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.

An Unwavering Commitment to the Common Good

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Personal Responsibility.

 

Growing-up, Senator Cory Booker was told over and over about the importance of taking ownership of his actions, his efforts, and his attitude. His mother demanded that he put his best effort into anything he did, whether it was cleaning the garage or going to school. His family demanded the best effort he could put forward because it was only through excelling personally that they believed one could make the biggest difference in the world. By accepting personal responsibility, one could give back to the community and put oneself in position to truly better society. Booker writes,

 

“My family also insisted that personal ethic must be seamlessly bound with a larger communal ethic, a sense of connectedness: a recognition that we are all part of something and have reaped the benefits of the struggles waged by those who had an unwavering commitment to the common good. From my earliest days, I was informed that I was the result of a conspiracy spanning apace and time—that billions of meritorious actions past and present yielded the abundance I enjoy.”

 

Booker’s quote ties into a growing belief that I have developed recently, that society only moves forward because some people decide to shoulder incredible burdens and responsibility, not for their own glory, but because they see the incredible benefit our society will receive. They may not be treated well, but they understand that society needs someone to put forth great effort even if there is little direct reward for them. This was true at our nation’s founding, and Joseph Ellis in his book The Quartet explained the incredible sacrifices and burdens carried by individuals to make American nationhood a possibility. Robert Morris essentially funded the Continental Army for two years with his own finances, despite public belief that he was profiting from the war for independence. In my own life I have seen this in the numerous sports coaches who served as mentors and teachers for me through the years, from my first basketball coach to my high school cross country and track and field coaches. With little reward and often much criticism from team members and parents, my coaches shouldered a responsibility to not just teach me sports, but to provide life lessons and moral guidance. Whether it is Robert Morris funding the fledging government under the Articles of Confederation, or a high school sports coach working with young children to help them grow, society demands that some individuals go beyond what is required of them to shoulder a greater portion of society’s demands.

 

The lessons I have learned through reading and sports experiences were taught to Booker growing up. His parents helped him see that his actions, and indeed his entire life, took place in a community, not a vacuum. Everything he did and every opportunity was the result of great people making sacrifices for a better tomorrow. Booker’s parents had been pioneers in the business world  as African American leaders in their companies, and they had benefitted by the few brave people who had stood up and carried the Civil Rights movement forward.

 

A line from Booker’s father is shared in the book to represent the humility with which his family approached the world and to represent the sense that his family had benefitted from those who came before them and laid the groundwork for their current success. “Son, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple, ‘cause you were born on third base.”

 

While Booker’s family stressed the importance of responsibility and taking ownership of one’s actions, behaviors, and decisions, they also recognized the importance of building an unwavering commitment to the common good into everything they did. Without focusing on community and without recognizing the incredible benefit that we receive from living in America, we risk living with an overinflated ego that leads to false beliefs of our own abilities and hides the efforts of other people to make our lives possible.