I believe that there is much insight in this popular saying and it is helpful to take a minute to think about it. In fact, careful analysis indicates that within this little saying is found the most important concepts and ideals that ground democratic legitimacy and political authority. We must therefore analyze and break apart the saying, isolating the concepts involved and the values underlying them, in order to appreciate what democratic self governance is all about.
Let’s take a look at the saying: “We the people govern ourselves.” Notice the closely connected yet distinct concepts: (1) We (2) the people (3) govern (4) ourselves. At first glance, it appears that (1), (2), and (4) are identical. On the surface this may seem so, but I think there are distinct concepts and very different values that underlie each (at least between (1) and (2), for I admit that my argument that (1) and (4) as distinct may seem to be overly semantic).
The idea of “We” is different from the general concept and ideal of “the people.” It is more concrete and actualized, signifying something important between individuals, some connection that is normatively significant that transcends the political arena. It is in the domain of the social, some social fact about actually existing persons that connects them in a morally-meaningful way. Although I do not adhere to some Hegelian idea of the One, there is an importance—a fundamental value—in an actual social relationship that gives birth to a claim of “We.”
This idea of “We” is what gives rise to the idea and claim of “the people.” This is a more general and abstract idea, a normative concept that belongs to the political sphere. As such, “the people” is what “We” are claiming to be, which further gives rise to the rights, privileges, powers, and obligations that political legitimacy claims to encompass. So “the people” is intimately connected to yet distinct from the idea of “We.” It is a guidepost, some political goal that “We” strives for (moreover, I think “the people” should be recognized almost as a pro-noun here, so I will now refer to “the People” as part of the normative political ideal underlying democratic authority).
In my next post, I will further explore the values underlying “We” and “the People.” I will also begin a discussion of the concept of “governing” “ourselves.” In the meantime, I would love to hear any thoughts you may have.