'The People'

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.
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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.

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