'The People'

More

Piggy-backing off the debate we had in comments yesterday over Democrats as "the party of the people," I went back and dug up this Nicholas Lemann piece, which, in retrospect, shaped a lot of thinking around populism and, to a greater extent, any party claiming to represent the teeming masses. 


Lemann combines a pretty harsh assessment of Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew, with a review of Thomas Bentley's The Process Of Government. I've never read Bentley. As soon as I get this Civil War book knocked out (which is to say in two or three years) it's my next stop:

The heart of "The Process of Government" is a series of dyspeptic rejections of other explanations of how politics works. If Bentley's strictures were applied today, just about everybody who makes a living explaining American politics (practitioners of what Bentley called "that particular form of activity which consists in the moving of the larynx or the pushing of a pencil") would be out of business. Under Bentley's rules, you can't talk about public opinion, because there is no such thing as "the public" (there are only groups) and opinions don't matter, only actions do. Abstractions like "the people" and "popular will" have no real content, either. "The public interest" is a useless concept, he says, because "there is nothing which is best literally for the whole people." 

You can't talk about a society as a whole having a collective soul, or about events being moved by the "spirit of the age" or the "Zeitgeist" or by feelings, individual or collective. You can't talk about race or other biological factors (Bentley was almost alone among Progressive Era intellectuals in dismissing eugenics as silly) or about national character: it doesn't matter what people are, it only matters what they do. You can talk about Presidents, parties, and other major political actors, but only if you understand them chiefly as mediums through which interest groups operate. Bentley took that pretty far: he wrote that the name of Theodore Roosevelt, who was President when "The Process of Government" was published, "does not mean to us, when we hear it, so much bone and blood, but a certain number of millions of American citizens tending in certain directions."

I think that last sentence explains a lot about Barack Obama, or any president. Perhaps the political scientists among us (I know you're out there) can speak more on Bentley.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In