The People?

The following is the opening gambit of a recent book by Dana Villa on political education.

It is not a matter of indifference that the minds of the people be enlightened.

~ Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws

Some years ago I organized a panel at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association on the topic of political education. A colleague from Princeton gave a paper on the potential effects of John Rawls’s idea of public reason on political debate, and another colleague from the University of Chicago offered an analysis of the implicitly democratic message to be found in much of Machiavelli’s work. I myself offered some skeptical thoughts about the place Tocqueville and his con- temporary followers assign religious belief in the moral formation of a democratic people. As is usual at these events, the presentations by the panelists were followed by a half-hour discussion period during which audience members could raise questions or engage in debate with the authors. Because the panel was well attended, I expected a large number of hands to shoot up the moment the presentations were over. Much to my surprise—and contrary to my previous experience at such events—there was a distinct and prolonged pause, with nary an anxiously waving arm in sight.

Reverting to my teacherly mode (every professor has had the experience of encountering a wall of student silence after delivering what he or she assumed was a brilliant and intellectually stimulating lecture), I spoke up, offering what I thought was a provocative remark to start the ball rolling. Because every idea of political or civic education—whether in its Rawlsian, Machiavellian, or Tocquevillian form—presumes some idea of “the people” as the target of its pedagogical efforts, I asked whether, in the United States today, “the people” even existed. Confronted by the deep social, economic, and ideological differences that currently characterize our body politic, one might well conclude that notions like “the people” and “the will of the people” are little more than fictions. While admittedly useful for rallying voting blocs or legitimating particular policies and legislation, they actually correspond to no tangible or even plausible reality. The words were scarcely out of my mouth before my fellow panelist from the University of Chicago interjected—loudly—“that’s idiotic!” To the audience’s dismay, perhaps, no fistfight ensued. Discussion, however, was successfully launched.

The point my colleague from Chicago wanted to make was that, at a time of increasingly concentrated wealth and what seems to many to be the “tyranny of the 1 percent,” the idea of “the people” is hardly irrelevant or unreal. And, indeed, in comparison with the super-rich 1 percent, we are all “the people.” As the short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement discovered (echoing the experience of countless political movements and politicians from the past), presenting yourself as the voice of the people is a reliable if somewhat disingenuous way of drumming up both attention and support, often from unexpected places. Yet the deployment of phrases like “the 99 percent” or the “silent majority” or “the vast majority of Americans” always distorts, if not outright falsifies, the social-political reality it claims to represent. This is especially so in a country that is as deeply divided politically as our own.

In our day, “the people” is and must be a rhetorical construct, one designed to create the illusion of a clear popular will where there often is none. What we actually have is murk (the undecided), ideological division, widespread apathy, and—clearly—a lack of anything approximating unanimity. Now, as in our past, it is only by presenting some real or imagined enemy of the people—the 1 percent, nonwhite or non-Christian Americans, secularists supposedly intent on restricting religious liberty, the establishment, and so forth—that such notions gain whatever rhetorical traction they possess. Otherwise, they remain what they always were: the sometimes edifying, sometimes horrifying, yet invariably hollow clichés of much of our democratic discourse.

Things were not always so…

Dana Villa, TEACHERS of the PEOPLE: Political education in Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Mill (University of Chicago Press, 2017), p. 1-2

Villa, an avid student of Hannah Arendt and the tradition of early modern political thought, takes a step behind Graeber’s “we are the 99 percent.”

Humans were ever the politically inventive and responsible species, even pre-state, pre-city, pre-civilization, pre-agriculture, pre-history? (Graeber & Wengrow, Dawn of Everything)

Or, even in the most democratic and free society on earth, the mass of modern humans as “the people” is — arguably — a fiction, a rhetorical construct?