“We Are The People” is a powerful phrase often used to support revolution against tyrannical authority. It may first have been employed by the German Georg Büchner in his 1835 play about the French Revolution, “Danton’s Death”, shouted by a revolutionary citizen. The idea that the people are the ultimate political authority was itself revolutionary in the late 18th century. Against the inherited power of kings, who claimed sanction from God, revolutionaries in France and America asserted the right of the people to govern itself.
The men who signed our Declaration of Independence acted “by Authority of the good People of these Colonies”. “We the People”, written in enormous letters, begins our Constitution. Not all people were part of The People. Our Constitution refers to slaves as “other persons” counted as three-fifths of a full person, most Native Americans did not count at all, and women were not mentioned anywhere.
Since then, the argument that the people are the only legitimate authority has spread across the globe, used both to defend democracy and to justify dictatorship. Extremes of right and left claimed to represent the people, but used exclusive definitions of who the people were. The Nazis said they were creating a “Volksgemeinschaft”, a “people’s community”, which only included genetically healthy “Aryans”. All others should be killed. After World War II, Communist China and most Eastern European Communist states called themselves “People’s Republics”, but the only people who counted were Party members with the correct ideology.
When crowds in Leipzig began demonstrating against the East German version of communism in 1989, they adopted the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” to convince the heavily armed police not to shoot at them. Within a week, the number of protesters in Leipzig reached over 100,000. They and tens of thousands of marchers in other East German cities carried banners saying “Wir sind das Volk”. This claim of ultimate sovereignty, backed up by mass demonstrations, brought down Communist governments in Eastern Europe.
This version of “the people” echoes earlier struggles against authoritarian governments, bringing together people from below to fight the powers above. “We are the people” united classes, genders and ethnicities to collectively look up at rulers and attack their legitimacy. The 21st-century liberal consensus is that unity of all kinds of different people is the correct goal. The people is an expansive and welcoming body in the sense of the verses inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the people is a fixed and homogeneous category, defined by nationality, biology, and heritage. Those who don’t belong can never belong. The genocidal methods of 19th-century American governments towards Native Americans, expanded by the Nazis and their allies in Europe, are no longer acceptable. Conservatives these days prefer deportation, which was the Nazis’ favored method in their first few years in power, when hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews were forced out of Germany.
Under the guise of “populism”, conservatives seem to attack “elites” from below, but actually focus on attacking social groups regarded as different from above. In Trump’s America and in many European countries, right-wing political formations of white Christians attack immigrants, those with darker skin, Muslims and sometimes Jews as not belonging to “the people”. In these cases, “we the people” look down on already subordinated groups, blame them for the ills of society, and try to exclude them.
The far right German group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, has adopted the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” to support their attacks on Muslims. Their founder, Lutz Bachmann, called immigrants “trash” and “cattle”. The right-wing Alternative for Germany attacks the large Turkish minority. The new conservative German interior minister said that Islam does not belong in Germany.
Closer to home, two women were arrested in Arizona last week after they filmed themselves insulting Islam and stealing items from a mosque. They shouted at a man coming out of the mosque, “We’re coming after you, we the people. That’s right, you guys are on your way out.”
Many Republicans appear to believe that the minority who support them are the only legitimate people. Rick Saccone, candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania, spoke last week about “the other side”, the Democrats: “They have a hatred for our president. And I tell you, many of them have a hatred for our country....They have a hatred for God.”
Saccone lost, but I looked in vain for any Republican politician who rejected Saccone’s comments. No Republican leader has the courage of John McCain, who corrected a supporter who said she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he was an Arab. McCain said, “No, ma’am.... I want everyone to be respectful ... because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.” When a man at a Trump rally in 2015 said Muslims were a problem in America and Obama was a Muslim, Trump responded, “Right.”
That’s the way politics are conducted by conservatives in America today. Only we the people can change that.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 20, 2018