A STRONG WORD is like a sharp stone. At first, it can cut and injure, or carve cleanly. With overuse, however, it can wear down and become dull and useless. The word "empowerment," now in vogue in conservative Republican circles, may fast be losing its jagged edge.
Who doesn't want "empowerment" these days? Environmentalists and feminists want it, virtually every local political candidate from Sidney Kramer to Maurice Turner advocated it, black South Africans want it, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich and Barbara Mikulski back it, the murderous Peruvian Senderos and the American Enterprise Institute both like it. As Trinidadian poet Wilfred Cartey put it, "Each single self then is in an organic state of empowerment."
The word was absent from President Bush's State of the Union address, but it lay behind many of his proposals. He embraced the "empowerment" agenda of conservative Republicans, which includes parental choice in public school education, tenant control and ownership of public housing, and neighborhood enterprise zones. In a Jesse Jackson-style rhyme, he declared that "the strength of democracy is not in bureaucracy" and promised that his budget tomorrow would include "a plan of action . . . to put more power and opportunity in the hands of the individual."
Empowerment acquired its political meaning during the 1960s and early 1970s, though both the political right and left claim patrimony.
Jim Miller, author of "Democracy Is in the Streets," says the roots of empowerment lie with the New Left of the 1960s. "It grows out of the impulse of the New Left to give power to the people and to give people power over their own lives," he says. Miller points out that the absorption of that notion into mainstream politics started almost immediately as then-speechwriter William Safire picked it up for a speech by President Nixon.
Empowerment also became popular among community organizers, who wanted to increase the participation of poor people in government programs. Many also believed that true power lies not only in votes but in the transfer of economic power to society's oppressed. The welfare state, they thought, was to some extent just another form of the same elite power structure.
White House aide James P. Pinkerton believes that empowerment has a Republican heritage too. He detects the idea, if not the exact word, in housing legislation proposed in 1966 by Sen. Charles Percy, an Illinois Republican. In 1967, Percy called for an alliance between "the conservatism in us all" and "the radicalism of the slums" that were both "committed to the same ideas -- individual freedom, local initiative, and responsibility."
Indeed, an odd connection was made between Republicans and blacks in the 1960s that presaged today's empowerment fashion. In 1967, author Nathan Wright, chairman of the National Conference on Black Power, testified in favor of the Percy bill and, in a flourish worthy of American speakers from Emerson to Bush, advocated "the empowerment of the life of the powerless for self-directed growth, for fulfillment."
In 1968, a suprising combination of Republican congressmen and black activists united to back a "community self-determination act" that would "empower the people of communities to advance toward ownership, economic security, human dignity . . . ."
Through all these political transformations, the word empowerment appealed to the New Left, community organizers and conservatives, all of whom shared hostility to big government and to programs too far removed from ordinary people. The first two groups aimed at radicalizing the New Deal, while today's conservatives see empowerment as part of what Pinkerton calls a "Copernican shift" away from New Deal politics. Empowerment's champions in the 1960s favored democratic socialism; its champions today lean toward libertarianism.
In the mid-1970s, Richard John Newhaus and Peter Berger further articulated a conservative vision of empowerment in their book "To Empower People." "The really important things cannot be delivered but have to be created by people who are empowered to take charge of their own lives," Neuhaus says. While he said the government could take a "maximal" approach to empowerment by promoting "mediating structures" such as churches, volunteer organizations and families, he was more convinced that government should take a "minimal" approach by not "interfering" with peoples' own potential. "Ninety-eight percent of people know what's best for their own lives," Neuhaus says. "If that's true, it's also true of the poor."
While many Republicans such as Kemp and Pinkerton claim to be "socially conscious conservatives," many poor, black and liberal people believe that is an oxymoron. They suspect the idea of giving "ordinary" people power -- and thus responsibility -- is convenient to conservatives because it relieves government of much of its responsibility. Many suspect it is an attempt to give people responsibility -- without power or money. The Bush budget probably won't reassure these people. It is expected to provide relatively little money to sponsor small pilot projects that fall under the empowerment heading.
The empowerment craze has gone far beyond politics. It no longer has anything at all to do with power in the political sense. Instead it is about self-fulfillment. Nursing and occupational therapy conventions include workshops on empowerment. The District police run a Youth Empowerment Project and a Neighborhood Empowerment Drug Initiative Police Substation. A Knight-Ridder newspaper now runs a reader-empowerment box at the bottom of its editorials, telling readers how to act on issues about which the paper opines. In Jerusalem, there was an International Jewish Feminist Conference on the Empowerment of Women. Harmony Books published a book entitled, "Zapp! The Lightening of Empowerment or How to Improve Quality, Productivity, and Employee Satisfaction."
Miller says empowerment has gone "from a slogan, to a formula for community organizing, and ultimately into a cliche." Its many uses pay tribute to the never-ending expansiveness of mainstream American thought and to the ever-churning process that can take any idea, no matter how revolutionary, and make it politically and commercially acceptable.
Steven Mufson is a financial reporter for The Washington Post.