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Why the World Doesn’t Need Everyday People: A Political Fetish and Its Implications

November 5, 2010

So-called everyday people are…everywhere.  And yet, it’s almost impossible to say who is and who isn’t an everyday person. Why?  Because there’s no such thing.

We’re always hearing about “everyday people.”  They’re wholesome, they’re outraged and they’re getting involved in politics. We hear the term “everyday people” and its cousin, “ordinary people,” so often that they go unnoticed and undefined in political discourse.

The growing influence of everyday people has become a major theme in American politics. You can be sure you’re going to hear the phrase in the next election cycle.  Sarah Palin has already released a celebratory, post-election ad that begins with the following sentence:

Across the country, everyday Americans are standing up and they’re speaking out…

So who are these everyday people? The ad provides an answer in the form of visual imagery.  Everyday people wave flags at rallies.  Everyday people wear short-sleeved, button-up shirts.  Everyday people stand in front of covered bridges, talk to the elderly and, for some reason, ride horses through the desert.  These people are not powerful or rich or famous; they’re the family next door.

This kind of imagery suggests that everyday people are not elites.  A non-elite, working-class connotation is probably the closest thing “everyday people” has to a real meaning.  Academics often use “everyday” in this way.  In scholarly research, a focus on “everyday people” is usually a sign of inclusion, a way to acknowledge the importance of people who don’t have influence, money or fame.

But this is not the way Palin and the Tea Party use “everyday people.”  The ad features nationally prominent politicians, some of who have substantial financial resources, fame and influence.  If “everyday” is a synonym for “non-elite,” there is simply no way Palin or any of the victorious politicians in the ad qualify.

Perhaps these politicians are part of an everyday movement because they talk to everyday people.  That is what the politicians in the ad are shown doing.  But Democrats do this too.  I’m certain that Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio and Susana Martintez (some of the victorious Tea-Party politicians featured in the ad) all ran against opponents who also talked to everyday people.  It’s not that hard to find a group of lumberjacks and ask them what they care about with cameras rolling.

“Everyday people” is hard to define coherently because it’s what rhetoricians call a God-term: a vague, poorly defined idea that is nevertheless used to legitimize and justify all manners of behaviors, ideologies and political viewpoints. Almost any belief can be validated because everyday people hold it.  Almost any problem can be made important because everyday people face it.  Nailing down who is and isn’t an “everyday person” is like trying to fill a cereal bowl with “the American spirit.”

The ephemeral nature of “everyday people” means that Sarah Palin (and Obama too, who has also used this phrase recently) can’t simply go out and find a group of “everyday people;” they must talk about everyday people in the abstract, or else gather together a group of individuals and claim that they’re “everyday” or “real Americans.” Palin (or, more likely, someone working for her) constituted “everyday people” by gathering together images that they felt represented everyday people.

However, turning “everyday people” into a discrete category of people is deeply problematic because we all do everyday things in the course of our lives. Sarah Palin speaks to crowds of thousands but she probably also buys oranges at the grocery store.  Barack Obama can call David Cameron at home, but he also eats dinner with his family at night. My father reads and understands Stephen Hawking, but he also loves to watch the evening news.

To suggest that someone is quintessentially “everyday” is to suggest that they never do anything extraordinary or unusual and never will.  To suggest that someone is not at all “everyday” is to suggest that they’re not really human.  I don’t care to be in either category.

If you want to know more:

  • I’m particularly hard on Palin in this post, but politicians from every party have placed emphasis on a vaguely defined sense of the “everyday.”  For some other political ads that purport to represent the voices of everyday people, see the Museum of the Moving Image’s excellent website on political ads, specifically the “Real People” section.
  • I use “God-term” in much the same way that Kenneth Burke does in A Grammar of Motives.  I am not a Burkean, however, and I ask that people who truly understand Burke show me a little charity.
  • My use of the word “fetish” reflects the commonplace meaning of the word and is unrelated to the meaning of “fetish” in Marxist theory.
  • One could also look at “everyday people” as an ideograph—see Michael Calvin McGee’s essay, “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology.”  I’m unsure if the term has enough of a history to qualify.
  • Just for fun, here are some other “everyday” things in Palin’s ad: factories, libraries, construction equipment, a man pulling levers, porch steps, hard hats, a painting of Thomas Jefferson (presumably painted by an everyday person), a mother playing with her children (I’ll bet she does that every day!), children holding political signs, a map of the United States with crosshairs on it, a statue of Ronald Reagan (people probably walk by that every day), fireworks, the Statue of Liberty at sunset (sunsets happen every day), a woman removing sign that reads “Meeting in Progress: Public Keep Out” (where can I buy one of these signs?!), a jet pilot removing his headpiece (everyday people love Top Gun), a man standing on some kind of plank chopping into a piece of wood, interracial handshakes, a woman shaking hands with veterans and, finally, a huge grizzly bear roaring into the distance (probably an everyday thing in Alaska).
13 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne K-M permalink
    November 5, 2010 11:10 am

    For extra fun, mix in the Ordinary Reasonable Person Standard from tort jurisprudence (Hint – it’s objective, except when it’s not).

  2. Heather B permalink
    November 6, 2010 2:35 pm

    There was a 30 Rock episode about this last season where they go down to Stone Mountain, Georgia, and try to find some “everyday” people. The episode shows how silly this “fetish” is, and highlights that socioeconomic class is implied–it’s an attempt to connect with non college-educated citizens (who, as a post on Harlot pointed out a while ago, are more and more often referred to as “folk”).

    If we followed this fetish (trope?), I wonder what we’d see in terms of race–it’s my guess that everyday people almost exclusively refers to (or implies?) white people and not black or latino or asian people.

  3. Doug Cloud permalink*
    November 8, 2010 1:07 pm

    I do remember that 30 Rock episode! I was thinking about it as I wrote this post. Liz and Jack’s trip to Stone Mountain seemed like a critique regional-based perceptions of Americans. I recall that Liz criticized the idea that one part of America was more “real” or American than another part. This is definitely related to the idea of everyday people. I tend to look at the “everyday people” trope as indexing class more than regionalism, but of course the two are mixed together.

    As far as race is concerned, I did notice that Palin’s ad was careful to include a multi-racial representation of Tea-Partiers. The omnipresence of interracial handshakes in particular points to caution in this area, as does her claim that we have to do this together. If anything, I’d say that the trope overwhelmingly implies Christianity. I suspect it implies heteronormativity too, but my evidence is limited.


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