In light of the Egyptian army’s sacking of the country’s democratically elected – if unpopular – president in the name of the people, it’s worth considering who the people are and who gets to speak for them. As we used to say as kids, “Yeah, you and what army?” Just about everyone claims to speak for the people (except for the pope, who speaks for God). Robespierre did all the way to the guillotine. Lenin did, and Mao. Just yesterday, Bashar el-Assad said the Egyptian uprisings somehow demonstrate that he speaks for the Syrian people. Our own congress is supposed to embody the people’s will, although at the moment only 6 percent of the people approve of its performance.
Our constitution begins simply, “We the people,” and then proceeds to lay out a series of checks, balances and restrictions that put a good deal of distance between the government and what James Madison called the passions of the people. Ironically, this seems to be the source of its strength and longevity. Those who wrote the constitution recognized the fallibility of the people they were exalting and the dangers of unchecked power. They understood that anyone who claims to embody the popular will is a demagogue, not a representative. For “the people” is an ideal – the aspiration that all the different peoples of America will live peacefully together. Democracy is the messy process of trying to get there, and it only works when it strives to include all the disparate voices in the conversation.