Politicians are fond of talking about “the people.” But who are “the people”? That might sound like a nonsensical question but—it turns out—there are a lot of presuppositions baked into the concept of “the people” and much of the divide between the Right and the Left begins here. Identifying “the people” leads us to other important questions, such as: Who speaks on behalf of “the people”? And what system of government or society can best represent their interests and protect their rights?
In much of our political rhetoric today we are told that the most democratic expressions best represent “the people”. But what lurks behind the belief a direct, popular vote is somehow in the best interest of “the people” is the assumption is that “the people” can best be defined as a simple headcount.
“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.
One ought to be suspect of any political system which defines who speaks on behalf of “the people” either too narrowly or too broadly. Circumstance coupled with prudence dictates whether the polling of the majority, or the voice of the perceived “leaders” within each faction, or some truck driver who happened to call into a local radio talk show to weigh in on the matter, or some other means of discerning what “the people” have to say best represents what “the people” have to say. In practice, this means we should be suspect of the politician who seems wholly disinterested in “the people” just as we should be suspect of the politician who seems absolutely and consistently convinced they speak on behalf of “the people.”