Back in 1976, the eminent political scientist Robert Dahl pointed out a common error in the analysis of power among social theorists: the tendency to assume that power was a unit-level attribute, something that a unit or actor possessed in isolation. This was hardly a new observation, but Dahl did something very important with it: he coined a term to describe the problem. Dahl called it the “lump-of-power fallacy.” But despite the efforts of Dahl and others to root this particular misconception out, it remains firmly embedded in both our theories and in our ordinary ways of speaking.

A case in point is provided by a comment that Shibley Telhami made in a Washington Post article last week. Discussing the infamous paper by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt on the influence of pro-Israeli lobbying groups on U.S. foreign policy, Telhami, whom the article describes as someone who “does not believe Jewish neocons and their Christian supporters forced the United States into the war,” comments:

“There’s no doubt that neocons long wanted a war…But in the end it was the decision of a president who was super-empowered after 9/11 and who could have ignored them.”

I am not going to say anything about the Walt/Mearsheimer claims; I will leave discussion of US-Israeli relations to senior tenured colleagues, thank you very much. Instead, I want to make a different and more modest point: Telhami’s claim is misleading, inasmuch as it replicates the fallacy that Dahl named thirty years ago. No more than any other actor or unit, presidents — even presidents benefitting from one of the largest rally-round-the-flag approval-ratings boosts in recent history — do not possess power as a lump that they can utilize in order to get whatever they want.

In order to see this, consider the following counterfactual. Imagine that Bush went to Congress on 20 September 2001 and made a speech rather different from the one that he did in fact make — the speech that advanced the famous division of the world into “with us” and “with the terrorists” and hence declared that the United States was now officially and openly in the business of civilizing the world by military force, and sovereignty be damned. But imagine for a moment that he took a rather different tack:

Jesus Christ, whom I said was my favorite political philosopher in the presidential campaign, teaches us that we should love our enemies. Indeed, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 verse 39, our Lord tells us that when someone strikes us, we should turn the other cheek. And we have been struck. As a Christian nation, it is therefore incumbent upon us both to turn the other cheek and to learn to love our enemies. As such I am announcing today the “Islamic Friendship Initiative,” and have instructed the State Department to begin to organize public meetings throughout the Middle East so that we can speak with Muslims and learn to love them…

Clearly this is not what Bush said. And it has a bit of an absurd ring to it, I think, which should be our first clue that something has gone seriously awry in our thought experiment. Indeed, the very implausibility of Bush haven given a speech like this nine days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC should tell us something important: because we cannot actually imagine it having happened, we must have overlooked something in creating that counterfactual history.*

So what did we forget? Well, it certainly wasn’t the text of the Christian Bible (look up Matthew 5:39 if you don’t believe me). So the problem here isn’t a logical one — the hypothetical policy does follow logically from the biblical text. [Indeed, several policies follow logically from different parts of the biblical text, which is one of the problems with trying to produce policy grounded in the Bible, but that’s an issue for a whole different post.] And the problem also wasn’t something having to do with Bush’s personality; this is the man who proclaimed the need for a more “humble” foreign policy during the presidential election, who did in fact declare that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher, and who condemned “nation-building” as a strategy in no uncertain terms. So the problem is not that one cannot imagine George W. Bush coming to the conclusion that more Christian charity was needed in response to the 11 September attacks.

I’d submit that what is implausible about this counterfactual Bush speech is the notion that such a thing could have made it through the various levels of the presidential staff, and somehow cleared the scrutiny of speechwriters, advisors, political consultants, Congressional allies, and party officials. Even if Bush himself had this idea in his head, his staff wouldn’t have let it see the light of day — especially on such a public stage as an address before a joint session of Congress — because they would know what kind of backlash it would engender. Presidential staffs may make mistakes, but they aren’t generally populated by idiots, and anyone who wasn’t a complete idiot would have known that many, many sectors of American society were crying for blood in the days after the attacks. To refuse a military response would be to disregard the opinions of a large section of the population, and this would have caused Bush’s popularity and job approval rating to plummet. And the staff knew this and acted accordingly — or, if they hadn’t, we can easily imagine them being replaced.

Lurking around this analysis is the notion that Bush’s “power” — his capacity to get things done, to bring about one outcome rather than another — is some kind of infinitely flexible commodity that can be used in vastly different domains. The technical term here is “fungible”; money is a fungible resource because you can use it to purchase basically anything that is for sale at a given point in time. But power, in in this case presidential power, is not as fungible, but is more specifically bounded. After 11 September 2001, Bush was certainly empowered to extend the national security apparatus and to deploy troops, but it would be a stretch to say that he was empowered to (say) preach repentance for the sins of American imperialism, or even to reform the Social Security system.

To assume that Bush was “super-empowered” to the point where he could have ignored his base, his supporters, and the narrative strategies that they used to make sense of the world is to commit the “lump-of-power fallacy.” Recall that the fallacy revolves around two misleading notions: the idea that an actor or unit can “have” power, and the idea that power is a sort of transferrable (fungible) capacity that makes an actor capable of getting their way under almost any circumstances. A claim like “Bush had power” ignores the extent to which that power was inextricably bound up with a set of social relations that sustained it, including social relations involving a specific legitimation strategy (America as God’s Chosen Country Destined To Civilize All Of Humanity, a.k.a “Manifest Destiny”). A claim like “Bush could have ignored the neoconservative calls for war” further removes Bush’s socially produced and sustained ability to get things done from the relations that make it possible.

Could Bush have really done something different than he did? Sure — but it is important to specify the practical limits within which even this “super-empowered” president was working. He couldn’t produce a reinvigorated manned space flight program; he couldn’t privatize Social Security; and I think it unlikely that he (or any other American president) could have refused the call to deploy troops against suspected terrorists or the regimes that supported them.

Whenever we analyze power and agency, we have to keep the limits of the possible clearly in view. This is the only way that we can avoid the lump-of-power fallacy.

* Yes, this is a Weberian methodological claim. Is anyone surprised?

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