Generations of presidents have cited “the will of the people” to legitimize power grabs. The Founding Fathers wouldn't approve.
In his cough-ridden victory speech Monday night, President-elect Joe Biden proclaimed again that “the will of the people prevailed” in the 2020 election. Biden invoked that phrase four times in one speech, and he’ll likely recite it often in the coming months to sanctify his new policies and proclamations. Biden also declared, “In America, politicians don’t take power — the people grant it to them.” But invoking the “will of the people” helps president seize all the power they claim to need, regardless of the Constitution or any provision of federal law.
Americans are encouraged to believe that their vote on Election Day somehow guarantees that the subsequent ten thousand actions by the president, Congress, and federal agencies will embody their wishes, spoken or otherwise, known or unknown. In reality, the more edicts a president issues, the less likely his decrees have any connection to popular preferences. And campaign promises are even less legally binding than a Tinder tryst’s promise to stay in touch.
Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to invoke “the will of the people” to consecrate his most audacious power grabs. In a 1937 fireside chat, he denounced the Supreme Court for thwarting “the will of the people” – which FDR supposedly incarnated because he had been re-elected the previous year. The court had struck down several New Deal laws as unconstitutional in part because they turned federal bureaucrats into tinhorn dictators. FDR sought to pack the Supreme Court with appointees to rubberstamp his policies, sparking a backlash in Congress and the nation that hobbled him for years afterwards. If Biden decides to follow FDR’s footsteps in seeking to vastly expand the number of justices, expect “will of the people” to shroud his infamy.
FDR invoked “will of the people” to provide a Teflon shield for his sign-off on the enslavement of East Europeans. In the summit communique at the 1945 Yalta conference with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, the three leaders “pledged to the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people” in the former Axis nations and liberated countries of Europe. A few weeks later, FDR told Congress that the Yalta agreement was “the most hopeful agreement possible for a free, independent, and prosperous Polish people.” Even before Roosevelt died in April 1945, it was clear that the secret deals cut at Yalta guaranteed that a hundred million people in eastern and central Europe would fall under the Soviet boot. But the claptrap in the Yalta communique helped fawning historians protect FDR’s legacy.
Presidents sometimes invoke the “will of the people” to shroud the vast damage Washington inflicts on the citizenry. At a 1974 White House Conference on Domestic and Economic Affairs, President Gerald Ford declared, “Federal, State, and local units of government responding to the will of the people will whip inflation.” Ford trumpeted a “Whip Inflation Now” campaign and boasted that 150,000 people had requested WIN buttons. Ford labeled inflation, running at a 12% annual rate, as “public enemy number one.” Ford talked as if inflation was a moral failing of the American people–rather than primarily the result of the government printing extra money to finance deficit spending. Thanks to the Federal Reserve’s monetary spigots, the U.S. dollar has lost more than 80% of its purchasing power since 1974.
The “will of the people” encourages the delusion that ballots have magical powers to control the following four years. On the eve of the 1992 election, President George H. W. Bush told a Texas audience: “With your vote, you are going to help shape the future of this, the most blessed, special nation that man has ever known and God has helped create…. Look at your vote as an act of power, a statement of principle.” Yet, few if any of the people who voted the following day were making “a statement of principle’ in favor of permitting the president to deploy troops abroad on his whim (as Clinton did in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere), permitting the government to waive the Posse Comitatus Act and use military equipment against American civilians (as happened at Waco), or permitting the FBI to expand its wiretapping by up to a hundred-fold?
“Will of the people” provides pre-absolution for any use of power by a winning politician. Two days after his 2004 reelection victory, President George W. Bush declared: “When you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view… and the people made it clear what they wanted.” But was Bush’s vengeful obliteration of Fallujah, Iraq in the following weeks the “will of the people”? Did voters consent to the Bush administration’s medieval-like attempt to use tortured confessions as bona fide evidence in federal court? Did voters subconsciously will the National Security Agency’s vast illegal surveillance regime of their emails and phone calls?
Since the Electoral College designated Biden the winner of the 2020 election, should we presume that every policy that Biden and his advisors approved in his Delaware basement during the campaign is the will of the American people? Biden said that he would appoint Beto O’Rourke as “the one who leads” his efforts to restrict gun ownership. Beto was famous for his “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” campaign promise. Does that mean it is the “will of the people” to confiscate more than ten million firearms? And shall we pretend it is the “will of the people” if Biden attacks and topples the Assad regime in Syria, one of the obsessions of his retread foreign policy team from the Obama era?
The “will of the people” switcheroo is even more farcical for state and local elections. level. When Los Angeles residents voted for mayor in 2017, did they have any idea that Eric Garcetti would prohibit them from taking any walks outside of their home as part of a demented Covid prevention policy? Did Virginian voters in 2017 realize that the candidate who won the most votes would be entitled to prohibit them going out of their homes from midnight to 5 a.m., as Governor Ralph Northam did last week? Did Michigan voters in 2018 secretly will that the winning gubernatorial candidate could prohibit anyone from leaving their home to visit family or friends, as Gretchen Whitmer did earlier this year?
After the election, Biden’s buildbackbetter.gov website announced that “social distancing is… a dial” that Biden will twist to determine whether people can go to work, school, or church. How many Americans realized that they were voting for a candidate who could dial away almost everything in their daily lives? Over the last four months, Biden has flip-flopped on whether he will impose a national economic shutdown as part of his Covid policy. If he places hundreds of millions of Americans under house arrest early next year, rest assured that liberal newspaper editorials will insist that people have no right to complain because they did this to themselves by voting for Biden.
Exalting “the will of the people” is another sign of the downward spiral of representative government–as if the personal preferences of one politician are the essence of democracy. The Founding Fathers designed a political system in which the Constitution perpetually trumped periodic vote counts. At the time of the American Revolution, elections were seen as a means for people to protect themselves against rulers—kings, ministers, or any other official wrongdoer. Law professor John Phillip Reid observed, “Eighteenth-century representation was primarily an institution of restraint on governmental power.” But nowadays, rather than serving as leashes, elections are more likely to be dangerous propellants–especially with ready-made phrases to hallow winning politicians.
Don’t expect to hear any doubts or insights into “the will of the people” phrase from editorial writers. The typical Washington pundit could explain the philosophical controversies regarding “will of the people” as well as an Arkansas high school dropout explains Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. (“Rousseau who?” said the PBS panelist.) Many of the commentators who echo Biden’s “will of the people” invocation are also champions of Leviathan. They hail “democratic” processes that often enable politicians to capture nearly unlimited government power to impose policies favored by the elite.
Nor will Biden’s cheerleaders stoop to explain how the “will of the people” can be divined from 65 million mostly unverified mail-in ballots. This year’s “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” is being deduced simply from the sum total of pieces of paper with a blot near Biden’s name that happened to turn up in a government bin or mailing address by a certain date. For most federal policies, the 2020 election results provide as reliable guidance as that proffered by Roman priests reading entrails of sacrificed animals to reveal the will of the gods. In lieu of credible evidence, we will be endlessly reminded that submitting to the “will of the people” (manifested in Biden’s executive orders) is the cornerstone of our “civic religion.” Should we presume Biden can be trusted with vast new powers because of a Holy Ghost of Democracy hovering above the Oval Office? “Democracy requires faith,” declared Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who was yelping “God Bless the ‘Deep State’” not long previously.
“Will of the people” is one of those intellectual circus-shell games in which freedom almost always loses. Admittedly, Biden never campaigned to “make America constitutional again.” But the same media cadre now working overtime to valorize his career and legitimize his power will also exploit any deference-inducing shibboleth they can find.
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