Consent of the Governed

consent-governed-stickerGlenn Reynolds has been pushing an interesting meme: that somehow the United States should be a direct democracy.

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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dantheman says:

    With Reynolds, such a proposal could only have come out when Democrats control Congress and the White House. A proposal like this circa 2005 would be unthinkable.

  2. kth says:

    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.

    That, from Reynolds, is simply a howling non sequitur. A politician or bureaucrat (whoever the “political class” refers to) could easily believe that his own role in the government is legitimate, but that the side currently winning has not won fairly or otherwise fails to represent the will of the people. I’m sure Joe Wilson and Dennis Kucinich feel just that way, depending on the political fortunes of the moment.

  3. Drew says:

    “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.”

    Not surprising when you consider that politicians, for example President Obama, keep telling the prospective recipients of those services that only 3% of the nation’s taxpayers will be required to pay for them.

  4. Tim says:

    I agree we were never supposed to be a direct democracy, or even a democracy, but a republic. However, a republic requires consent of the governed. Without it (and here’s how you arrive without it)the representatives are merely independent agents seeking their own favor. When a representative is elected, they have consent of the governed, but this is not in perpetuity, it has limits grounded in their actions. Should they veer wildly off course and do things like vote for the reshaping of the government, let’s say enough of them got together to install a permanent dictatorship under which they would receive a sort of Lordship with wonderful spoils, would that not be outside their mandate?

    Everything between here and there are mere degrees to which they do not enjoy that consent. It is ultimately the people who decide when they have gone too far and exceeded their consent.

    The problem with relying on elections to fix consent is that a day beyond the election accountability ceases. Two years is a long time under tyranny, assuming they will have elections in two years. If they no longer consider consent an issue, they might not.

  5. Wayne says:

    You don’t have a representative government if your only legit choices aren’t representative of you. Yes you can write in someone but chances are very slim of them being elected. The current parties with their infrastructure, power and money are hard to overcome. There are ways to improve our so call representative system but with the current power structure it is unlikely.

    Parties have come and gone in the past but that is after things got into the extreme. Revolution peacefully or not usually results after things get way out of hand. The Tea Party may be the next major Party that is in its infancy. Besides what some believe, there are many that do not believe the government especially the Federal government should much more for them except protect the country, regulate interstate commerce, and leave them the hell alone.

    This idea that just because a population can vote that it is a representative government is asinine. There are plenty of examples that prove that wrong. Our system is not immune to those flaws in those obvious examples. Not understanding that those flaws can and IMO to a far lesser than many countries, does apply to our system is naive.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    It is unfortunate but, apparently, too many people seem to have stopped reading Locke with the treatises on property. They should have continued to the second treatise on civil government. From his continued presence here we can infer that Professor Reynolds consents to the government.

  7. wr says:

    Interesting. When Republicans held every branch of government and set about dismantling the country, all we heard from the right was “elections have consequences.”

    Now that the other side has won a couple of elections, these same people are crying that elections don’t really count except for the day they’re held on, and therefore no matter who won, their side should get to hold power forever, even if that requires a revolution.

    What’s really funny is that these are the same people who call themselves patriots and insist they are only upholding the Constitution.

  8. MichaelW says:

    Glenn Reynolds has been pushing an interesting meme: that somehow the United States should be a direct democracy.

    Really? Even after reading the quoted section of Glenn’s article I’m not seeing where he’s calling for a direct democracy. Nor do I read him as suggesting that politicians should make decisions solely based on public opinion polls (although, I can see how that would a plausible interpretation).

    The point, as I see it, is that the electorate can and will hold their representatives feet to the fire when the situation warrants it. In circumstances like we have now — where the public doesn’t feel represented at all, and the political class (a) doesn’t realize that, and (b) only seems concerned with their own interests — the people are poised to do some feet-burning. The question is, will the representatives respond?

    Indeed, I’m not sure Reynolds is really saying anything different than Thomas Jefferson did in A Summary View and the Declaration of Independence. I.e., without the consent of the governed, the governor is living on borrowed time.

  9. James Joyner says:

    The point, as I see it, is that the electorate can and will hold their representatives feet to the fire when the situation warrants it.

    Right. But that pretty much means we HAVE consent of the governed.

    Indeed, I’m not sure Reynolds is really saying anything different than Thomas Jefferson did in A Summary View and the Declaration of Independence. I.e., without the consent of the governed, the governor is living on borrowed time.

    But King George III wasn’t a year or so removed from an election in which the colonists were able to vote for an alternative candidate.

  10. MichaelW says:

    Right. But that pretty much means we HAVE consent of the governed.

    Well, I’m not so sure. The way I see it, and what Glenn seems to be suggesting, is that while the governing structure may still enjoy our “consent” in the broadest possible sense, the active use of that structure does not. And if that use continues for too long, the structure itself will lose integrity as well.

    But King George III wasn’t a year or so removed from an election in which the colonists were able to vote for an alternative candidate.

    I see your point: we can vote out reps who’ve lost our consent, whereas KGIII had to be threatened with removal in the old-fashioned way.

    But the principle underlying both TJ and GR is that government derives every bit of its power from the governed. That is, neither governments nor governors have any inherent power, but only that freely granted and allowed (consented to) by the governed. After all, it is the dominion over ourselves from whence all that power is derived in the first place, and granted to the government in trust (so to speak). When that trust (or “consent”) is violated, the governed may seek to actively withdraw that consent, and may very well decide that the whole system needs to go.

    That was basically what I read GR as saying anyway, as opposed to calling for direct democracy.

  11. Steve Plunk says:

    In our present situation the remedy of voting out the problem will come too late. The present health care legislation will be irreversible once enacted. How should a citizenry respond when the government is about to take the country over a cliff?

    The ultimate reason we feel the government lacks the consent of the governed is it has too much power. The intrusion into our daily lives has grown over time to a point of concern. The realization that their every move can have an impact has brought home how little consent they need to govern. The cries of “I didn’t elect them to do that” are growing louder.

  12. Wayne says:

    WR
    Who on the right ever said they should always hold power regardless of who won? Unless you are flip flopping on your use of the term “power”. The right as a minority are not asking for any more minority power (mainly the use of filibuster) than what the Democrats had. They are not asking for power of the majority.

    The right still saying that “elections have consequences” and will repeat it often this next election. Like the left, when they lose doesn’t mean you have to sit down and shut up. We know the left never have.

    You need to read a book title “The Farm”. When representatives and\or the Government no longer uphold the Constitution or try to severely warp it, then it is patriotic to overturn them. I would prefer we wise up and prevent them from doing so in the first place. That way we can avoid the bloodshed.

    When you blindly follow the government, you become a servant of the government not the other way around.

  13. Alex Knapp says:

    The present health care legislation will be irreversible once enacted.

    I didn’t realize that HCR included a Constitutional Amendment that prevents Congress from repealing its own legislation.

  14. Steve Plunk says:

    Alex, You know for a fact Obama will not sign legislation reversing it and by the time new president is sworn in the insurance industry will be forever changed. It will be irreversible. One giant, untried, revolutionary, experiment of legislation will be irreversible. Love it or hate it we will be stuck with it. We’re burning bridges with this one.

  15. Professor Reynolds certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but perhaps what he is alluding to is more along the lines of the decreasing importance of federalism for us and how perhaps that translates into more and more of us questioning whether our government really speaks for us or the 51% trying to screw the other 49% of us. Given the gerrymandering and other rules that make more than half of our federally elected representatives in the House start to look more and more like hereditary peerages, at least with respect to party, I think it is getting ever more difficult for many of us to feel as though we have any control or influence at all any more.

    As Lord Acton noted, “Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.” Is that still true in the US?

  16. Steve Plunk, just got off a plane and finished rereading the chapter on the totalitarians amongst us in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Been out of the news loop for a week, but see that they are alive and well and about to institute a level of planning in our economy that is unprecedented.

    Economic liberty is just another of those overrated things I rant and rave about from time to time. People who claim to know better than us are going to take care of us now, good and hard.

  17. Herb says:

    With Reynolds, such a proposal could only have come out when Democrats control Congress and the White House. A proposal like this circa 2005 would be unthinkable.

    Ha! So funny, and yet so true.

    It’s also likely something he doesn’t even really believe. Here’s a guy who should be holing up at Galt’s Gulch in protest, but he’s writing columns for the Washington Examiner? I guess he needs to eat like the rest of us.

    I also think Schuler’s on the right track. The tyrants in Washington aren’t so tyrannical that they’ve revoked the Instapassport. If the guy felt he wasn’t being represented by the State, then the least he could do is stop cashing their checks.

  18. Rick DeMent says:

    Umnnn … I agree with InstaPutz … The government does not have our consent. I disagree on who he thinks is running the government … it’s not the people in congress or the white house; it’s those who fund campaigns and hire lawyers and lobbyists. The congress critters are just their puppets.

    @ Charles
    you should read Hayek closer he finds no incompatibility in principal between the state providing comprehensive social insurance against accident and sickness and the preservation of individual freedom as you seem to do. He said in in the very same book you mentioned.

  19. Mr. DeMent, if you think Obamacare is what Hayek was advocating then you must have skipped over everything but that one paragraph you alluded to, you know, how the whole central planning thing is really, really bad and necessarily will deteriorate into totalitarianism.

    Contrary to the role you want to define for me, I am not opposed to safety nets of many forms and, as you noted, neither was Mr. Hayek. But safety nets and forcing everyone into one government run healthcare system are two entirely different things. And yes, Obamacare is a stalking horse for single payer. Perhaps you should reread the chapter titled “The Totalitarians In Our Midst.”

  20. Herb says:

    But safety nets and forcing everyone into one government run healthcare system are two entirely different things. And yes, Obamacare is a stalking horse for single payer.

    For all it’s faults, Obamacare is NOT a government run healthcare system. Not unless we completely change the definition of “government run healthcare system.”

    Central planning? Stalking horse for single payer? Riiiiight. Get your passport ready, Charles. Costa Rica is calling your name.

  21. Obamacare is not a government run health care system, nor will it inevitably lead to one. Thanks for clearing that up Herb. But then, you seem to have me confused with Rush Limbaugh, so I’m not sure how much creedence to lend to your, ahem, analysis.

  22. wr says:

    Wayne — First you insist your side doesn’t claim it deserves to be in power forever, despite which side wins elections.

    Then you say it’s “patriotic” to overthrow a legally elected government when they fail to live up to your idea of what is constitutional, and hope that the current admininstration starts following your own political philosophy before it becomes necessary to start killing people.

    Funny, despite the great loathing for the Bush administration on the left, I don’t remember hearing calls for armed revolution or secession, which I see frequently on right-wing blogs. (Granted, mostly in comments, but occasionally in real posts.)

    I’m sorry, Wayne, but accepting the consequences of elections means not threatening violent revolution when Republican policies are not put in place.

  23. John Cole says:

    Why are you still taking him seriously?

  24. Herb says:

    Obamacare is not a government run health care system, nor will it inevitably lead to one.

    Now you’re talking some sense, bud. Maybe now you can criticize it for what it is and people might find your criticisms persuasive.

  25. floyd says:

    “”But forget the views of America — where, it seems likely, more people believe in alien abductions than in the legitimacy of our rulers””
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    Perhaps that scene from “Mars Attacks” where the alien addresses Congress would be our only salvation then?? ACK,ACK,ACK!
    Then a good dose of Slim Whitman and…
    Problem solved!