We the People—Part 2 (Who are “The People?”)
Updated: Jun 20
Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
Opinion – Politicians are fond of talking about “the people.” In Part 1 of this series I ended with two questions that must be answered before we can reasonably expect politicians to address the needs of “the people”: Namely, who, exactly, are “the people”? And who speaks on their behalf? We’ll address the former question below and save the latter for the next post.
There is a curious knee-jerk impulse in America today to over-democratize a conversation such as this—to just take it for granted that “the people” must surely be best represented as democratically as possible. This tendency is apparent once every four years when we have our perennial debate about whether we should abolish the Electoral College and simply elect a president by popular vote. This becomes a particularly hot topic when the election is close or—as happened in 2000 and again in 2016—the candidate with the most votes still loses the election. Many are stunned that such an archaic and seemingly unfair system as the Electoral College could deprive millions of Americans from electing the president they wanted. How could such a system still exist in the 21st century? Isn’t it unAmerican for the majority of “the people” to be denied the candidate they chose? Isn’t a direct popular vote in the best interest of “the people”?
Much ink has been spilled arguing for or against the Electoral College and there will be more to say on that in some future posts; but that is not what concerns us today. What concerns us today is the assumption that lurks behind the belief a direct, popular vote is somehow in the best interest of “the people.” And that assumption is that “the people” can best be defined as a simple headcount.
If you’re involved in a book club with eight of your peers determining what book to read next, or perhaps marooned on an island with a dozen others discussing who should risk leaving on a rickety raft-for-two and send for help and who should stay behind, it may be fair to say that the majority decision of those groups best represents the collective interests of “the people.” The groups are small, and they’ve been tasked with a single purpose. There may be fierce debate about which book to choose or who should get on the raft, but there isn’t any confusion about the problem at hand, or the composition of the group. A simple voice vote may suffice.
But what happens when that collective interest serves multiple purposes simultaneously far beyond selecting a book or determining who should get in the raft? And what if a multitude of interests are spread across thousands of miles and millions of individuals and multiple cultures and subcultures and ideologies and religions and histories and political parties and economic classes and families and backgrounds and occupations and ethnicities and personalities and shared hobbies and health concerns and varying networking opportunities and languages and talents and traditions and access to natural resources and personal convictions? Can we trust that the majority vote somehow best speaks for multiple purposes and our collective interests then?
“The phrase ‘the people’ is sheer nonsense,” insisted former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “It is not a political term. It is a phrase of natural history. A people is not a species; a civilized community is a nation.” “The people” is not a simple headcount. It is a recognition of sub-groups loosely bound to a larger group, of various interest groups within a nation-state, of factions that voluntarily choose to live in civil harmony with those with whom they don’t always agree and sometimes despise. Simply blending these sub-groups into one mass doesn’t provide clarity, it only makes our understanding of these collective interests harder to untangle.
The blending of a Bostonian accent with an accent from the deep South doesn’t produce a dialect-free accent. What makes a Bostonian accent recognizable is that it can be both distinguished from other accents and yet distinct when comparing multiple individuals who each share a Bostonian accent. Take, for instance, brothers Tom and Ray from NPR’s radio program Car Talk: both brothers speak with a heavy Bostonian accent and yet their voices can be distinguished from one another over the radio. That is, their voices can both be identified as the individuals Tom and Ray, but also identified as belonging to a distinguishable group of those who speak with a Bostonian accent.
We might say then that Americans share a common language, but it is comprised of multiple dialects. It wouldn’t be correct to say that each individual in the United States spoke a different language just as it wouldn’t be correct to say that they all spoke with no distinguishable differences. Rather, we could loosely identify specific regions or groups within the country that shared common dialects that could be distinguished from the others. The individual’s voice is unique, but so is the dialect-group to which that voice belongs.
In a similar manner, we could begin to identify specific regions or groups within the country that represent various interests, each distinguishable from the other groups and yet comprised of individuals who themselves have individual interests. “A true majority (to express the concept in its simplest terms) is not a simple head count: instead, it is a balancing and compromising of interests, in which all important elements of the population concur, feeling that their rights have been respected,” observed Russell Kirk in his book The Conservative Mind. Generations earlier, Kirk was combating that same impulse in American thinking that the collective mass could somehow best represent the interests of “the people.” Kirk continues, “No ‘people’ exists as a body with identical, homogeneous interests: this is a fantasy of metaphysicians; in reality, there are only individuals and groups. Polling the numerical majority is an attempt to determine the sense of the people, but it is unlikely to ascertain the sense of the true majority: for the rights of important groups may be altogether neglected under such arrangements.”
If this balancing and compromising of interests of individuals and groups best represent our understanding of “the people” we are left with yet another question to answer before we can hope to make much progress: who speaks on their behalf? That is, if we can’t simply poll the majority, how are we to know what “the people” need or want? That is a question we will seek to answer in Part 3.
This article originally appeared in The Millennial Review.