Discourse of the People


South side of the United States-Mexico border wall in Progreso Lakes, Texas. 21 March 2016. (Credit: Rebajae / Wikimedia Commons)

J. Dionne, Jr., an opinion writer for the Washington Post, prefers civility over boorishness in politics. Most of us concur that contemporary politics are degraded more than usual, even if we are suspicious of the ideal of civility, which too readily serves the interests of the already overly privileged. Of course, boorishness can serve that same undemocratic purpose.

Dionne worries specifically about Donald Trump’s racism in the current presidential campaign. Drawing from Lee Drutman, Dionne writes that Trump is not an aberration of Republican Party politics but is instead a historical culmination of a strategy grounded in racial affect. Trump’s “indifference to truth and consistency” is what happens when the necessary balance between reason and emotion in politics devolves into “absolute cynicism . . . about voters, their attention spans and democracy itself.”

So what is at stake here? In Dionne’s opinion, “the democratic idea is in grave jeopardy when citizens simply shrug over being manipulated and don’t expect more from their political leaders than posturing, positioning and captivating media circuses.”

This brings us back to the question of democracy in its three dimensions of increased political decentralization, adequate distribution of personal wealth, and a discourse of the people—especially the third dimension of democratic discourse. We should not confuse demagoguery with democracy, nor should we reduce democracy to an issue of responsible leadership. Speaking for the people is merely the façade of democracy. Speaking by the people is the missing component of a self-governing citizenry (as opposed to the passive listening of manipulated voters in a regime of faux democracy). Or so it would seem.

This question of what constitutes a democratic discourse is complicated by how we conceive of a democratic people, that is, if we do not assume that the people naturally exist, a priori (as a political given or datum), but instead think of a people as a constructed category. Different constructions of a people are possible, some more democratic than others.

Ernesto Laclau has addressed this question of how the people are discursively constituted.[i] Indeed, the construction of a people is, in Laclau’s view, integral to democracy. If we presume that any given political reality is premised on one or another rhetorical practice, then we can ask how the perceived reality of a given people is articulated. Laclau goes to some length to identify certain properties of discourse that bring a people into existence.

Politics operates in a heterogeneous and dynamic context, he argues. Symbolic relations of equivalence and difference are contingent. The constitution of a people is a hegemonic act in which a chain of equivalences is constructed via an empty signifier, that is, a symbol in which a part presumes to represent or name the whole. This name becomes the ground of the thing it names, in this case the people it constitutes. Thus, it is never truly a universal representation of a set of unmet demands. It is a name that performatively centers and privileges certain demands more than others—“the universality of the partial and the partiality of the universal” (Laclau, p. 224)—even within the equivalential chain of demands unfulfilled by the present political order.

The people are always constructed in opposition to a repressive or ineffectual regime. Thus populist reason is a discourse of dissent within and/or against a troubled order. It is agonistic in its pursuit of an articulated ensemble of unmet demands, a rhetorically constructed chain of equivalences strategically named to encompass a selective set of different types of unsatisfied expectations, potentially including demands for human rights, civil liberties, and other values of liberalism, not just democratic values of equality and popular rule.

The people are constituted by the signifying operation and affective force of naming.   The popular identity might be framed in terms of nationality, clan, class, color, etc., and it can be more or less inclusive, more or less democratic, more or less successful.

By way of example, the People’s Party in the US spoke on the cusp of the 20th century about a demoralized people on the verge of moral, political, and material ruin, a condition in which newspapers were muzzled or controlled by special interests, businesses were prostrated, homes were deeply mortgaged, impoverished workers denied the right to organize were replaced by imported laborers, wealth was concentrated in the hands of capitalists, and monetary injustices were creating a nation of paupers and millionaires. The chain of equivalences among unmet demands included “the democratization of currency, the redistribution of land, the nationalization of the transport system, the unlimited coinage of silver, control of the ways in which taxation was used, and that the telegraph and telephone, as well as the postal system, should be in the hands of the government” (Laclau, p. 202). The People’s Party attempted to link the unfulfilled demands of a heterogeneous mix of farmers, urban workers, and small businessmen around a shared economic interest in opposition to the financial oligarchy. Non-whites were either marginally included or overtly excluded from the coalition of oppressed “producers,” which was the empty signifier that named this version of the people with, as it turned out, too little cathectic force to succeed.

Laclau’s analysis of populist reason and the constitution of a democratic people redefines the third dimension of democracy and by implication the agency and responsibility of the citizenry. The discourse of the people is understood in these terms as the discourse that constitutes a people. Speaking in the name of the people is a constitutive act. We are no longer faced with a simple distinction between speaking by the people and speaking for them. Representation of the people entails both, a point to which we must return in a future post.

A democratic people cannot be reduced to its leaders nor is it separate from them. The two are intertwined within a dynamic discourse that continuously revises and recreates the people in one degree or another, for better or worse. As Laclau observes, “Populism is the democratic element in contemporary representative systems.” As such, it “presents itself both as subversive of the existing state of things and as the starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of a new order whenever the previous one has been shaken” (Laclau, pp. 176-77, his emphasis). The populist reason is a set of discursive resources simultaneously available to multiple actors for democratizing politics by restoring the primacy of the people. It might even prove capable eventually of subverting and reconstructing the political order of the present war culture.


[i] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).



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