Does the US government have the American people’s consent to govern?

Summary:  Does the American government retain the consent of the American people?   What does that mean?  The possibility of hard times ahead makes these theoretical questions of great practical importance.  Polling data shows widespread dissatisfaction.  Glenn Reynolds gives one interpretation, suitable for a nation for whom “it’s not my fault” has become the national mantra.  But perhaps we should look in the mirror to see both the problem and the solution.

  1. Polling data shows our views about our political regime
  2. Glenn Reynolds (Law Prof, U Tenn) analyzes the results, in the process showing that we are our problem.
  3. About consent of the governed
  4. For more information, and an Afterword

(1)  Polling Data shows our views about our political regime

Rasmussen Reports does a series of polls asking slanted but important questions.  From Rasmussen Reports, 31 January 2010:

The Political Class Index is based on 3 questions.

  1. Generally speaking, when it comes to important national issues, whose judgment do you trust more – the American people or America’s political leaders?
  2. Some people believe that the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests. Has the federal government become a special interest group?
  3. Do government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors?

To create a scale, each response earns a plus 1 for the populist answer, a minus 1 for the political class answer, and a 0 for not sure. Those who score 2 or higher are considered a populist or part of the Mainstream. Those who score -2 or lower are considered to be aligned with the Political Class. Those who score +1 or -1 are considered leaners in one direction or the other. In practical terms, if someone is classified with the Mainstream, they agree with the mainstream view on at least two of the three questions and don’t agree with the Political Class on any.

Their current and disturbing results (reformatted for clarity):

Polling conducted from January 18 through January 24 found that:

  • 65% of voters nationwide now hold populist, or Mainstream, views of government. That’s up from 62% last September and 55% last March
  • When leaners are included, 81% are in the Mainstream category, and 12% support the Political Class
  • 76% of voters generally trust the American people more than political leaders on important national issues
  • 71% view the federal government as a special interest group
  • 70% believe that the government and big business typically work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors
  • Only 4% now support the Political Class. These voters tend to trust political leaders more than the public at large and are far less skeptical about government
  • On each question, a majority of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters share those views
  • Mainstream Americans tend to trust the wisdom of the crowd more than their political leaders and are skeptical of both big government and big business
  • While Republicans and unaffiliated voters are more likely to hold Mainstream views than Democrats, a majority of those in the president’s party (51%) hold such views

“The American people don’t want to be governed from the left, the right or the center. The American people want to govern themselves,” says Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports.

I love that last line, a fine example of empty political rhetoric. Somewhat fascist in its overtones, appealing to the “people” as some sort of mystic unity.

(2)  Glenn Reynolds analyzes the results

Consent of the governed – and the lack thereof“, Glenn Harlan Reynolds (the Instapundit, Law Prof at U Tenn), op-ed in the Washington Examiner, 7 March 2010 — Excerpt:

According to a recent Rasmussen Poll , only 21% of American voters believe that the federal government enjoys the consent of the governed. On the other hand, Rasmussen notes, a full 63% of the “political class” believe that the government enjoys the consent of the governed. … Even among the rulers, only 63% … regard the federal government as legitimate by the standards of America’s founding document. The remainder, presumably, are comfortable being tyrants. These numbers should raise deep worries about the future of our republic.

A nation whose government does not rest on the consent of the governed is a nation whose government holds sway only by inertia, or by force. It is a nation vulnerable to political shocks, usurpation, or perhaps even political collapse or civil war. It is a body politic suffering from a serious illness. Those who care about America should be very worried.

… In fact, when I think of the federal government’s brand now, I think of Schlitz beer. Schlitz was once a top national brew. But, in search of short-term gains, it began gradually reducing its quality in tiny increments to save money, substituting cheaper malt, fewer hops and “accelerated” brewing for its traditional approach. Each incremental decline was imperceptible to consumers, but after a few years, people suddenly noticed that the beer was no good anymore. Sales collapsed …

Reynolds’ has built one of the most important websites on the Internet, not just with his intelligence and effort but because his views resonate with a large segment of the American people. So we see here. He’s not only described the problem but shown how he — and we — have become the problem.  The Revolution liberated America from an unelected government ruling by military force.  Now we see ourselves as consumers of government products, and feel dissatisfied with the choices on the supermarket’s shelves.   An open political process does not produce “consent of the governed” for couch potatoes who see elections as like choosing among the brands of chips or beer sold at the local Food mart.   I believe the Founders would laugh, and mock our comparisons with the Revolution. 

At this point in his op-ed Reynold’s could call for the American people to get involved in politics to save our regime.  He could congratulate the Tea Party Movement, which he’s strongly supported at his website (update:  as he did on February 8 in “Tea parties are a new Great Awakening“).   He does neither.  Instead he says:

Well, the Declaration of Independence allows for the prospect of altering or abolishing the government we have in order to get a government that’s closer to what we want. That needn’t involve anything as violent as the American Revolution or the Civil War, but the need for change — real, structural change as opposed to campaign-slogan “change” — is becoming more obvious.

In the past, America has managed to reinvent itself without transformations as wrenching as the Civil War or the Revolution. As the legitimacy of our current arrangements becomes increasingly threadbare, it is perhaps worth thinking about how this might be accomplished again. Because when a great beer dies, it’s sad. But when a great nation dies, it’s tragic.

What kind of government suits people who see themselves as consumers?  Who find the machinery of elections to burdensome, and take no responsiblity for the result?  Who believe that bad public policy outcomes result from a government not as good as we are?  Who want “structural change” instead of political involvement?

Tyranny.  As Sarah Palin said at the national Tea Party convention:

“we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern!”

It is tragic when a great nation dies.  And the fault will be ours.

About consent of the governed

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
— American Declaration of Independence

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
— Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America

“What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”
— Judge Learned Hand, speech of 21 May 1944 (source)

I’m Gonna Make A Change
For Once In My Life
It’s Gonna Feel Real Good
Gonna Make A Difference
Gonna Make It Right…

I’m Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change

The Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson

For more information from the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.   Such as…

Posts about the American spirit:

  1. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation, 13 January 2008
  2. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  4. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  5. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  6. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
  7. This crisis will prove that Americans are not sheep (unless we are), 8 January 2008
  8. About security theater, a daily demonstration that Americans are sheep, 25 January 2009
  9. Sources of inspiration for America’s renewal, 23 April 2009 – The Law of Equivalent Exchange
  10. Are we citizens? Or peasants?, 21 May 2009


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