Electing a new people.

Why do totalitarian nations always call themselves things like “The People’s Federal Democratic Republic of Freedonia”? The answer is fairly obvious, but Slate explains. The names are meant to signify “the idea that the state and its people are synonymous.” It’s hard to imagine a more succinct definition of state tyranny: Everything the state does is in the interest of “the people,” and anyone who dissents from state purpose betrays the people.

The United States of America, then, is fairly unique these days in not bothering to include any of this business in its name. In every other way, however, we trumpet our commitment to “the people.” We are told over and over again that we rule, that everything our leaders do is done in our name and for our best interests. Then, when we get angry, we get Newsweek covers depicting us as a lynch mob. We are enjoined to eschew “paranoia,” to avoid falling into a “conspiratorial” mindset, to trust in our leaders and in the magic of “pluralism.” It is not honest debate but “bipartisanship” that will rescue us from the doldrums of democracy. And if anything goes wrong, it’s all our fault; perhaps only mass disenfranchisement would solve our problems. If the government cannot get along with the people, once cracked Bertolt Brecht, it will just have to elect a new people.

Our president is no longer a servant of the people, humbled by his office, but a demigod who can do whatever he wants. When our most recent ex-president demanded the powers of a military dictator, so-called “federalists” around the country were eager to explain to us that his infinite powers were clearly marked in the Constitution. The fact that these claims were taken seriously at all, that they weren’t laughed out of the country for claiming such a thing, could well be attributed to popular ignorance of what that great document — fourteen pages or so — actually says. In the mid-2000s, a popular sex columnist called for a new constitutional amendment to protect a universal right to privacy, oblivious to the fact that such a right is already in the Constitution. Then again, it could just be that our media is so readily intimidated — and impressed — by power that it is eager to go along with everything a powerful person says. One recent author, Gene Healy, has aptly dubbed it “The Cult of the Presidency.” Healy blames the people at large for having unreasonable expectations of their president. It would be more accurate to say that no one dares any longer to have reasonable expectations.

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