One of the most popular techniques of unifying a large group of people is through nationalist slogans, slurs, and emblems. And one of the most popular slogans or sayings of nationalism is the idea of “a people.” The phrase “the American people” is particularly troublesome, since this would presumably include over 250 million individuals. What then, does it mean to say “the American people”?
The only technical definition that might be provided is if it refers to (a) the aggregate of American registered citizens, or (b) those living within the national borders of America. But even with this refined definition, is it still possible to predicate “the American people” in any sense? Possible to describe “the American people” in a way that truly describes everyone in this category? Not really.
Note that the “American people” include the following groups:
- Lazy people
- Ambitious people
- Scared people
- Proud people
- Arrogant people
- Humble people
- Atheists and Agnostics
- African Americans
- Old people
- Fat people
- Young people
- Tall people
- People who speak French and German
- People who come from dozens of other countries
- People who don’t know how to read and write
- Henry down the street who has three dogs and likes to play piano.
That’s just for starters.
So, what sense, then, can it possibly make to say “the American people want”? And how can a person know that this is the case, even if it were possible to meaningfully talk like this? Do we just assume over 250 million people think like I do, talk like I do, have the same goals that I do, and experience things in life in the same manner that I do—and then turn around and dish out abstract attributes for them?
In the end, “the American people” is usually used as a collectivist rhetorical device. It does not actually refer to anything real. Instead, it is a subtle, verbal way of robbing individuals of their individuality. People may say “the American people voted for Trump,” but I know that millions didn’t. We may read “the American people wanted to go to war,” but we know that millions didn’t. And we may hear that “the American people deserve” such and such, but there are surely millions of American citizens that actually don’t.
Walls, wars, and armies should never define human beings. What defines them are, at the very least, their own names, memories, and bodies. One should therefore be extremely hesitant about speaking on behalf of millions of people with such phrases as “the people”—especially since we’ve never met them and haven’t even bothered to learn their names.