THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.
I’m befuddled, bewildered and, more often than not, amused when I hear American politicians on TV asserting that this or that is what the American people want or do not want. In the 2014 midterm election only 36.4 percent of the American electorate voted. That’s surely not the whole of the American people and hardly a mandate from the American people for the kind of “change” bruited by many American politicians as having been demanded by the American people.
What about the 63.6 percent of the American people who didn’t vote? Does their not voting mean they support the politicians who are including them in their categorization of the American people? That’s what many American politicians would like us to believe.
I’m one of the American people and nobody asked me what I wanted or didn’t want nor they anyone ask the 63.6 percent of Americans who didn’t vote what they wanted. We can assume that the 63.6 percent of Americans who didn’t vote didn’t want what the politicians of any stripe wanted.
So who are the American people politicians refer to? They are a virtual group, there theoretically to fill out the bombast of political double-speak. They exist only as needed to but-tress the arguments of the politicians who in sweeping rhetorical terms want to convince an audience that “the American people” he or she refers to are the 316 million bodies that make up the American population.
Wow! Que colmo! What audacity!
Across the nation the American people (as a whole) are unlike the people (as a whole) of any other country. The United States is an amalgam of people from around the world. That’s what makes the United States unique. The consequence is a congeries of cultures and languages adding to the evolution of American culture and the American language. We are the world! These are the American people! Are these the people so many American politicians are referring to? Yes! But not exactly!
For the politicians the mass of the American people are perceived through the lens of their collective Epistemic Matrices—the epistemic elements that identify and bind them to each other. In the main, these elements are regional geography, education, religion, and ideology. These are not absolute parameters, just general markers.
Anyway, these epistemic markers color the views of politicians and also blind them to the realities of others. In other words, politicians of all stripes see the American people from a highly idiocritical perspective. This is not to say they are unaware of Americans who do not fit this mold. The epistemic matrices of politicians tend to discount that consideration. That’s why recently a politician confronting a petitioner told him to take a bath and get a job.
To a large extend this smacks of insensitivity. And it is. But it’s more an arrogance of power. Senator J. William Fulbright had it right in 1967 with his book The Arrogance of Power. Today Lord Acton’s dictum makes eminent sense: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Not all politicians are corrupt, of course, but this does not diminish the presence of power’s correlative—corruption. We thought “term limits” would be a good fix to obviate corruption. That hasn’t worked, not because it’s not a good idea but because politicians have succeeded in side-tracking term limits.
Politicians are free to “Potomacize” their longevity in Congress. “Potomacize” means inoculating themselves against Potomac Fever—that headiness that they are indispensable to the well-being of the nation. And their constituents buy into that mantra by sending them back to Washington, DC term after term. In the process, those politicians come to believe that their constituents are the same as “the American people.” This turns out to be little more than a snake-oil scheme.
The grace-note in all this is that the American people are not fools despite the apparent contradiction. The antidote for this scheme is the consistent evolution of American demography, providing hope that “demography is destiny”—manifest since the founding of the nation. The first citizens of the United States were a motley group of people as St John de Crèvecoeur described them in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782).
In his 3rd Letter, Crèvecoeur describes these new Americans: “they are mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes.” He does not mention the Spanish Jews of New York who came there with the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Nor does he mention the African slaves. Nor the Native Americans. Nevertheless, out of that minestroni have emerged the American people—a “motleyer” crew there never was. That may be the font of American genius.
The American people are not like Athena the full-grown product from the Greek god Zeus’ head. The United States started out as a work in progress and still is. Today’s demographics provide us with a contour of the American people that is astonishing though should not be surprising. The phenomenon that is the American people has not been fully grasped by American politicians. I’d say that Americans of the founding years would be surprised by the demographic growth of those first Americans. The biggest surprise would be the growth of Latinos, principally Mexican Americans, Despite the multicultural foundation of the nation, there were strong efforts to hold multiculturalism at bay.
The common denominator in early American society was the European heritage of its individual members. Anomalous clusters of peoples of non-European stock were considered insignificant, and their assimilation into the Anglo-European cultural main¬stream was quickly achieved despite their “out¬cast” heritage. However, the degree of assimilation of “out¬cast” groups depended upon their color and linguistic acceptability. Thus, non-whites early experienced cultural exclusion in America, although many–like the Blacks–became Anglos in all but physiognomy and color. This was also the case for Native Americans and Indigenous Americans of Spanish/Mexican America.
From the very beginning, the face of the United States began to change imperceptibly at first as the nation began to absorb people from the territories it added to its domain, starting with possession of Spanish-held land, first in Florida, then the Louisiana Territory, followed by acquisition of Mexican territory in what is now the American Southwest. In 1867 the U.S. acquired Alaska from Russia. Toward the end of the 19th century the U.S. acquired its last crop of Hispanics as a consequence of its War with Spain in 1898. It acquired Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, the Philippines and smaller Spanish possessions in the Pacific. In the process, the face of America was becoming less white and browner. It’s this “browning of America” that has so many Americans and especially American politicians flummoxed. How can this be?
I’m reminded here of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and the question posed by a young boy to his father asking when they will see the Martians? The father takes his children to a bridge spanning a canal and instructs the children to look down on the surface of the water. “There,” he says. “What do you see?” They see their own reflections. “There are the Martians,” the father says. You are the Martians.” Who are the Americans? We are the Americans. We, the mélange of American faces—white, brown, black, tawny. We are the American people. Americans are a rainbow people of color in different sizes and shapes. When will American politicians see us for what we are?—the American people!
Recently, John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, commenting on President Obama’s Executive order on immigration said the President’s action makes it harder for the American people and their elected representatives to trust his word on any issue.” That’s a sweeping generalization. Boehner didn’t consult with me for agreement. Here again the political maxim is at work: repeat a comment often enough and it takes on the character of “truth.”
For Fox News’ Gretchen “the mid-term elections were clear. The President didn’t hear the voices of the American people.” Ted Cruz asserts that in the 2014 elections, “the American people overwhelmingly said we don’t want Obamacare, and we don’t want amnesty.” (Ted Cruz on Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 in an interview on Fox News). 34.6 percent is hardly “overwhelmingly.” According to David Meadvin, “One side argues that the phrase [the American people] unites the country behind common purpose. Instead of talking about the needs of individuals or specific interest groups, this phraseology presumes a set of common denominators that bind us together” (“Who are the American People? Pundit Wire, March 1, 2011).
At this moment in the nation’s history we are beset with labors even Odysseus would have trouble with. Like Odysseus we must persevere in our belief to survive. All around us the siren songs of dysphoria assault our steadfastness. We are pulled this way and that way by voices summoning us deceptively to their cause.
No two voices sing the same song, though the singers sing the same words and read the same music. Differences of voicing, phrasing, breathing and a congeries of other factors make each individual articulation of a song unique to the singer. A “singing” is much like a snowflake–no two are alike.
The songs of Ethnic America are as different as its voices. Not even in the beginning of the European enterprise in the Americas were the voices of that founding generation alike or were they singing in unison. They only thought they were singing the same tune. The fact of the matter, they were a chorus of voices blending harmonically to an orchestration of hope and aspirations. In the end, all the voices since then have created a symphony called “America.” The problem is: not everyone hears the same music: and many hear the beat of different drums in the orchestra.
These are the voices of the American people, voices far too many American politicians think they hear—but do not!
Copyright 2014 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca