Who are ‘the people’?

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

Since the Brexit vote of 2016, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has gained significant political currency. Brexiteers argue the referendum represents the will of the people and so needs to be implemented, whereas their opponents report opinion polls as showing that the will of the people has changed. Others still dismiss the idea of the will of the people as a fantasy, arguing that no group – especially not one as diverse as the British electorate – can have a single will.

But even if we put aside the idea of the ‘will’ of the people, questions abound about what we even mean by ‘the people’. At one level, the idea of the people is essential to democratic life: famously, the term democracy comes from the ancient Greek term demos (people), and means that the people rule, in distinction to monarchies, where one person ruled, or oligarchy, where a small group ruled. But, beyond general statements like this, can we say anything about who the people are and what they want? When, in Ancient Athens, citizens well known to each other could all meet and vote in one place, the idea of ‘the people’ was undoubtedly less difficult to comprehend than in modern states, where the term now encompasses many millions of individuals.

At any rate, many would worry that the idea of the people is tied up with dangerous forms of populism. Populists claim to oppose ‘the elites’ and so aim to speak for the people. But given the sheer diversity of thought and opinion, how can any figure claim to speak on behalf of the whole people? Commentators worry that, by doing so, populists erase the differences between people and create mob-like behaviour. Nonetheless, it would be at the very least strange if a politician explicitly announced they did not speak for the people.

But who gets to be included in the term ‘the people’ anyway? While many ancient Greek states defined ‘the demos’ quite widely, women or slaves were never considered part of it. Even today, there are fierce debates about whether prisoners or resident aliens should be allowed to vote, and so get to be counted as part of ‘the people’. Even if we can decide who gets to be included, what, if anything, binds the people together? Are there common, pre-political bonds of history, language or culture, or are political ties like voting, or economic ties like trading, enough? Some would argue that ‘the people’ do not even need to share a territory.

When the idea of the people is usually described or dismissed as a myth, is invoking the idea merely a populist fantasy? What bonds, if any, do individuals need to form something like a people? Or are people too marked by differences and unique identities for the idea of the people to have anything other than rhetorical use? Amidst the churn and change of the twenty-first century, can we give new meaning to the idea of ‘the people’? Ultimately, who is afraid of the people?