“I’m listening to the American people.” Politicians love this phrase and all its derivatives – never mind that the generalization is far too great to actually mean anything. It’s a pre-presidential campaign slogan used in excess by elected officials totally reliant upon their talking points, and on an exasperation scale of one to 10, I’d rank it just above “kicking the can down the road.”
The phrase provokes me for a couple of reasons.
Any action or description prefixed by the all-encompassing “American people” is inaccurate, and so the language does a great disservice to them. It’s a rhetorical shortcut that seriously distorts these heterogeneous United States, and public figures who have taken to slacking off in their stump speeches sound thoughtless and out of touch. When did we get so lazy? People who get in front of a podium and a teleprompter and use phrases like this one are as dismissive of reality as they are [inadvertently] divisive. Aside from their cohabitation of U.S., the “American people” have too little in common to be described correctly as a single-minded group of men and women who want the same things from their government. (See: Pluralism.)
This city’s communications professionals and the electeds using their words need to understand that sweeping statements aren’t awarded meaning because they can effectively roll off a speaker’s tongue or energize a crowd. Cop-outs like “the American people” drain our national conversations of substance. Perhaps the left and the right are so often talking past one another because none of what we’re saying really means anything. As long as a 20-second sound bite on prime time is the congressional objective, the oversimplification of the American people, their interests, and the role of their government will preclude any substantive deliberation necessary to solve national problems. The cycle is both vicious and frustrating.
If the politicians guilty of using this linguistic tactic aren’t indolent, they’re arrogant. On which scenario is worse, I haven’t quite made up my mind. By invoking the “American people” as some monolithic bearer of wisdom, our elected representatives seek to give themselves cover for whatever ignorant act of party destruction we can expect to see next. It’s as if this appeal to the highest, supposedly extant level of political thought excuses bad behavior or, more likely in their minds, sanctions it.
The public school teacher has different priorities than the mid-market employer, who has different interests than the hedge fund manager, who has different political views than the Methodist minister. The “American people” and their agreed-upon truths about government, down to which federal agencies should board up and how much rich people should be taxed, are parts of the worst-known, most-alluded to political myth. To allege exclusive access to and understanding of what the “American people” want is incredibly conceited.
Members of the 113th Congress may be able to speak to the interests of a small faction of Wisconsin Lutherans or Oregon college students – safely sorted congressional districts allow them to do so (and you can expect to read more on that later). But Americans are divided on nearly every issue on the agenda in Washington. To “listen to the American people” is as impossible as it is condescending. Public office holders who proudly claim to speak on behalf of the collective, to fully appreciate all Americans’ conveniently aligned expectations, are exposing their own motives, inhibiting deliberation, and mucking up the process for those who actually say something when they talk.
Without elevated language that respects the history of the political institutions, national challenges, and diverse group of Americans we are collectively trying to navigate, we’re left with hollowed out causes and superficial approaches to misunderstood problems. Fortunately, the silver lining for those crying out against meaningless rhetoric and outlandish claims to political superpowers is that the greatest damage done is typically to the personal causes of the perpetrators. Sometimes our nuanced system works better than many think it does.