Perhaps the most surprising thing about the rise of political movements centered on “the people” is the surprise that has characterized our responses to them.1 After all, it is hardly incidental that the country whose Constitution begins “We the people…” should witness political movements that explicitly address the people. Nor is this element unique to the United States; the constitutions of most of the world’s countries, from Albania to Vanuatu, do so as well. And this theme is ubiquitous, extending well beyond democracies. One need only consider Chapter 1, Article 2 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China: “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people.”
In a sense, popular sovereignty—the idea that the people are the ultimate source of political authority—is the locus of modern politics. More fundamental than democracy, to which it is invariably linked, it grounds the nation-state, which remains the dominant political form in our world.
But this begs the question: Who are the people? Even our own Constitution refrains from clarifying what exactly defines the people who are doing the ordaining and establishing.2 In its reticence on this question, it has good company. As the political scientist Robert Dahl observed: “How to decide who legitimately makes up ‘the people’…is a problem almost totally neglected by all the great political philosophers who write about democracy.”
There is of course a very good reason that our founding documents, among other sources, are hazy on this point—namely, that there simply is no a priori way to decide who the people are. For “the people” are not a natural body like our physical bodies. They exist in history and are shaped by its ongoing processes. And yet popular sovereignty requires a people, nonetheless; it posits—however implicitly—that there is such a meaningful pre-political entity as a people that is distinct from other peoples. And that it is this particular people that enjoys (or should enjoy) the exclusive ability to authorize governmental power on its behalf.
It is this concept of peoplehood that is at work in our founding documents, and that very much remains with us today. One of the clearest accounts we get is from John Jay, writing as Publius, in Federalist 2:
With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
Though the combined factors of history, language, geography, and political purpose are hardly a poor conceptual scheme for determining a people, this does not amount to a systematic definition here or elsewhere in the writings of the Founders. Moreover, each has its limitations. The American people were after all geographically bound both to the original nations whose territory they were contesting and to the slaves whose labor they were exploiting. English was hardly the only language spoken in the colonies—a recurring theme for Benjamin Franklin, in both speeches and writings, is his lament over the number of native German-speakers in the nascent United States. And, of course, the same history that bound together the would-be citizens of the United States had also bound them to the throne and parliament of Great Britain.3
As the historian Patrick Geary has argued, “claims that ‘we have always been a people’ actually are appeals to become a people.” That is precisely what the founding itself (in which the Federalist papers played their own part) accomplished. Yet such an accomplishment is always provisional; each generation begets new people of its own or takes in new people from abroad, and in the process has the opportunity to redefine or reaffirm its peoplehood.
Today as ever, populist movement generate their rhetorical power by making explicit claims about the makeup of the people, ignoring the complexity of such definitions. It shouldn’t surprise that the prevailing manifestations of contemporary populism in North America and Europe mostly cash out as anti-immigrant democratic movements: They’re saying explicitly that there is a certain body that is the people and certain people are not a part of it.
But populism is not unique for providing an answer to the people question (nor does doing so make it an ideology). Almost every modern political arrangement rests upon some answer to that question. Populism has been described as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. This may be true, but it is insufficient to describe the political conflicts playing out today. The crux of the problem is that supposedly neutral liberalism does in fact make claims about who the people are; it just denies that this is what it’s doing.
To take a now-notorious example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe was premised upon a tacit claim that the people of Germany should be understood to include many who had never been a part of it on the basis of present necessity. (Not to mention as an expiation of Germany’s historical racism and an inoculation against its resurgence.) Or, at a lower register, our disputes over “Dreamers” and H-1B visa-holders have seen repeated appeals to our status as a nation of immigrants.
Of course, neither of these claims can be considered “wrong” given the basic amorphousness of the concept of the people; but what they are not is neutral on that question. The populist movements now in ascendance have very different answers to it. Yet they share in common with our elites a desire to place the question and its answers outside politics. For them, the “people” is a given, rather than something shaped by politics and history in ongoing fashion. For our cosmopolitan elites, the people is to be shaped by suprapolitical norms and rights (or market forces) that lie somewhere beyond the authority of national legislatures.
Hence the undeniable ugliness of political debates that verge on this theme: The stakes are high, and the boundaries vague. Meanwhile, the more thoughtful responses of Yascha Mounk (The People versus Democracy), Jan-Werner Müller (What is Populism?), Cas Mudde, and so forth—that we must reassert our shared commitment to liberalism as an independent good alongside democracy—won’t wash. Liberalism is quite clear about the rights that legitimate governments are expected to protect. But it is silent on the question of who constitutes the people as such.4 Moreover, liberalism and the liberties we associate it with it require governments to uphold them (pace, anarcho-libertarians). And these governments derive their just authority from the consent of the governed—in other words, the people. And around and around we go.
The problem we face, then, is not the tension between ideal-typical versions of liberalism and democracy. Instead, it is rather best expressed as follows: In the absence of any plausible mechanism to safeguard our liberal rights on a universal scale (I’m assuming that no reader of this publication believes the United Nations is such a body…), we require smaller governments that exercise their authority over limited groups of people. Yet there is no axiomatic way to determine the boundaries of those peoples.
Such determinations are inescapably political, which is to say they must emerge from deliberation and debate. But that would require openly grappling with questions of peoplehood. In sum, the question “Who are the people?” is an unavoidable one in a modern democracy (and not only in democracies!).5 The failure to ask that question—to even acknowledge it as a legitimate question for a political community to address—lies heavy upon our political and cultural elites. And in their ignorance they have contributed to the very populist energies they so detest.
1While we in the United States are riveted by Trumpian populism, and to a lesser extent by European populists like Marine Le Pen, Victor Orbán, and Italy’s Five Star movement, a number of non-Western nations, such as Venezuela, the Philippines, Bolivia, and South Africa, have also acquired their own respective populist brands. Even mild-mannered Canada has witnessed a smaller-scale version in the unexpected mayoralty of Rob Ford in Toronto. It remains to be seen if his brother will carry on that legacy.
2As William Galston pointed out to me, it is also the only important term in the Declaration of Independence that goes undefined. This is likely not incidental.
3Alexander Hamilton had already rejected history as a legitimating factor in Federalist 1 when he contrasted the design of the U.S. Constitution with the alternative of “accident and force” (read: history).
4This is sometimes called the “boundary problem” in political theory.
5To return to the Chinese example, consider who exactly the “people” are supposed to be when the PRC government promotes the internal migration of Han Chinese citizens into minority-dominated regions like Xinjiang and Tibet.