Who Are the People?

Who Are the People?

The politics of the 2010s and 2020s are about who the people are and what it means for them to matter.

A rally at the Baltimore City Board of Elections in March 2016 to celebrate the first day of voter registration for people on probation or parole, when more than 40,000 Marylanders were newly eligible. (Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post/Getty Images)

“The only important thing is the unification of the people,” Donald Trump said about his 2016 presidential campaign, “because the other people don’t mean anything.” In this vision, politics is a battle to the finish, and the sides are morally unequal. One side—his side, “the people”—belongs here. The other side, “the other people,” doesn’t belong.

Liberal sentiment during the Trump administration was one long repudiation of this idea. Assertions of human equality crystallized in a series of slogans, ubiquitous on lawn signs, T-shirts, and social media posts: “Black lives matter” was a counterpoint to Trump’s “the other people don’t mean anything” and an insistence on fundamental equality. “No human being is illegal” was a denial of moral difference between authorized and unauthorized presence in the United States. In the South, where I wrote most of this book, “y’all means all” was a drawling statement of solidarity with trans people.

But the moral sentiment runs up against hard political reality. If you are shut out of power then others can act like you don’t matter. No human being is illegal, but some 10 million lack legal authorization to be in the country, meaning that in the 2020 general election some 1.6 million Texans could not vote, along with 325,000 North Carolinians, 275,000 Virginians, and 210,000 Nevadans. There are also some 12 million authorized noncitizen immigrants who cannot vote. Black lives matter, but state laws disenfranchising people with felony convictions deny the ballot to one out of every sixteen Black citizens of voting age. That figure was recently more than one in seven Black voters in seven states, including Florida and Virginia. (As I write, both of these states are in the midst of contentious efforts to restore the vote to those who have completed their sentences.)

Even among those who could vote, who was it that Trump had to unite for his 2016 victory? As we have seen, it was not a majority of voters but of Electoral College votes. Trump became president in 2016 because, in terms of democratic power, national majorities did not matter and neither did disenfranchised citizens, noncitizen residents, or unauthorized migrants. The politics of the 2010s and 2020s is about who the people are and what it means for them to matter.

A century ago, the far-right French Catholic thinker Charles Maurras distinguished polemically between “the legal people,” the abstract sovereign embodied in the political structures of parliament and the presidency, and “the real people,” the true French, whose racial, religious, and civilizational identity abided beneath the superficial liberalism of the government. There is some of that invidious spirit in Trump’s “the other people don’t mean anything.” But to understand today’s fights over who the people are and how they rule, we need clearer distinctions. Five meanings of the people jostle for primacy in American politics. First is the sovereign people, the people who make and remake the country’s fundamental law, the Constitution. Second is the ruling people, the voters who decide elections. (This means those who get to vote, as opposed to the disenfranchised, but it also means those whose majorities count by conferring control of, among others, the Electoral College and the Senate.) Third is the legal people, those who are recognized as having the right to be within the borders of the United States. Last is the actual people, everyone who is here, those who are working, raising families, being neighbors—making their lives, regardless of the kind of permission they have to do so. A full democracy would align all four of these senses of the people: whoever is here would be part of the legal community, jostling to form majorities and joining in the sovereign power to reaffirm or change fundamental law. In reality, they are anything but aligned. And the lines that separate them are haunted by a fifth version of the people: the historical people, “real” Americans defined by some blend of race and nationality and never far from mind in talk about “the people” and “the other people.”

The sovereign people are the subject of the most portentous sentence in American history, “We the People,” which opens the U.S. Constitution. The propertied white men who ratified that document as fundamental law get further away every year, in time, demography, and everyday sense of what makes a polity legitimate or even decent. At the time of ratification, the constitution-making sovereign people and the ruling people who voted were all but identical: indeed, voting requirements for constitutional conventions were sometimes lower than for ordinary elections. In stark contrast, the men-only politics of a patriarchal republic gave women no part in democratic sovereignty, and even among men the actual people of the time comprised Black and enslaved majorities in some states. The amendment process set out in Article V of the Constitution all but prevents living generations, let alone living majorities, from revisiting fundamental law, even to reaffirm it. If there is a sovereign people today, it is made up of a majority of Supreme Court justices, who alone can give new meaning to fundamental law, whether to deny Congress the power to expand healthcare or to require states to enforce marriage equality.

The sovereign people of 1789 left a curious political bequest to today’s ruling people. The Senate’s representation by state rather than population, which the Electoral College translates into extra power for small states in presidential elections, gives disproportionate political weight to older, white, rural voters. A constitution ratified in a white supremacist society still, though not precisely by design, puts a thumb on the political scale for the kinds of voters who, nearly 250 years ago, would have been the only ones permitted to weigh in on it. So it is not surprising that white nationalist Three Percenters and other self-styled militias identify themselves with founding revolutionaries. Nor is it surprising that the 1956 Southern Manifesto, in which nineteen senators and eighty-two members of the House of Representatives denounced Brown v. Board of Education, opened with an affirmation that “the Founding Fathers gave us a Constitution of checks and balances” to prevent such “unwarranted exercise of power” and “chaos and confusion” as Brown supposedly presented. The manifesto asserted that Brown lacked “the consent of the governed” and “reaffirm[ed] our reliance on the Constitution as the fundamental law of the land.” By fencing the living out of sovereign power and skewing whose votes count in today’s political majorities, the Constitution encourages the idea that real legitimacy belongs to the historical people. That is, of course, the idea behind “the other people don’t matter.”

The history of the ruling people highlights how much it matters to exercise—or be denied—the vote. The Civil War’s end brought substantial enfranchisement of formerly enslaved people across the South, under Reconstruction governments and, after 1870, through the Fifteenth Amendment (although its promise was soon broken with Reconstruction’s end). Making up a substantial share of the population of every Southern state and, for a time, majorities in Mississippi and South Carolina, Black people potentially held the balance of power in their votes. For some time after the breaking of Reconstruction in 1877, the plutocratic Democrats who took over Southern state politics were able to expropriate enough Black votes through force, fraud, and corruption to rule on behalf of railroads, banks, and large property owners. By the early 1890s, however, this arrangement began to shake. In response to postwar decades packed with pro-corporate giveaways and graft, including outright grants of tens of millions of acres of public lands to railroad companies, there arose movements of indebted and exploited small farmers and wage laborers who tried to wrest control of government to serve their own interests. Calling for debt relief, public ownership of railroads and utilities, progressive public education, and other measures to lift up common people and humble their wealthy rulers, the Populists seemed to their enemies “a mighty torrent pouring down the mountain side” or “a prairie fire.”

A new majority is a special kind of prairie fire. Uprisings of the downtrodden are as old as inequality itself. John Locke wrote of England in the 1690s that when laborers faced “some common or great distress, uniting them in one universal ferment . . . sometimes they break in upon the rich and sweep all like a deluge.” In Locke’s telling, these episodes receded like floods, leaving disarray but making no essential change. This was true of peasant revolts across time. But those peasants rose up before mass enfranchisement. In the 1890s, the insurgents had votes. The state could be theirs. Where they took power, as they did in much of the Midwest and Great Plains, the Populists instituted state control of railroads and utilities, raised taxes on the rich, and provided for common education—the kinds of political revolution that were never available to Locke’s disenfranchised rioters, who lacked a way of turning revolt into rule.

Suddenly, it mattered very much that, in the South, Black voters held the balance of power. Many rank-and-file Populists were shaped by anti-Black racism, rooted in the Democrats’ post–Civil War ideology of white unity and, before that, upland small landholders’ resentment of plantation wealth, perversely crystallized in hatred of the enslaved Black people whose labor created that wealth. But the political theory of the bolder Populist leaders was that common interests would unify Black and white laborers and farmers against the common enemy of plutocracy. For a few years in the mid-1890s, Black and white organizers together worked barbecues and revivals across the South. According to historian C. Vann Woodward, when a Black organizer’s life was threatened in Georgia, 2,000 white farmers came to stand guard over his home, some of them riding overnight to get there. Woodward quotes a white Texan Populist voicing the formula of economic interest over racial division in simple language: “They are in the ditch just like we are.”

The Democratic bosses, who had been running the former Confederacy as a one-party state with scant electoral accountability, saw two ways to break the threat. First, they launched a massive propaganda campaign, linking Populists and their allies to racial insurrection and the familiar Black menaces that white supremacists traded in: rape, theft, murder. Drawing on deep wells of white solidarity and fear, the bosses made gains in the later 1890s, pushing back the radicals. Then, having poisoned the spirit of democracy just as it was waking up, they killed the body with a staggering campaign of disenfranchisement. Following the model of Mississippi’s 1890 constitutional amendments, which established poll taxes and easily manipulated literacy tests, states across the South rewrote their constitutions to choke off democracy for decades.

Black political exclusion was almost total: in North Carolina, the numbers of Black registered voters fell from 126,000 to 6,100 after adoption of the 1900 constitution. Many disenfranchisement measures also swept out the “lower orders” of whites, returning large parts of the South to a pre-Jacksonian condition of racist disenfranchisement and selective disenfranchisement by class, defining the ruling people as both white and propertied. As Woodward recounts, “in Virginia the average votes cast for Congressmen declined about 56 percent between 1892 and 1902; in Alabama the decline was 60 percent; in Mississippi, 69 percent; in Louisiana, 80 percent.” It was 75 percent in Arkansas, 69 percent in Florida, and 80 percent in Georgia. Seeing the writing on the wall, many former Populist voters, even whites who had been peeled off by racism, opposed the amendments. But almost none were taken directly to the voters. In this they resembled the Confederate states’ decisions to secede forty years earlier. The elite coup remained the basic form of American anti-democracy. As historian Barbara J. Fields points out, the creation of the white supremacist South, both as a culture and as a political scheme, was always two things at once: a campaign of anti-Blackness and a battle over which group of whites would rule and which would be ruled. W.E.B. Du Bois’s abolition democracy, uncompromised by racial exclusion or class domination and exercising genuine majoritarian control over economic order, was broken even in prospect.

The resonance of that history has provoked comparisons between Jim Crow and today’s fights over the boundaries of the ruling people. The scope is different, but the stakes can come to the same thing: whether, contrary to democratic principle, a faction will succeed in crafting an enduring ruling people that substantially excludes a large and distinct portion of the population. The 5 million people who were ineligible to vote in 2020 because of a current or former felony conviction were more than the total number who voted in the presidential election in forty-one states. If the disenfranchised were the voters of one state, it would be the tenth largest in the country. The rate of felony disenfranchisement for Black Americans is nearly four times that for non-Black citizens. Disenfranchised people are part of the polity, but they can have no part in forming its majorities, no chance to rule. Fights over state laws that manipulate ballot access have become endemic in American politics. Laws like the one adopted in Texas in 2021 restrict election policies, such as allowing drive-through voting or mailing out absentee ballots automatically, that are thought to give Democrats a slight advantage—and Democrats are overwhelmingly the party of the voters of color who were systematically excluded from Texas politics for generations through a series of creative and invidious devices, including such bizarre measures as a private, whites-only Democratic primary developed to avoid desegregation laws. In closely fought North Carolina, 2 percent of Black voters were registered as Republicans in 2020, and the Republican Party has engineered large majorities in the state legislature through expert gerrymandering and voting laws that a federal court in 2016 described as “laser-targeted” at the Black vote. Disenfranchisement today seeks to make the difficulty of voting a little greater over here, the value of the vote a little lower over there, to support by a thousand props and shims the unsteady body of a minority ruling people.

All these fights over who votes and how the votes are counted, which define the ruling people, mark out marginally different subsets of the actual people, the (as it were) natural body of the democratic polity. As noted earlier, estimates put the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States between 10 and 12 million, and another 12 million permanent residents lack citizenship. The permanent residents are “legal” people but cannot rule. The unauthorized do not rule and lack some of the most basic protections of law. They are easily exploited, to the convenience of employers large and small, from the farms of California’s Central Valley and the chicken plants of the Southeast to food delivery in Manhattan and housekeeping in San Francisco. Immigration courts, which determine their rights if they are in trouble and fortunate enough to avoid summary deportation, are notoriously inconsistent (to the point of arbitrariness, according to many who go before them) and virtually immune to oversight by regular courts. These participants in American life, who are kept firmly outside the working of American democracy, make up a total population larger than that of any state besides Texas and California.

The democratic response to this situation is to bring the actual people into line with the ruling and sovereign peoples. Whoever is within a national territory, living with the laws of the country, should have the choice of taking political citizenship and a role in shaping or approving those laws. Anything else is caste, and caste is an antithesis of democracy, as much as authoritarianism is. It is an antithesis because it effectively guarantees permanent minority status: those who are excluded from the ruling people are always outside the disposition of power, even if some governments are more sympathetic to them than others. They may, of course, argue, plead, and pronounce in the political conversation that swirls around a democracy, but at the moment of decision, when power takes a definite shape, they have no part. The situation of the disenfranchised toward the ruling people resembles that of the ruling people toward political sovereignty: the latter can vote but cannot reset the Senate or the Electoral College or reclaim from the Supreme Court the effective power to change or reaffirm the country’s fundamental law. These powers belong together, in an actual people that is also ruling and sovereign.

But there is more. Forming a majority is only a beginning. For voting to produce legitimacy, it must succeed as a modern version of what I call synecdochal representation. It must be possible for the losing side to identify enough with the winners to accept that in some sense “we” have made a decision, and it will be our government that rules (all) of us until the next vote. Some of the stability of a democratic system comes from the fact that if it is working well it produces no permanent losers, so a part of quiescence is just rationally biding one’s time and working to be part of the next majority. But in the meantime, we losers are being ruled. And there is no persuasive idea of metaphoric representation that can explain the authority of the majority: we who voted the other way are not going to believe that they somehow deliberated differently from us and found a higher wisdom, or that their decision more authentically expresses the community’s intrinsic nature. We losers have to be able to accept that the winners’ decision counts for the whole.

This might sound like an alarming, or just sentimental, call to sacrifice conscience, but it isn’t that at all. It’s simply an observation that elections do not produce binding decisions if the losers take shelter in the idea that they have not really lost and so that the country has not really acted. False stories of election fraud are the most vivid expression of this dysfunction in the United States today, but they are only the cutting edge of something larger: an aversion to democratic results with two very different but complementary roots. One root is the aversive partisanship that sees in the other side a threat to one’s own idea of the country. This kind of partisanship posits a gulf so wide and deep that they on the other side cannot act on behalf of us. This kind of aversion is driving the Republican mistrust of American elections. The other root is less tribal, to use the popular term for aversive partisanship (we might also say clannish), than hyper-individualistic. Its slogan is “not my president!” and it treats voting as an expression of personal identity, as subjective as a consumer choice. The car I didn’t buy is not my car, and the person I didn’t vote for is not my president.

The clannish and the individualist forms of political disaffection are superficially opposite—one is about us, the other about me—but in fact they have much in common. Modern partisanship is already an oddly individualistic form of collective identity. The political theorist Nadia Urbinati points out that antisystem politicians such as Donald Trump and Mario Salvini of Italy’s nationalist Northern League “disfigure” representation by offering supporters the fantasy of direct, personal representation in an imaginary bond with the leader’s personality, style, words, and decisions. As long as he is in power, I am in power, and I can identify with the country, which he represents. If he loses power, I have lost power, and the country is no longer mine. This version of “my country” fits perfectly with “my president”: if someone else’s president takes power, it cannot be my country anymore.

Political representation depends on more than institutional design. No one can represent us if we are steadfastly unwilling to be represented. The willingness is part of a civic virtue: wanting the polity to survive as a political project and being disposed to put that survival ahead of your personal interests or even your partisan convictions. It implies the willingness to accept defeat and the commitment to seek and use power in ways that try to give everyone reasons to uphold future majorities.

A political system must reproduce its own legitimacy, reconcile people to living with the answers it gives, even when they lose and have to give up interests and hopes that they passionately hold. Democracy depends on solidarity and, to survive, must generate solidarity, over and over, in the face of new challenges. It requires what Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez issued at a 26,000-strong rally in Queens in October 2019: the willingness to “fight for someone you don’t know,” to defend the lives and interests of those very different from you, whoever you are. But this is also too easy. The democratic problem is more specific and harder: to fight not just for someone you don’t know—whom you get to imagine in an ideal or at least sympathetic light—but for someone you do know and can’t stand, or someone you don’t know but suspect would detest you if they knew about you. A democrat must take seriously, recognize as moral facts to be grappled with, the identities of everyone in the polity. These are not fixed points: politics can make us into different people. But the existing identities of people you mistrust, fear, even suspect you might hate, have to be among the materials of democratic life. Who are the people? It should be everyone who is here, and that means sharing rule with people we may also see as being in some sense enemies. Our “enemies,” too, are part of the potential majorities that we, as members of a democratic public, consent to be ruled by and whom we address when we speak politically in public, for common things. If there is no majority for majority rule itself, if members of a polity cannot stomach the idea of being ruled by one another, then democracy is not possible there. “There,” of course, is here.


purdy_twocheersJedediah Britton-Purdy teaches at Columbia Law School and is the author, most recently, of Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening—and Our Best Hope. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.

Excerpted from Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening—and Our Best Hope by Jedediah Purdy. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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