“Agency” is the ability to control yourself and your own life. “Loss of agency” is the psychological term for people no longer being able to influence the course of their own life or the world around them.
The phrase is often used to describe the situation of (usually) women suffering from severe spousal abuse, physically and psychologically beaten into submission, locked in their homes, unable to work and afraid to even contact friends or family.
But it also describes far less severe situations, like when people lose control of their work lives because of unregulated markets, can’t provide for themselves or their families because of poverty, or want social/political change but are regularly thwarted by bought-off politicians.
It’s sometimes described as a loss of power, but it’s really a whole different animal, closer to loss of self-control and ones’ own life amidst a world gone insane.
Tucker Carlson’s attacks on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (complete with his “Sandy” pet name for her) is a classic example of how a TV show host can convert his viewer’s sense of political loss of agency into outrage, but when you step back a bit you see the impact of the loss of agency all over the place.
- The Workplace
The past forty years of Reagan’s neoliberalism have destroyed agency for millions of Americans in the workplace, as they no longer have a union representing them and are powerless in the face of increasingly giant and monopolistic employers determined to keep wages flat.
The disempowerment of working people in America has been a long-time Republican goal: It was 1947 when President Harry Truman vetoed the Republican-controlled congress’ Taft-Hartley legislation, saying in his veto message, “It contains seeds of discord which would plague this Nation for years to come.”
Republicans overruled his veto, making union-busting legal in any state that wanted to declare itself a “Right to Work For Less” state. Twenty-seven states have so far adopted those “seeds of discord,” devastating the little agency employees had in the workplace to begin with.
- Political Bribery
The twelve years since five “conservatives” on the Supreme Court fully legalized political bribery with their Citizens United decision have seen a national loss of political agency: politicians now regularly do what billionaires and big corporations want, rather than what the people want.
Whether it’s cheaper drugs, nationwide single-payer healthcare, a cleaner environment, stronger social security, postal banking, a higher minimum wage, low-cost high-speed broadband, mass transit, predatory bank behavior, an end to student debt, or the breakup of giant corporations so entrepreneurialism can again blossom in America, corporations and billionaires have paid legislators to block them all in defiance of the majority of voters.
Political dysfunction, because so many politicians are now legally owned by billionaires or corporations, has left Congress polling lower than “America turning communist,” “Richard Nixon during Watergate,” or “the IRS.”
It’s also frozen Congress’ ability to accomplish anything of substance: over 1000 pieces of legislation became law in 1982, but that number has collapsed to below 200 in the past decade (particularly when you take out naming post offices and the like).
American voters, feeling that loss of agency but not fully realizing its cause, have reacted by embracing con artist politicians like Donald Trump and his buddies in the GOP who offer simple slogans to solve complex problems. Others join anti-government groups like the ones that stormed the Capitol on January 6th, or go down the rabbit hole of third-party politics.
- Silencing Women
Birth control pills were authorized by the FDA in 1961, although at that time multiple states had laws banning birth control altogether. Connecticut, for example, made it a crime for even a married couple to be in possession of condoms or any other birth control device or product.
In 1965 in the Griswold v Connecticut case, the Supreme Court struck down those state laws across the nation, and use of birth control for married people — over the loud objections of the Catholic church — became widespread.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court legalized possession of birth control for unmarried men and women in their Eisenstadt v. Baird decision.
As women gained agency over their own bodies and reproductive systems (particularly after the 1973 Roe v Wade decision) an organized women’s rights movement emerged, as all across the nation women enrolled in college and/or entered the workforce in numbers never before seen outside of wartime.
The backlash from men who saw this as a loss of their own agency was immediate: the 70s were a time of particular ferment with the issue even making its way into presidential politics as conservatives openly argued that a woman’s place was in the home and this “radical” behavior would spell the end of the nuclear family.
Limbaugh referred to activist women as Feminazis, other conservative commentators suggested witches and lesbians were taking over the country, and the anti-death-penalty “Right to Life” movement was hijacked by anti-abortion activists with the goal of putting women back under the control of husbands and the state. Tucker’s unseemly anti-AOC rant is just the latest in the long line of powerful men trashing women for declaring or living out their own agency.
Astonishingly, as Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently pointed out (clip at the bottom of this article), all three men running in the GOP primary to take her on in November don’t just want abortion outlawed — they want Griswold v Connecticut overturned so all use of birth control can again be criminalized, thus flushing women back out of the workplace.
- Guns and Assault Weapons
As men were getting hit in the workplace by “Right to Work For Less” laws and Reagan’s “War on Unions” throughout the 1980s, their perceived loss of agency translated into a search for something to restore their sense of men-in-control: toxic masculinity went national.
Guns, being obvious stand-ins for powerful penises, fit the bill perfectly; when you’re carrying a gun you can not only control women and others, you can take their lives. There is no more god-like power than the ability to instantly take a life.
The “men’s rights” and “gun rights” movements emerged in the 1980s out of the same nest of sexual and social male insecurity, as society around them changed. Gun manufacturers and their lobbying arm, the NRA, saw this as a billion-dollar opportunity.
The basis of the successful $73 million lawsuit just won against Remington by nine of the Sandy Hook families was that company’s advertising assertion that owning a BIG gun was the key to being a “real man.” Ads targeting insecure men and boys promised to punch their “man card” and compared gun ownership with other “manly” activities like “eating meat instead of tofu.”
As the gun companies made billions in profits selling masculinity, America ended up the only country in the world with more guns than people. Every year that gun sales went up, so did accidental child deaths, mass shootings, suicides, and murders.
More than 40 million guns were added to America’s streets just during the two years of the pandemic, and it’s reflected in today’s murder rates, which are particularly high in rural red states and counties, and now the revival of mass school shootings by young white men feeling a loss of agency.
- The GOP
The epicenter for all these plagues on the American people is the Republican Party, which has, since the 1920s, unabashedly stood for white, wealthy, well-off men and the corporations they run.
Embracing the defiance of flight attendants displayed nearly 100% by white men, eight Republican senators have written to the Attorney General demanding that people who assault flight crews not be put on the “no-fly” list.
Senators Cynthia M. Lummis (WY), Mike Lee (UT), James Lankford (OK), Marco Rubio (FL), Kevin Cramer (ND), Ted Cruz (TX), John Hoeven (ND) and Rick Scott (FL) are all betting it’s good politics to pander to aggrieved men who feel having to wear a mask on an airplane is an assault on their sense of agency.
Ted Cruz ranting that it should be illegal for President Biden to announce he’s going to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court is just the latest in the GOP’s racist and put-women-back-in-their-place hustle.
As I noted last week, when a political party has no real policy plans or core beliefs, they fall back on demagoguery, misogyny and racism. Nixon blazed the trail with his Southern Strategy, Bush the Elder fine-tuned it with Willie Horton, and Donald Trump laid it right out in the open for the world to see.
America’s in deep trouble, with our political system hijacked by billionaires; cultural voices like Fox and social media sowing hate and division for profit; toxic masculinity driving hate crimes, murders, and air rage; and more than half the country so desperately hanging on by their fingernails that they can’t deal with an unexpected $1000 expense.
Progressive Democrats offer a way for Americans to recover our control of government — our agency — and thus a way towards our becoming a nation that cares for its own and works to heal, rather than tear apart, the American social contract.
They’d accomplish this by getting big money out of politics to put voters back in control of elections, while putting into place policies mentioned earlier and supported by the majority of Americans.
November may well be our last chance to undo much of the damage the GOP has inflicted on us these past 40+ years and build, finally, a nation that truly realizes its founding promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.