McGee, Michael Calvin. “In Search of ‘the People.'” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory. Eds. John Lucaites, Celeste M. Condit, and Sally Caudill. New York: Guilford Press, 1999. 341-56.


Summary: Challenges the tendency in the field to treat ‘the people’ as the mere plural of ‘person’ rather than a political entity. Looks to social philosophy and proposes an understanding of ‘the people’ as a process of collectivization that occurs through four stages, each involving a different kind of rhetoric and each differently situated towards competing political myths. Argues that, given this understanding of ‘the people,’ rhetorical theorists can contribute to our understanding of ‘the people’ by locating the character of the particular generation in the rhetorical push and pull between competing myths whereas social theorists are trained to look only at the historical and material facts of particular age.


  • Argues that the field, by and large, has only treated ‘the people’ as a plural for ‘person’ in which the whole objectively represents the individual or as an impulse-driven mob that threatens rationality
  • Looks to Hitler’s understanding of ‘the people’ to illustrate the ways in which ‘the people’ refers both to an objective fact and a fantasy/rhetorical fiction
  • Hitler argued that people have a desire for a collective will but lack the ability to express it. There is no ‘people’ until an advocate provides a set of maxims, propositions, etc. that the people accept as their common will.
  • The collectivization of ‘the people’ is a 4 stage rhetorical process: 1) aphorisms, maxims, commonplaces function as seeds containing the idea of what ‘the people’ could be; 2) advocates put out political myths that envision what ‘the people’ could be at that moment; 3) in the only stage where ‘the people’ actually exist, they are constituted through their response to and ratification of an advocate’s political myth; and 4) ‘the people’ fall apart with a rhetoric of decay that denounces any trace of collectivity.
  • Notes that the majority of this process is characterized by political myths that, while fictional, are still functionally real in the sense that they have a lot of power in organizing the political landscape
  • It is never a single political myth that characterizes ‘the people’ but rather the competitive relationships that develop between a given political myth, objective reality, and other circulating myths.
  • Looks to Ortega to argue that the competition of myths reflects individuals’ internal struggles between the myths of the past they were socialized to uphold and their felt, “vital” impulses
  • What we need to look at to characterize ‘the people’ in any given moment is not the dialectical materialism advanced by social theorists by the “rhetorical idealism” encapsulated in the particular shape of the competitive relationship between myths

Quotable Quotes:

“So, from a rhetorical perspective, the entire socialization process is nothing but intensive and continual exercise in persuasion: individuals must be seduced into abandoning their individuality, convinced of their sociality, not only when their mothers attempt to housebreak them, but also later in life when governors ask them to obey a law or to die in war for God and country.” (345)

“‘[T]he people’ are more process than phenomenon. That is, they are conjured into objective reality, remain so long as the rhetoric which defined them has force, and in the end wilt away, becomeing once again merely a collection of individuals.” (345)

“The heart of the collectivization process if a political myth, a vision of mass man dangled before persons in the second stage of their metamorphosis into a ‘people.'” (346)

“So the rhetorical analyst might argue that a description of the argumentative tensiosn between stable and vital political myths would constitute a portrait of ‘the people’ at a particular time.” (349)

“My argument here has been that through the analysis of rhetorical documents (particularly political myths), it should be possible to speak meaningfully, not of one’s own, but of the people’s repertory of convictions, not as they ought to be, but as they are (or have been).” (350)


  • McGee’s argument seems to rely on a fundamental dualism between objective fact (or reality) and fiction (or myth). This fact/fiction binary also seems to imply, in McGee’s articulation of it, a similar division of the material and the ideal in which rhetoric is aligned with the ideal. What happens to McGee’s concept of the collectivization of ‘the people’ if we complicate this dualistic thinking?