Consent of the Governed
This seems to be the direct implication of his Sunday Examiner column and this morning’s link teased with “If members of Congress won’t come to their constituents, their constituents will come to them,” but it’s also endemic in the whole Tea Party moment that he champions.
Let’s take the most direct statement, from his column “Consent of the governed – and the lack thereof.”
According to a recent Rasmussen Poll , only 21 percent of American voters believe that the federal government enjoys the consent of the governed. On the other hand, Rasmussen notes, a full 63 percent of the “political class” believe that the government enjoys the consent of the governed.
It’s tempting to stress the disconnect here, and that disconnect is certainly huge. Unsurprisingly, the political class — which talks mostly to itself — thinks that it is far more popular, and legitimate, in the eyes of the country than is in fact the case. In this, as in so many things, America’s political class is out of touch with reality.
But forget the views of America — where, it seems likely, more people believe in alien abductions than in the legitimacy of our rulers — and look just at the more cheerful view of the political class.
Even among the rulers, only 63 percent — triple the fraction of the general populace but still less than two-thirds of the political class — 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.
Let’s leave aside the strange methodology of the Rasmussen survey and whether we can draw very useful conclusions from it. It’s certainly true that public confidence in government is generally quite low and public approval of Congress is typically abysmal. Depending on how one polls, it’s also true that a lot of programs that easily pass Congress aren’t popular.
But the United States is never, never has been, nor was it ever intended to be a direct democracy. With some exceptions at the state and local level, don’t decide public policy based on referenda, much less opinion polls.
What we do have, however, are periodic, meaningful elections. Every two years, every seat in the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate is up for a vote. Every other time, so is the presidency. We give our consent by sending these people to Washington to represent us.
To be sure, there are some problems. Most notably, House elections are much less competitive than they should be because of our districting process. As George Will put it yesterday, “Voters no longer choose their representatives; the representatives now choose their voters.” Even so, we occasionally have mass turnover. The Republicans took the House back in 1994 and the Democrats wrested control from them in 2006. It’s not inconceivable (although it is unlikely) that the Republicans will take it back in November.
It’s also the case that there are times when majorities lose. Partly, that’s because the Framers designed a system that protects the rights of political minorities, a value that has been strengthened — many would say too much so — by the rules of the Senate. Partly, it’s because highly energized minorities often care more than the majority one an issue.
Overall, though, it’s hard to argue that public opinion isn’t valued. Indeed, we’ve managed to create a seemingly permanent public policymaking consensus that the federal government should provide all manner of public services and that taxes should be low. Sure, there’s an occasional spike in the “balance the budget” sentiment. But, in practice, it lags the “give me more” and “tax me less” sentiments.