“We the People” vs “They the Not People”

“Remember that the words ‘political parties,’ ‘corporation’ and ‘company’ are not even mentioned in our Constitution, raising the central question of why they are ruling ‘we the people’ today.”—Ralph Nader

“These people [the federal government] do not own the land and for heaven’s sake, it’s very plain that the Army should not be using automatic weapons against we the people; that’s not part of our Constitution. It’s just unbelievable that this could be happening in America!”—Cliven Bundy


Whatever their differences, Ralph Nader and Cliven Bundy agree on at least this: America is being governed by entities that do not represent the interests of “We the People.”

There is a lot of this sentiment going around. “We the People” has become a sort of set phrase in our political discourse — a short hand way of referring to all of the people who should be running the country, but aren’t, and who should therefore get serious about taking it back.

It has never been entirely clear to me who “We the People” need to take our country back from, other than the usual suspects, of course, like corporate greed, political parties, trial lawyers, gun-control advocates, and the like. These, or at least some combination of them, are “They the Not People” —the ones who shouldn’t have anything to do with running the country even though they control it in just about every way that matters.

That said, I have never heard the phrase “We the People” invoked in political discourse in a way that did not implicitly define somewhere close to half of the people in the country as “They the Not People.” Because, when you get right down to it, “We the People” is just another way to say “people who agree with me.”

This happens pretty much across the political spectrum. We like to imagine, because it corresponds to our partisan fantasies, that there really is a small group of “They the Not People” somewhere managing the events in the country in such a way that “We the People” don’t have a chance. We like to think that, once we subtract all of the greedy special interests, there will remain a definable majority of people who see things like we do.

But this is a fantasy too.

Everybody’s interests are special to somebody. Every pressure group, every political party, and every corporate PAC represent ideas that lots and lots of people in the country have. Yes, corporate lobbyists are against more taxes, but so are at least half of the people in the country. And sure most Hollywood stars want more gun control, but so do the other half.

In a nation as divided as ours, it makes no sense to imagine a stable-but-silent majority that could “take the country back” if only special interests could be defeated.

This notion goes hand-in-hand with another of our great fantasies: that governing a nation of 300 million people is easy. If we could just do one or two simple things, we could solve all our problems — We can run “They the Not People” out of the country for good and return the government to “We the People” where it belongs.

In one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek series, the crew of the Enterprise discover a planet that (due to some Prime Directive monkey business by another ship) has evolved a deep reverence for America’s founding documents. The most sacred text in their culture is called the “E Plabneesta,” and only the holy men are allowed to know what it says.

E Plabneesta, of course, is a corruption of “We the People.” And the point of the episode (and when was Star Trek ever subtle?) is that, when the words of the Constitution become mere set phrases, it ceases to be a governing document and becomes simply a repository for our feelings of reverence.

We aren’t there yet.

“We the People” has not quite become “E Plabneesta.” But it’s close. It has become a set phrase that we invoke with no real understanding of what it once meant. It has become a way of delegitimizing people who disagree with us by suggesting that they are not actually people. And it has become the primary way that we try to fool ourselves into believing that the government that we have is something other than the government we deserve.