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I have a lot of pet peeves. But if I had to pick one that stands out above all others, it would be the abuse of the phrase “the American people.”
You know what I’m talking about: The tendency of politicians to proclaim that “the American people want” this or that, “believe” something or other, or are “tired of” such and such.
Let’s call this what it is: simple-minded bullshit.
Trump’s surrogates on CNN and other “news” stations are especially fond of it, using it in their go-to response whenever a fellow panelist criticizes the Tweeter-in-chief: “The American people have spoken,” they’ll say, for example; or, “the American people don’t care about Trump’s tax returns.”
Actually, according to a Public Policy Polling analysis conducted in March, 61 percent of Americans want the president to disclose his tax returns. Moreover, we all know that on Election Day, more voters “spoke” against Trump than for him.
But here’s the thing: If the numbers were reversed I’d still have a problem the phrase. And I have to admit that it’s not just conservatives who use it. Even Elizabeth Warren—one of the most intelligent elected officials in the land—has uttered it on more than one occasion.
The problem with the phrase is that it implies unity where none exists. And I’m not just talking about the polarization that has afflicted the country in the era of Trump. The truth is, we could probably count on one hand the moments in our nation’s history when it would have been more or less accurate to say that “the American people” were united behind a particular idea or sentiment. World War II comes to mind—although even then, the internment of Japanese-Americans made the phrase problematic.
So what’s the deal here? Why do politicians and commentators continue to use this phrase?
It’s really rather simple, I think: For millions of white Americans the phrase has profound resonance because it supports a fantasy—a nationalistic vision of a Norman Rockwell painting writ large.
The appeal of homogeneity took root even before the Revolution—a fact exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s concerns about an influx of Germans into Pennsylvania. “Why should Pennsylvania,” he wrote in 1753, “founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
Needless to say, “our customs” would be challenged again and again by waves of immigrants from across the globe. And the challenge was always met with resistance, some of it enduring. For more than a century after the end of slavery, for example, “the American people” did not include African-Americans in the minds of our leaders. More ironically, Native Americans were never considered part of the entity. Surely Elizabeth Warren would argue that she is not implying such a thing. But by carelessly repeating this simplistic phrase she is inadvertently reinforcing such notions.
It’s fair, of course, to speak of the will of the majority. But when that is conflated with “the will of the people” it becomes a dangerous distortion.
The great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this in his monumental work Democracy in America, published in 1835.
“It is when one comes to examine the way in which thought is exercised in the United States,” he wrote, “that one perceives quite clearly the degree to which the power of the majority exceeds all powers we are acquainted with in Europe….
“The most absolute sovereigns in Europe today are powerless to prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from silently circulating…. The same can be said of America: as long as the majority remains in doubt, people talk. But as soon as it makes up its mind once and for all, everyone falls silent….
“I know of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.” [Emphasis added]
In some respects, Tocqueville’s observation seems at odds with the realities of our times. Indeed, minorities—by which I don’t just mean racial but political as well— seem to be speaking out today more so than at any time since the 1960s. But Tocqueville’s point, I think, was that the mythical resonance of “the will of the American people” undermines the power of those minorities and eventually stifles discussion. This phenomenon is reflected in our mainstream news media, in which political opinion runs the gamut (as Dorothy Parker once said in a different context) all the way from A to B. The implication, moreover, is that somebody’s wrong—that “the American people” really favor A or B. As for any opinions that might lie farther down the spectrum, well—those don’t count at all.
All of this is at odds with the one essential characteristic of our nation—its diversity.
Thus, for example, when Evangelical Christian preachers and politicians claim that “the American people are God-fearing,” they’re grossly overstating the case. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 7 percent of Americans identify as either atheists or agnostics. That’s more than 23 million who don’t believe in any kind of god at all.
Looking at the bigger picture, through the lens of the U.S. Census Bureau, we find that 13 percent of the population is African-American, another 13 percent is foreign-born, and about 18 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And suffice it to say, there are vast discrepancies in income, with some 13.5 percent living below the poverty line.
Within all of these groups, moreover, is vast diversity of opinion and fundamental world views.
When politicians claim that they are on the side of “the American people,” in other words, they are claiming something that is impossible.
But such is the nature of politics. And with that in mind I think it’s fair to say that Donald Trump—for all his talk about being an outsider—is the very personification of American political life. He understands, perhaps better than anyone, its basic premise: if you repeat something often enough it will take on the force of truth.
Much as I hate to say it, I don’t see this ever changing. Far too many Americans continue to love their myths about “freedom” (another word that is repeated so often that it has become virtually meaningless), and “the American way.” Politicians know this and are only too happy to satisfy the hunger. (Compounding the hypocrisy, of course, is the fact that politicians routinely try to pit one group of Americans against another, even as they talk of unity. But that is an essay for another time.)
The best we can do is try to think critically about these buzzwords and phrases so as to avoid further brainwashing. Yes, we’re all in this together—under one government. But within that tent are hosts of people and groups with competing interests. The real project of the American experiment should be an effort to balance these interests through ongoing compromise. True unity of “the American people,” by contrast, is an impossibility—and a delusion that should be abandoned.
…Trump is the perfect president for our times…