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Hegemony: The Haves and “Soon To Haves”

Hegemony is a big word for a fairly simple idea. When socially powerful people use their influence to convince less powerful people it is in their best interest to do what is actually in the most powerful people’s best interest, that’s hegemony. If you had a younger brother or sister, then chances are you’ve been hegemonic before. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses how hegemony is used to get his daughter to bed and to justify the growing economic inequality in the United States.

Child in Pajamas Arms Folded

My 3 year old daughter doesn’t want to go to bed, ever. I used to fight with her, but I found my feeble reserve of late day energy no match for her inexhaustible reserves of protest anger (she takes a mid-day nap- it’s not a fair fight). I have power and authority over her. I am 10 times her size. My mastery of basic intellectual skills pwns her 3 year old set. And yet I’m reduced to begging her and/or God for the mercy of sleep.

We’ve been focusing a lot on power and control here on SociologyInFocus, but it’s an election year, so this is to be expected. There are a lot of ways to control/dominate people, but not all of them are as painless or as sinister as hegemony.

Hegemony is the opposite of coercion. Whereas coercion uses force or intimidation to get folks to do what you want, hegemony is the act of convincing another that it is in their best interest to do what you want them to do. Tom Sawyer famously convinced his friends that painting a fence was “so much fun” that they begged him to let them do Sawyer’s work for him. Sawyer was a hegemonic mastermind.

Let’s go back to my daughter. I have authority, size, and power over her, but using coercion goes against my values and against the laws of my state. So I busted out my hegemony skills.

“Hunny, do you want to wear your red or blue jammies?” She likes playing dress up, so her face lit up as we put on the red jams she chose herself. “Ok hun, do you want to use mommy/daddy toothpaste or the Elmo purple toothpaste?” Elmo was, unsurprisingly, the winner. “Who do you want to brush your teeth? Me or you?” She brushed her teeth like a boss. “Alright which book should we read in bed? Pick one out.” She loved this game and we both eagerly jumped into bed for a covert bedtime story. As we I finished the last page of Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots her eyes were nearly shut.

At no time did I ask her if she wanted to go to bed, because I knew the answer. Rather I gave her choices and “empowered” her to do what I wanted. I made it so she happily worked against her own self-interest. It was dastardly.

But your a big kid now, so what does this have to do with you?

In the U.S. today our economy is a tad unequal. Or put another way, the difference between the rich and the poor is higher than any other developed country and the gap is growing. Many have said we are a nation of haves and have-nots. However not everyone is cool with this language of division.

In the Republican Party’s response to State of The Union two weeks ago, governor Mitch Daniels said this language was unAmerican. He said America has always been a nation of haves and soon to haves. Watch this clip from the Daily Show to see what he said:

When people believe they’ve been disadvantaged by a rigged system they get angry and they start to use words like injustice, occupy, and revolution. If the rich and socially powerful can convince the poor that it is either their fault they are poor or that they are just about to be rich, then viola the revolutionary tension is released. Hegemony is used everyday to deflect blame away from the rich and powerful and convince the socially disadvantaged to continue to tolerate inequality.

My daughters bed time ritual and the “soon to have” rhetoric are just two forms of hegemony. There are many, many more. Whenever people are convinced it’s in their best interest to do what is actually against what they believe is their interest that’s hegemony.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Think of other examples of where powerful social actors use their position of power hegemonically.
  2. John Steinbeck famously said that in the United States the poor don’t see themselves as exploited, but rather they seem themselves as, “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. Why is this? What would lead economically disadvantaged people to see themselves so inaccurately?
  3. Given that the United States has a relatively high level of economic inequality, what should our elected officials be saying to us about income inequality?
  4. Assume for a minute that many people in the United States have been successfully mislead by hegemonic social forces. What can we do about it?