What Does “The People” Mean?

“We the people” is a powerful phrase in the United States. It conjures images of democracy, freedom, revolution, and the power to push back against illiberal governments and disinterested elites. The phrase has been a rallying cry in movies for civic motivation, has been a symbol in politics for grassroots movements, and occupies and idyllic vision of governance to many Americans.

 

The challenge, however, is that “the people” is not a very clear idea or concept. It is ambiguous, without real direction, and is not always used in all encompassing ways. The idea of a government governed by “We the people” is great in theory, but at the end of the day decisions need to be made and a final direction must be chosen. “We the people” is not actually a great approach to decision making when you get to the end of the line. Building a government based on “We the people” may seem natural to us today, but looking deeper reveals the challenges of setting up a government based on the public will that our founding fathers encountered after the revolutionary war. Joseph Ellis captures these challenges in his book The Quartet¬†when he wrote about James Madison’s perceptions of the new direction he wanted the nation to go:

 

“Experience during and after the war had demonstrated beyond any doubt that romantic descriptions of “the people” were delusional fabrications, just as far-fetched as the divine right of kings.”

 

Ellis also quotes Jefferson and his doubts about the feasibility of a government built on popular will and fully democratic values, “a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom, that the first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.”

 

“We the people” is absolutely the spirit of government that we should embrace in the United States, but I think it is important to also be nuanced in how we think about the actual decisions that government must make. Popular will can be hard to gauge and impossible to decipher. When popular will does align, we must also be fearful of a tyrannical majority. Ultimately, “We the people” must translate into active participation in government that works to better understand, connect, and unify the American people. If “We the people” does not live up to this standard, it risks devolution into demagoguery and minority out-casting.

Leave a Reply