The concluding line, captured the national purpose better than any other statement since (at least) the Constitution and Declaration:
…that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people
shall not perish from this earth.
I frequently use this quote in my classes as a prompt for a short response paper, asking students to choose to live under either a government “by” the people or one “for” the people, and to justify their choice. I get both answers, of course. Some prioritize governmental results and purpose (i.e. “for” the people). Some prioritize the process by which government is defined and constituted (“by” the people). However, the real purpose of the assignment is to see the quality of their thinking and ability to marshal arguments for a particular position. More importantly, it’s also to get them to think about trade-offs: “If you can’t have your ideal (both “of” and “for”), so what’s you second choice?”
There’s a lot packed into those three prepositions—of, by, and for. They say a lot about our country (or, at least, our aspirations). They need to be unpacked and examined with care. FN1
That’s why I was troubled by the title of one of this year’s big-ticket legislative items: H.R. 1, the “For the People Act.” Don’t get me wrong, I support the bill and its provisions. We need to reduce the influence of money in politics, we need to prevent gerrymandering, we need to make it easier to vote. Still, I’m troubled by the title for two reasons.
First, it reverses the famous rhetorical question from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” At a time when the coherence of our national community is fraying, perhaps we can focus more on pulling together as a society than on getting things. At one level, this is a minor point, especially in the context of the broader Democratic Party agenda of (re-) building an interest in government as a source of benefits for the entire population. Yet, more fundamentally, there is real value in understanding that the essential nature of the relationship between a people and their (democratic) government is as the author/shareholder/owner of that government not the subject or beneficiary of its actions.
Second, I think “for” is the wrong preposition in the title of the bill; it should be “by.” What I mean is that, since the purpose of the legislation is to improve a wide range of election integrity issues, it’s real goal is to enhance our ability to ensure that we have a government (in Lincoln’s words) “by the people.” Depending on which of my students you might talk to, that is at least as important as “for” the people.
As a (recovering) lawyer, I have a well-honed affinity for process; a belief that a well-designed set of rules and procedures will significantly increase the chances of a beneficial outcome. In this context, that means that elections by the community as a whole, with full, informed, and well-considered participation, will produce the closest approximation of what the country wants as is humanly possible. This is what democracy is supposed to be. As a matter of practice in this country, we’re a long way away from that ideal; not to mention the constitutional short-comings about which I have commented over the past months.
From a historical perspective, however, as Lincoln’s formulation demonstrates, process was never sufficient as a goal. The great shift from the ancien régime of monarchies and empires which dominated the world in the 18C towards political structures reflecting the power and the will of national populations still occupies us well into the 21C. The American, French, Haitian, and dozens of subsequent revolutions all strove to shift the nominal target of government from benefiting the few to benefiting everyone. In the 17C, Louis XIV famously said (allegedly): “L’etat, c’est moi!” (“I am the state”). A century later, this attitude cost his great-great-great-grandson, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and countless others) their heads, since this shift had begun. Two years earlier, the US Constitution began: “We the People.…”
“By” and “for” are not the same thing. In theory, you could have a government “by” the people that was “for” some subset of the people (most populist democracies). In theory, you could have government by one or a few that was sincerely and effective “for” all the people (Plato’s Council of Guardians). Power being what it is, neither has worked out so well; one form of corruption or another has wormed its way into the mechanisms. As a result, political thinkers from the 17C on have nudged us towards a version in which process and purpose go together and reinforce each other as fundamental political goals; even if the implementation (especially the part about figuring out what kind of policy outcomes are really “for” the people) has been a bit messier.
So much for “by” and “for.” You may recall that Lincoln also spoke of government “of” the people. He often used a three-part cadence, and this phrase may be nothing more than a rhetorical semi-redundancy in which “of” and “by” are pretty much the same thing. I suspect however, that there is more to it than this. But that story is pretty involved, stretching from the Reformation to the 20C French philosopher Foucault; so, we will leave that to another day.
In any event, this weekend, as we mark the 158th anniversary of Gettysburg, the 234th anniversary of the Constitution, and the 245th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to consider how to balance the “by” and the “for.” Even if Nancy Pelosi doesn’t change the title of the legislation.
1 For those interested, Gary Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning recounting. A more intensive examination of the speech, including Lincoln’s sources and rhetorical approach is A.E. Elmore, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (2009), esp. Ch. 6.