example of Montgomery inspired civil rights activists in the 1960s to expand their protest, and the continued efforts of the movement hewed closely to the goal of helping those who genuinely lacked political and economic power. The spirit that animated many young people, black and white, found expression in the Port Huron Statement. Written by Tom Hayden and other leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the document became the bible of the New Left. It attacked the "structural separation of people from power" which contributed to "the sense of outer complexity and inner powerlessness." Student in both SDS and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) aimed to destroy the old bureaucratic system by empowering people through "participatory democracy." With that idea in mind, the young organizers of the SNCC moved into local communities in the South in an effort to build grass roots power structures. At the same time their counterparts in SDS set up shop in poor urban areas in the North.

By the early 1960s, through these efforts, a radical notion of empowerment had emerged. It had three essential ingredients. First, it was based on the optimistic notion that a transcendent moral wrong would pull together an enlightened community of citizens who would root out injustice in society. Second, it rested on a foundation of grass roots democracy that challenged the dominant system of leadership by professionals. Third, it offered a fundamental critique of the status quo.

Empowerment took a strange twist after 1965. Most people think of the 60s as a decade of radical thought and social revolution. Images of burning cities and angry protesters suggest a time of dramatic change. In fact, during the decade the concept of empowerment was stripped of its radical assumptions. Public rhetoric became more shrill, but the underlying assumptions of empowerment actually became more conservative. The polarizing politics of the decade led many people to abandon hopes of forging broad-based coalitions that transcended racial and class divisions. As reform groups lost faith in government they fragmented into smaller, self-conscious interest groups. Rather than build coalitions they chose to mobilizing minorities. The change was most noticeable in the civil rights movement where advocates of Black Power abandoned King's emphasis on building a bi-racial community. Eldridge Cleaver, "minister of information" for the Black Panther Party argued that blacks were awakening to the "vast power latent in their mass" and "must harness their numbers and hone it into a sword with a sharp cutting edge." James Baldwin, author of the militant manifesto The Fire Next Time, declared that the "only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power."

A host of other groups joined the chorus demanding empowerment. Native Americans, preaching "red power," formed the American Indian Movement. The stonewall riot ignited a nationwide gay "liberation" movement. Two days after the riot, angry homosexuals marched through the streets of New York chanting the new mantra of the movement: "Gay Power!" The Grey Panthers, a group of senior citizens who modeled their organization after the Black Panthers, made "Grey Power" the rallying cry of their movement. Feminists, declaring that "sisterhood is powerful," helped build the most successful social protest movement of the 1970s.

Beginning in the 1970s, conservatives moved in to fill the empowerment vacuum created by the fragmentation on the left. From Barry Goldwater's drubbing in 1964 they had learned that they couldn't just criticize the welfare state; they needed to articulate a compelling alternative vision. Conservatives had to be true to their convictions of limited government and individual initiative without appearing heartless or reactionary.

Appropriating the concept of empowerment became one of the means. In 1977, Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus constructed the intellectual scaffolding of the conservative empowerment movement with publication of their essay, "To Empower People." They argued that liberal programs did more harm than good because they crippled mediating institutions, like the family and the church, which gave people a sense of control over their lives. The key to solving many social problems, they argued, was to dismantle the welfare state and "empower" people to help themselves.

In the 1980s two conservatives sharpened these ideas into a powerful new ideological weapon: social scientist Charles Murray and congressman Jack Kemp. The genius of Murray's bestselling book, Losing Ground, was that, unlike past conservatives, he did not blame the poor for their plight. Instead, like Berger and Neuhaus, he attacked the well-intentioned liberal reformers for constructing a welfare state that he argued enslaved the poor. Murray contended that destroying the welfare state would in the end empower the poor. His argument helped establish a foundation for a new activist conservatism. Kemp applied the same logic to urban development. Federal policies had contributed to the decay of inner cities, he argued. Only the free market, in this case his much-heralded enterprise zones, could revitalize the nation's cities and empower the people who lived there. By the end of the decade, Kemp and other activist conservatives had made empowerment the linchpin of their new faith.

The conservative appropriation of the term turned the empowerment ethic upside down. The civil rights-era vision of empowerment held that people gained power through a shared sense of struggle. In the conservative incarnation, empowerment became synonymous with rugged individualism. The original proponents of empowerment were poor African-Americans who were excluded from the mainstream of American life. Corporate America propounds the new version. Civil rights activists used empowerment as a tool for social change; today, the establishment uses it in support of the status quo.

Since the 1990s, both liberals and conservatives have embraced the rhetoric of empowerment because it allows them to offer the illusion of change. Conservatives use the term to depict themselves as bold reformers committed to helping the disenfranchised through the healing power of capitalism; in reality, the concept diverts attention from their abdication of responsibility. Liberals find empowerment a convenient way to convince an angry middle class that they have found a "new" approach to old problems; in fact, they have found only a rhetorical device to disguise their failures.

In the end, the history of empowerment is that liberals and conservatives have transformed a potent concept of social change into a meaningless euphemism.