We the People—Part 1
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
We the People—Part 1
Opinion – Several years ago—much to my delight—I stumbled upon the English version of the official website for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—more commonly referred to as “North Korea” since it isn’t exactly democratic, nor of the people, nor a republic, nor the entire Korean peninsula, but I digress. At first, I assumed it was a satire site, such as the popular DPRK News Service on Twitter. But as I began to explore the website I soon realized the propaganda was dead serious. On the homepage I found the following declaration:
“The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a genuine workers' state in which all the people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression. The workers, peasants, soldiers and intellectuals are the true masters of their destiny and are in a unique position to defend their interests.”
I suppose it’s invigorating for North Koreans to hear that their local peasant population has been liberated from the sorts of exploitation and oppression that befall all the peasants roaming amok in the Western world but—again—I digress. What I want to draw your attention to is the frequency with which the regime’s rhetoric focuses on “the people.” It’s in their hilariously disingenuous name—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—and it’s ubiquitous throughout the website.
In their aggressive efforts to keep the people in view, North Korea has succeeded in creating hell on earth. But you can justify creating hell on earth when you’re doing it “for the people.” And those North Koreans foolish enough to argue otherwise risk fatal detainment in Camp 22 for their obstinance ingratitude. If working for “the people” can justify creating hell on earth, you can certainly justify less ambitious goals of economic stimulus, or expanding the welfare state, or protecting the jobs of local coal miners and peanut farmers from those pesky global capitalists. Everything is justifiable if it’s done for the sake of the people; and politicians from North Korea to North Dakota have known this since the revolutionary spirit that began in the late 17th century made “the people” a better powerbroker than the local monarch.
Certainly, some calls to focus on “the people” are laudable—Lincoln’s famous democratic plea for a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” springs to mind. Yet when we’re calling for benefits to befall “the people” it begs several questions: who, exactly, are “the people”? Are they best defined by the collective interests of the majority or the separate interests of each sub-culture? Who gets to decide what benefits “the people”? Who gets to speak on behalf of “the people”? What system(s) of government best protect the rights and advances the interests of “the people”? Those claiming to stand for “the people” are much like those who claim they want to make government more efficient and less wasteful. The implication is that there are others taking the opposing view—that they are implicitly seeking to make government even more bureaucratic, less efficient, and more wasteful. Words or phrases that don’t mean anything in particular can be used to mean anything in particular. If all we know of a political leader’s vision is that he’s “for the people” he may be just as likely to support limiting government and reducing taxes as he would be to support expanding government and raising taxes.
In recent decades the media has treated us to at least one debate every presidential election that features an audience of supposedly undecided voters. Much ado is often made about this venerable assembly of pizza delivery guys, insurance agents, and housewives. They are—or so we are told—representative of “the people”—that great unsoiled mass of purity and political disinterest that can better represent all of us than political partisan hacks. But what makes them that way? Are undecided voters somehow better representatives of “the people” than those who happen to be affiliated with a political party? And what makes them undecided? Apathy? A moderate worldview? An extremist worldview? A particular dislike for all of the candidates? Should they be ethnically diverse in proportion to the population as a whole? Or should minority voices have an equal opportunity to speak as the predominant culture? Would that make them more or less qualified to occupy those seats? Should we just take it for granted that the unidentified group who selected these supposed undecideds did so in a way that best reflects the true spirit of American democracy?
A similar problem comes to light when we consider the presidential primary process itself. Since 1972, the Republican presidential primary began with the Iowa caucus. And yet, it is rare for the winner of this state to emerge the eventual party nominee (the winner of the Iowa caucuses has won the nomination only twice in seven contested races since 1980). Iowan Republicans, we are told, are largely Evangelical and tend to support candidates of similar persuasions. In New Hampshire, which has the advantage of voting right after Iowa on the primary calendar, Republicans, nestled in the liberal bastion that is New England, lean more moderate than most of their Republican counterparts throughout the rest of the country. Is this the best representation of the Republican party? Should deference be given to more conservative states like Oklahoma or Utah, or would the hard-liners of those states insulate candidates too radical to be competitive in the general election? Should deference be given to more liberal states like California or Massachusetts? Would that result in too liberal of a nominee for Republicans to show up on election day? Is it fair to assume that Republicans who happen to live in more liberal states are more liberal themselves, or might those embattled Republicans be even more conservative than Republicans in other states?
These are, of course, rhetorical questions; but I trust that whether we are capable of answering them doesn’t detract from my point: attempts to define the collective interests of any group of people is never as simple as it first appears and often fraught with such mindboggling complexities we’d never arrive at a satisfactory answer. This would at least partially explain why governments that seem hellbent on “the people”—such as North Korea—often only succeed in producing hell on earth which—granted, this is purely conjecture on my part—the people sure as hell didn’t want.
So, what are we to make of all this? If the collective needs of “the people” are so evasive and, perhaps, unattainable, where does that leave us? It leaves us with the following questions that must first be answered: who, exactly, are “the people”? And who speaks on their behalf? Once we have answered those two questions we will be in a better position to understand what to do. And we will attempt to answer those two questions in the following posts in this series.
This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.