Who is "we" the people?
Guest post by Carolyn Holmes
At 1:24 PM on Wednesday, Congressman Steve Scalise stood to speak on the floor of the House of Representatives. His purpose was to support the objection, raised by his House colleague Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, to the certification of the Arizona electors. Behind him on an easel, one of his aides had placed a poster, titled with the words “We the People…” and including passages from Article Two of the US Constitution. In his floor speech, outlining his objections to allegedly improper changes to the electoral process, Scalise said “We have to fix this…They [House Democrats] don’t want to fix this problem.” About an hour earlier, President Donald Trump addressed the crowd of protestors that had convened, in part at his behest, saying “Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore…We will never concede.” Even while Scalise was speaking, the crowd that had been the President’s audience was approaching the Capitol, and would breach the security perimeter with devastating effect. Later, President Trump, in a video message that was superficially aimed at deescalating the violence, addressed the insurgents saying “We love you. You are very special.”
“We” is a first-person plural pronoun. It is the subjective case of the pronoun; the subject of the sentence, the actor. “We the people…establish this constitution,” for example. It implies a community to which the speaker or writer belongs, which is empowered to act. We, along with the objective “us” and possessive “our,” is contrasted with they, theirs, and them.
But what is the content of this pronoun? Who are “the people” of which Trump and Scalise speak? Whose voices are heard, and whose opinions matter? Much has been made in Political Science during the Trump era of the resiliency (or fragility) of norms, rules, or institutions. Less ink has been spilled on the question of how the category of legal belonging, in the form of citizenship, has become unhinged from the idea of belonging, in the nationalist sense.
The legal classification of citizenship, in which the state defines the community over which it is sovereign, is never truly coterminous with the boundaries of the national community. This distinction is made painfully clear historically by the tiered citizenship of Jim Crow, and presently by “Show me your papers” laws, among other, less formal means. But both the explicitly white nationalist protesters and the violence they caused, and the implicitly exclusionary sense that losing an election is tantamount to votes being ignored, references a sense that the vision of “We,” the national community that acts and belongs, is nearly incompatible with the legal boundaries of the community of citizens. The populace of this populist base, a group of “true, authentic people,” deserves more than those people who are accorded the legal status of citizen, because of their authenticity, and their belonging.
In the case of both Scalise and Trump, as well as the audiences that cheered on their speeches, and in the latter case were spurred to violent insurrection, the nationalist “we” understood to be those in support of the President and his acolytes, has a greater claim, deserves greater protection and is entitled to more. One of the women who had participated in the storming of the Capitol summed up the distinction between citizenship and belonging when, in the aftermath of being pushed back by riot police, she said to a small group “This is not America. They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.” The state exists to protect insiders against outsiders. This is the nationalist content of white nationalism.
Nationalism is defined by Barrington as “the pursuit, through argument or other activity, of a set of rights for the self-defined members of the nation, including, at a minimum, territorial autonomy or sovereignty” (714). The exclusive claims on the symbols, history, institutions, physical space, and prestige of the government constitute such a claim. The rights of the self-defined members of this group, Americans of some vague category of whiteness, are entitled to be heard, to win, even when they are neither a popular majority nor the winners of the majority of electoral college votes. They deserve because they belong. And they belong because they are.
This faction, foretold by Madison in Federalist 10, claims to stand in for the whole. They lay claim to the entirety of their party, but more pressingly, the whole of the nation. This phenomenon is not new, but it was thrown into a new relief by the actions of the insurrectionists and their elected counterparts yesterday. At 11:08 PM Wednesday evening, the Clerk of the House recorded Representative Scalise as among those who remained in support of the decertification of Arizona’s electors, and later, President Trump called those who stormed the Capitol “great patriots”. Their “we” remains.
Carolyn Holmes is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. She is the author of The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-Building in Democratic South Africa (University of Michigan Press, 2020).