In the 1974 novel The Chocolate War, about a secret society of students who control a school, we meet the antagonist Archie Costello. Archie is the Assigner of the Vigils, the aforementioned secret society. Officially, he is not the head of the organization; their President is. As the Assigner, however, he is able to manipulate events and cultivate relationships such that he becomes the most powerful member of the Vigils and effectively runs the school. Now, I am careful not to put too much stock into a work of fiction as an actual case study of human behavior, but this example does provide some insight that we can apply to situations in the real world. We can ask: What is the source of power? Is it authority, or is it something else?
It is worth conceding from that start that power draws upon multiple sources. Authority can therefore be a source in the right context. Not everyone will have the advantage of possessing authority, however. Those who wish to maximize their own power might then want to take a lesson from Archie. When utilized correctly, other sources can overcome the power that is given by authority.
Perhaps one of the greatest, alternate sources is information. Plenty, if not all, of you have heard the statement “knowledge is power” before, generally attributed to Francis Bacon during the Enlightenment. Today, we will understand why this statement is incorrect or is, at the very least, overly simplistic. The mere possession of information to oneself is not enough for the foundation of power. One also depends on the ignorance of others.
We will examine a violent situation to make the statement clear. Imagine that two individuals are trapped in a room together. The only way that either of them will be allowed to escape is if they kill the other. They are both provided identical guns with which to accomplish this, but neither of them know how to operate them. Ceteris paribus, they are equal in power. Should one of them become informed on how to operate their firearm, they will become the more powerful of the two. If both are informed of this, then they remain equally powerful. Even though the possession of the knowledge behind the gun’s operation is indisputably advantageous, the mere possession of information does not increase one’s power. As such, knowledge is not power. The exclusivity of information is power.
Extreme or not, that is still a fictional example. Let us look to an actual case of this at work. To that end, I will recall a personal anecdote in which exclusivity of information gave me power.
In 2014, during my last semester at UNC, I took a course on legislative procedure, as part of my Political Science degree. The first half of the course was the standard routine of lectures and note-taking. The second half of the course consisted of applying the information we had learned. We were all randomly assigned as actual members of the U.S. House of Representatives and had to propose legislation. I was made Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan and Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Since we did not have 435 students to replicate the entire House, there were only four of the committees (to include mine). Each of their chairmen, plus the Majority and Minority Leaders, made for six leadership positions in a class of about twenty-five. This made me one of the most powerful members of the House. In fact, we were specifically taught that chairmanships are the prime real estate for members of the House, as it allows them more ability to produce bills that benefit their districts and get them re-elected.
Just before we began the roleplay, we were all made to take tests that explained how liberal or conservative our members were to our instructor. A few days into roleplaying, once all the tests had been read and assessed by our instructor, she announced that there would be some changes. First, however, she noted that most students had answered the tests incorrectly, that they misunderstood the framing of the test and what it was trying to determine. Nevertheless, she proceeded with the next phase of the course.
Since the Republicans were (and still are) the majority, they had all of the chairmanships. Thus, the chairmen that were deemed not to be conservative enough on the tests were fired from these positions and replaced with more conservative members of those committees. I ended up being the sole casualty of this, largely because I was perhaps the only student who had filled out the test in the way our instructor had intended. I was not too happy about this turn of events.
Moreover, I knew that the real Fred Upton would have hated to lose his chairmanship. Therefore, while most Republican members of the House were interested in getting conservative bills passed and Democrats were interested in blocking these bills, my main individual goal was to get my chairmanship back, without totally destroying the Republican agenda. It was going to be a challenge, to say the least.
After a few more days of committee meetings, we had our caucus meetings. This was where we met with the other members of our political party, with the party leaders presiding. The purpose was to form a party strategy during floor debate, where bills would be passed or defeated. The Majority Leader was Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who interrupted former-President Obama during his State of the Union by saying, “You lie!” He made his vision clear: we had a majority, so there was no reason for us not to get “good, Republican bills” passed. Wilson also said that we needed to stick together and not have the party get rolled.
Some explanation is in order. In the first half of the course, we learned about what it means for a party to get “rolled.” This is something that only happens to the majority party (in this case, the Republicans). It occurs when a majority of the majority party votes to pass or defeat a bill but fails to get the winning result. An example could be found in the current House, which consists of 235 Republicans and 193 Democrats. The Democrats are only able to pass or stop a bill with the help of at least 22 Republicans. If this occurs, then the Republican party “gets rolled.” This can also occur in the Senate, and it, in fact, did last year when the Republican majority failed to pass the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, due to Senators McCain, McCaskill, and Collins siding with the Democrats, defeating the bill 51 – 49, and rolling the Senate Republican Party.
It is the mission of the party leadership to rally the party and make sure that it does not get rolled, as getting rolled not only embarrasses the party, it shows that it is unable to organize effectively in order to govern. Wilson’s insistence on unity among Republicans in the party thus showed that he understood his duty as Leader and wanted to avoid getting rolled. It became clear then that I needed to create the threat of rolling our party, and to do that, I would need some help.
The task was made harder when one of the Democrats, on the first day of caucus meetings, announced that he was leaving his party for becoming too liberal and joining the Republicans, which is something that his actual member did, if I recall correctly. This made the math harder for me, but I still had a shot. This defector announced that he would be on vacation for the first two days of floor debate (out of a total of four), so we would not have his vote for half the period in which bills could be passed. Based on that, if I could just get two other Republicans to join with me to vote against our caucus’s agenda, we would give a majority to the Democrats on the first two days of floor debate, and then we could stall proceedings on the last two days with an even split.
I found my two allies in Representatives Kristi Noem and Cory Gardner. Noem had written a bill to expand the age qualifications for asylum status to sex slaves trafficked into the United States from Mexico. Most of the Republicans did not like this, as they saw it as a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants, and so Wilson would not allow the language. Gardner was running for Senate, and his home state of Colorado leans blue, so he needed to be able to vote “No” on some of his bills, in order to moderate his image and have a hope of winning. The Democrats in our class has seized upon this weakness and ran attack ads against him as a hardline conservative, furthering the pressure.
I reached out to the ranking Democrat from my committee, silently via Facebook, during the first day of caucus meetings. I explained that the Democrats had a chance to overcome the Republican majority, and he got me in contact with the Minority Leader. From there, I messaged Gardner (who happened to be seated right next to me). I explained that I was forming a coalition with the Democrats and that he could use to get them off his back. He agreed. Then I reached out to Noem after class and told her that the Democrats could get behind her bill with its complete language. She also signed on. After the second day of caucus meetings, I met with the Minority Leader in the hall, and we made our bargain. Excited that he was going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, he exclaimed “Yes!” and jumped gleefully.
We had another day of committee meetings. The Democrats ran a new, conciliatory add about Gardner. So far, all was going well.
Then came the first day of floor debate. I had a unique advantage in that Wilson and I had another class together before this one on legislative procedure, in the same room, no less. This meant that I would have a five-minute window in which I could speak to him before any of our classmates arrived. I made use of that on this day.
As soon as our first class adjourned, I got up and seated myself next to Wilson. I then told him that I had talked with the Democrats and that we had a majority coalition for the first two days for floor debate. I told him why the three of us had joined with the Democrats and that I would be able to remain loyal if my chairmanship were returned.
Wilson was flabbergasted. With only minutes until class and the first round of floor debate started, he had a choice to make: aim for his perfect, Republican agenda or prevent the party from being rolled. He chose the latter, as I knew he would, and conceded. He granted my chairmanship back. When Noem and Gardner arrived, he gave Noem back her original bill on trafficking and allowed Gardner to cast a neutral vote on bills as he saw fit. With that, the Republican majority was restored, and the three of us got everything we wanted. The Minority Leader, who days ago was beaming in the halls, looked absolutely despondent as every Democratic bill was defeated.
Why did I prevail? The answer is: exclusivity of information. I was the single point of contact for each of my allies that I peeled off, for the Minority Leader, and for Joe Wilson. I never had us all meet together to hash things out. That would have made the maneuver impossible to pull off. It worked because I knew all the key information, while everyone else only knew bits and pieces of information. By having exclusive information, I made myself the most powerful member of the House on the first day of floor debate.
What is just as important as exclusivity of information is how one acquires it. I acquired it by exhibiting control of information. I did not tell everyone the full story, only the parts they needed to know in order to get on board. As the single point of contact for all of the key players, I was the central node in the network of information, which allowed me to act with the most accuracy and the least error. I was able to see the big picture, to which all others were blind.
Anyone who wants to increase their power in a group setting can do so by becoming a central node of information themselves. This relies on one’s ability to cultivate individual relationships, thereby providing an avenue for the flow of information. This means keeping others out of the equation. While information, unlike material wealth, can be copied and shared infinitely, it must be guarded as though it were a zero-sum resource, because power is a zero-sum resource. Meeting individually instead of in groups makes this easier to accomplish.
I feel that I should point out that deception is another way to limit the information that other people have, but I discourage that. While I did engage in some light deception while roleplaying as Fred Upton, I had the advantage of it never being able to come back and haunt me, as the semester and therefore the class would end one day. In the real world, one’s lies are hard to maintain over a long period of time, and a reputation for dishonesty will generally weaken one’s ability to gain control of information. Rather than lie, one should simply be cautious about what information they share.
It can take time to gather enough information that will provide a beneficial power imbalance, so this also requires patience and self-control. One should act when they have a superiority of information that can reliably prove decisive. Hasty action will only squander one’s efforts.
That concludes the assessment of exclusivity of information and its effect on power dynamics. The main ideas are to:
- Have the most information.
- Deny information to others.
- Centralize oneself in the flow of information.
More analyses of the factors behind power dynamics are to come. For now, start cultivating those relationships!