You Can Tell How Phony a Politician Is By How Often He Uses the Term “the American People”

From a Wall Street Journal column by Joseph Epstein headlined “Leave ‘the American People’ Alone”:

In the Chicago where I grew up, all politicians were guilty until proven innocent, and few were ever proved innocent. I remember my father telling me that a seat on the Chicago City Council paid $20,000 a year, yet politicians spent as much as a quarter-million dollars to get one. “Doesn’t make sense,” my father would say, in a voice of comic naiveté, “just doesn’t make sense.”

There are ways to scope out the falsity of politicians—viewing the contradictions or simple selfishness in their voting records; discovering their net worth. I have come upon another. You can tell how phony a politician is by how often he uses the term “the American people.”

The term is ubiquitous: “That is the question the American people are asking everyday.” “I am here to serve the American people.” “That is not who we, the American people, are.” “The American people want a change, and now.” “If I thought the American people believed that, I’d vote for it without hesitation.”

The problem is in determining who these American people really are, especially with our country clearly divided. Are they for or against easy access to abortion? For or against radical measures to combat climate change? What about crime? Do they want to defund or reinforce the police?

Polls on these and many other issues are divided. If anything, polls seem to show that at this moment, there is no unified American people—we are a vast number of people who have little more in common than living in the same country.

Am I an “American” person? I was born and have lived nearly all my days in the U.S., which I continue to think most interesting country in the world. But when Chuck Schumer or Mike Pence refers, as both fairly frequently do, to “the American people,” I don’t recognize myself.

By glomming onto the phrase, contemporary politicians seek to establish that they are the true representatives of representative government. With it engraved on their shields, they avoid any notion that they are party hacks or merely in business for themselves.

Evoking “the American people” also is meant to establish the earnestness and sincerity of a politician. Yet sincerity and politics are rarely found under the same roof, and one has to search American politics sedulously to find admirably sincere political figures.

Politicians who glibly cite the true wishes of “the American people” as the motive for their actions are also simultaneously congratulating themselves for their insight. I think of four Illinois politicians nearest, though far from dearest, to me: Tammy Duckworth, Dick Durbin, Jan Schakowsky and J.B. Pritzker. The first is in the Senate chiefly owing to her war wounds. The second, a heavy user of “the American people,” has been in the Senate for 26 years. The third, a congresswoman for 23 years, refused in 2015 out of party loyalty to attend Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress warning of the dangers of the Iran deal. The fourth, who has evinced more sympathy for criminals than for their victims, bought the governorship of Illinois with his billions. None has the faintest clue about what America wants from politicians, and if they did they wouldn’t deign to supply it.

It is time, surely, for us the American people to rise up and insist that our politicians knock off all further mention of “the American people.”

Joseph Epstein is author, most recently, of “Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.”

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