Consent of the governed – and the lack thereof

Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Washington Examiner
3/7/2010

Our Declaration of Independence observes:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

“Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This is boilerplate American history, and something that Americans — and, in particular, America’s political class — have long taken for granted.

But now things are looking a bit dicey. 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…

…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…

…So what do we do with a federal government that many voters think is illegitimate and dishonest?

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.

Read the entire article at the Washington Examiner.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. He hosts “Instavision” at PJTV.com, and blogs at Instapundit.com.

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