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.

Realists

In 2015, Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute wrote a book about how politics should to operate in order to actually get anything done. His book, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, cuts against our traditional thoughts about the ways in which we can improve our society and country. Rauch looks at movements that have great moral purposes, but that seem to make general duties within government more difficult and challenging. Particularly in legislative bodies today, government seems to be operating poorly and in a way that stokes the flames of partisan anger and opposition. Very few people have a positive view of any governmental agency, and if there is one thing all American’s seem to have in common today, it is a distrust of political parties and a sense of disgust toward national political bodies.

However, our government did not always have such a negative public view and did not always struggle to act on even basic legislation. Rauch begins his book by discussing some of the tools that government has used to clear a path for basic legislation and functioning. Of generations past in the United States he writes, “not being fools or crooks, they understood that much of what politicians do to bring order from chaos, like buying support with post offices and bridges, looks unappealing in isolation and up close, but they saw that the alternatives were worse. In other words, they were realists.” Previous generations understood the negative perception of the shady things that seemed to take place in government. They recognized the danger of fraud and corruption, and they acknowledged the need to hide under the table business. Nevertheless, these were tools that helped the country move forward. Rauch argues that today, operating with a government that cannot move anything forward, what we need is a little more of this old-school politics, and a little less of today’s sunshine disinfectant.

Where this all stems from is the most basic flaw of human societies. We can only be rational about  the ways in which we get to our ends, we cannot be rational about the ends themselves. This is to say that the goals and the desired outcomes we want to see in society are inevitably and unavoidably political. How we choose what society wants, what society should do, who we should help, who gets to be part of our group, and what will be excluded from society is not a scientific question but rather a question of identity and self-interest. These questions are simply political with no possible answer satisfying everyone.

Human rationality can only be applied once an end has been selected. Once we have agreed on an outcome, or once a majority voice has selected the desired end state, we can rationally work out the best way to get there. It is like a group of 10 couples who all must decide when and where they want to take a vacation as a big group. There is no perfect destination to satisfy everyone’s desires of seeing family, visiting big tourist items, and finding off the grid treasures. But once a decision has been made, the group can identify the most efficient route to take that maximizes the time spent viewing what most everyone wants. If the group primarily wants to spend time at a beach in southern Spain, then the most efficient travel option is a flight directly to Southern Spain, and the travel rout that flies into Bilbao in northern Spain then uses public transportation southward across the country is not considered. However, if visiting art museums and seeing a wide swath of Spanish culture is the main goal of the trip, flying to and staying in coastal southern towns is not a rational option to meet the goals, but flying into Bilbao and traveling across the country by bus is an ideal plan. The end goals must be selected before a rational decision can be made to meet that decision, but seeing art and culture is not inherently better than relaxing on a Mediterranean beach.

Government will always be hampered by this question, no matter how rational or how similar we become and no matter how good our artificial intelligence one day becomes. Government therefore, needs a way to move things forward that deescalates the tension of identity and self-interest. This is the argument that Rauch puts forward. He does not argue for the backrooms filled with cigar smoke and fat cats driving the show. After all, generations before did give us painfully slow desegregation and a political period rife with presidential assassinations and violent racial protests. What we can plausibly see however, is a system where discussions and deliberations can be secret, because what may be good for the nation could be toxic for an individual based on their constituency’s identity and self-interest.

What ultimately needs to be remembered is that government cannot rationally chose and advance a goal. Government can do its best to reach its desired end state, but selecting an end that hurts some and leaves representatives vulnerable creates a system where some members must oppose all action by that government as a signal to their compassion, concern, and identification with their constituents. A government with hidden deliberations and gear greasing allows for compromise and realistic legislation. Some discussions must be allowed to take place in ways that shield legislative members from direct criticism so that they cannot later be attacked and vilified for decisions that hurt some but move the majority in the right direction. Government needs a way to be a little bit wasteful and a way to put up with a little bit of abuse in order to move society forward. Constantly patrolling for abuse and waste is expensive and ultimately makes people less likely to take action and try to make things better.

The Base of Mob Mentality

In his book 59 Seconds I found Richard Wiseman’s section about group think versus individual think to be incredibly interesting.  Wiseman discussed the ways in which groups shift an individuals behavior and thoughts by moving an individual away from the center or moderate behavior towards actions that are more polarized or extreme.  I have also written about discussions in groups, and how strong-willed people will dominate and drive group discussion, encouraging those who do not agree with them to at least appear to align with their thoughts.  Wiseman adds another element of interest to the group versus individual dynamic with the following quote, “compared to individuals groups tend to be more dogmatic, better able to justify irrational actions, more likely to see their actions as highly moral, and more apt to form stereotypical views of outsiders.”  The quote paints a fairly negative image of groups that I think we can easily imagine playing out in politics, extreme religious organizations, and even smaller groups that we may belong to.  When I review Wiseman’s observations regarding group and individual behaviors and actions I see the importance of self awareness and reflection and also the importance of having a strong moral leader or guide for groups.

 

Mob mentality is something that came up in many of my classes throughout college, although I never studied it directly.  When we act in a mob we have a sense of autonomy and anonymity that empowers us to make extreme decisions.  When we look at the actions of mobs in America over the last few years and consider Wiseman’s evaluation of group behavior and group think, we are able to see how easily individuals can give up their personal moral stance and adopt the characteristics of an angry and amoral mob.  The feeling of unanimity generated from stereotypical views allows individuals to feel as though they are in complete control of themselves and the situation by being part of a greater group of individuals. The sense of unanimity also lends itself to the mob believing that they are on the moral side, and that their irrational actions can be justified by the injustices that set them into a frenzy.  Exaggerated behavior is encouraged in the group, and adherence to a particular viewpoint helps build a mindset of “us versus them” throughout the mob.  From the outside we can all see how negative this mob mentality is, but I think that Wiseman shows that these behaviors have the potential to occur not just on a large scale, but also on a very small scale (in a less violent manner) regardless of what group we are in. Comparing Wiseman’s observations of small group actions to mob mentality helps me see the importance of guiding groups in a positive and creative way.

 

I also think that individual identity and decision making are important to consider when we are examining the individual versus the group.  One of my favorite bloggers, Paul Jun, recently posted on his blog about our decision making.  He explained that one of the ways we make decisions is by considering our identity, and how a choice fits in with the particular identity we are trying to build.  If we want to identify or see ourselves as part of a particular group, we will envision the decisions and actions of members of that group, and apply that to our own lives. Instead of making decisions based on what we want, we consider what someone with the identity we want to project would do, and make a decision that aligns with those actions.  Depending on the group we are in, and the identity of the group we want to associate with, our actions and behaviors in the group will be drastically different.

Groups & Individuals

In American politics we often complain about the polarization of ideas amongst politicians and their lack of ability to accomplish anything.  Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds examines the behavior of individuals relative to the behavior of groups, and what he presents is an explanation for our government’s fractured state.  In regards to decision making Wiseman writes, “being in a group exaggerates people’s opinions, causing them to make more a extreme decision than they would on their own.”  He explains an experiment by James Stoner in which an individual was asked to consult a mildly successful author about whether or not they should stop writing cheap thrillers and take a risk by writing a larger novel that is outside of the typical genre in which she publishes. Individuals were less likely to recommend that she strive towards the risky novel than groups were.
Wiseman’s conclusion is that the groups we belong to push us further in whatever direction we already lean. In the example from Wiseman’s book, if we tend to be slightly more risky, then in a group we become much more risky.  This explanation of our behavior translates nicely to our political system. I studied political science in college and I remember discussing the impact of party leadership on Congress. What studies had shown is that the longer a politician serves in Congress and the more they become part of party leadership, the less likely they are to vote along the lines of what their constituents actually want.  Part of the explanation for this behavior could be related to Wiseman’s findings of group behavior pushing an individual to more extreme ideas.  The more control party leaders have over the other members of congress, the more they are likely to shape their decisions, and the longer an individual is in Congress, the more likely their decisions will become polarized. I think that Wiseman’s understanding of group decisions versus individual decisions does an excellent job breaking down part of our government’s breakdown.
On a personal scale I think it is important to be aware of the impact that groups will have on us.  Building our ideas in a group, as opposed to individual study and idea formation, may mean that we adopt more extreme ideas on a given topic.  In addition, when trying to brainstorm ideas, Stoner’s research shows us that groups will push us towards decisions and ideas that are more extreme than those we would find on our own.  I think this also translates into the ways we act and think about everyday topics.  Groups may be much more likely to push us towards having more extreme opinions about other people, act in more polarized ways toward others, and make us think in a different way about social issues and occurrences.  If you are building your self awareness, recognizing the impact of groups on your thoughts and opinions is crucial.

Important Decisions

At the end of his letter of advice written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, Alphonso Lingis writes “Never make any important decision out of depression, a sense of needs, of dependency.” He continues to explain that when you make choices because of fear, those choices typically end up being poor choices.  According to Lingis, decisions that are made during happy moments are decisions that are made with more clarity, and more closely align with your true inner feelings.
For Lingis, when we make decisions because we are afraid of negative feelings or because we believe that it is what is expected of us, especially when those feelings don’t align with our own desires, we end up making hasty choices that in the long run will lead us to more difficult situations.
For me, this has been something that I have experienced multiple times.  There was a point in college where I was not happy and I was uncertain about my future.  I decided to switch my major to business because I was afraid of not finding a job immediately out of college. I was depressed, and scared, and made a decision without truly looking at what I waned and was best for me.  The major only led me further into depression.
What I later learned was to follow a major that I enjoyed and that made me happy. I switched to Spanish and found more ways to become connected and involved on campus. By taking risks and putting myself in situations where I enjoyed what I was doing, even if it was not what all of my friends were doing, I was able to grow in new ways by becoming a more engaging person. I learned to value decisions that aligned with my inner purpose,  despite the fact that those decisions were not easy and would not clearly lead to a job, .
I think that Lingis’ message is to find areas that will help you grow and feel at peace with you inner self.  By making decisions because we are afraid of what the future will hold, we act hastily and make choices that we think will make us happy, rather than making decisions that we know will make us happy.