Three Little Words
Semantic smoke screens and Political
By Betsey Culp (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last Thursday President Bush spoke briefly with the
press, in a low-keyed victory ritual where he presented his views on the
election and his plans for the months to come. He prefaced the Q & A
session with some prepared remarks, a succinct little statement
emphasizing the importance of passing his homeland security bill in
order to better protect "the American people."
Interesting phrase, "the American people."
These three little words appear five times in the
less-than-750 words that make up Bush's speech. They also managed to
find their way into the post-election musings of White House spokesman
Ari Fleischer: "There's no question that last night's results increased
the likelihood of getting things done for the American people."
They reek of focus groups and instant-reaction meter
It's an odd phrase, "the American people." In ordinary
conversation, we're more likely to talk about ourselves as "Americans."
In political conversations, we may refer to the will of "the people."
But rarely, "the American people."
It's a wartime term. Later in the press conference, the
president spoke of his desire for "freedom for the Iraqi people"; he
sent a "loud and clear" message to "the Iraqi people" that the U.S.
means to do them no harm but only to deal with the "threat" of "the
How many times have you heard similar phrases? Usually
in the form of an announcement that the U.S. holds no animosity toward
"the Iraqi [Afghan, Serbian, Cuban, etc.] people" but only toward their
It's a term that erects a wall between a nation's
inhabitants and its government. And in fact, during an unscripted moment
in the press conference, the president did exactly that: "This country
never has any intention to conquer anybody. That's not the intention of
the American people or our government."
"The American people or our government." This, in
a wrap-up of a nationwide election where the people presumably chose the
members of their government! In other parts of his prepared remarks,
Bush makes a similar distinction, ŕ la Ari Fleischer: "[The election
will] will strengthen our ability to make progress for all the American
people…. I urge the members of both political parties to come together
to get things done for the American people…. I still want to work with
[Senator Tom Daschle] to get things done for the American people."
Yup. That's the election that was.
Let's step back a little from the media hype - "historic
vote"; "resounding Republican victories" - and consider what happened on
Tuesday. In a country of approximately 281 million people, approximately
76 million voted, if estimates of a 37 percent voter turnout are
accurate. Despite landslide victories in a number of races, the
composition of the Congress tilted ever-so-slightly more toward the
Republican side, making passage of Bush's programs easier - but not
The election provided a victory for one party over
another. That's what it was all about: a race between two parties, both
eagerly using every technique and dollar at their disposal to acquire
votes. It wasn't about issues. (Try naming one!) It wasn't about
representation. (Steven Hill
and Rob Richie, of the Center for Voting and Democracy, remind
us that women and minorities will remain woefully sparse in the new
Congress.) It was essentially an intramural contest between the
Republicans and the Democrats.
It was an intramural contest which the media and the
parties themselves were happy to characterize as a national
confrontation, offering up a few "key" races to provide down-to-the-wire
drama. One CNBC commentator gave the show away when he said that a
certain state was engaged in a "hotly contested" campaign for governor
and added, almost as an aside, that the voter turnout in that state was
It was a contest that made its own rules, recruited its
own players. And positioned itself as the only game in town. Just as no
one questions the absence of Asian or Latin American teams in the MLB
world series, most Americans didn't even notice that their political
world series ignored the rest of the alphabet when it asked them to
choose between Team A and Team B. It didn't even occur to them that
other methods of selection might be possible. (In California, on one of
those rare occasions when a different method was suggested, in the form
of election-day registration, Secretary of State Bill Jones, the guy who
oversees elections in the state, condescendingly patted it on the head
and told it to go away: "I think it was well intentioned and I never
questioned the motives of the people that proposed it, but it was a
flawed measure." No matter that the six other states have already
increased their voter turnout by using a similar method.)
As long as the players - the beneficiaries of the
present system - make the rules, it's unlikely to change. We can expect
to see low voter turnouts, poor representation, and the enactment of
policies that don't reflect public opinion. We can also expect to see
Americans who feel increasingly alienated from "their" government, who
must have things done for them in order to retain their loyalty. The
Romans called it bread and circuses.
Perhaps because we are justifiably proud of planting the
seeds for the Age of Democracy, we like to pretend that the species we
see is the only one. Yet even in the United States it has changed. And
elsewhere, a hundred democratic flowers are blooming. In the field of
voting systems alone, Steven Hill notes in
there's "Winner Take All [that's the one we've got], First Past The
Post, single-seat districts, multiseat districts, proportional
representation, plurality at-large, choice voting, single transferable
vote, cumulative voting, limited voting." Sometimes inbreeding weakens
the crop. Perhaps it's time for a little hybridization. Do it "for the
"For the American people." Can't you see the
participants of electronic focus groups when they hear this phrase?
Almost en masse, they must move the dial on their perception analyzers
all the way up to 100. Total, wholehearted approval.
Why? Are Americans so fond of having things done for
Not at all. The phrase resonates with another, dearly
beloved one - "of the people, by the people, and for the people" - a
phrase that sums up the dream we have for the country we live in. The
word "for," all by itself, doesn't do it. We need those three little