Consent of the governed — and the lack thereof 

Our Declaration of Independence observes, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This is boilerplate American history that Americans — especially 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.

But forget the views of America — where perhaps 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 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.

But we’ve had enough political drama in recent years, so I’ll go for a more prosaic comparison: The once-heady brew of American freedom has become watery and unsatisfying.

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, and a “Taste My Schlitz” campaign designed to lure beer drinkers back failed when the “improved” brew turned out not to be any better. A brand image that had been accumulated over decades was lost in a few years and has never recovered.

The federal government, alas, finds itself in much the same position. The political class sold its legitimacy off in drips and drabs. As “smart politics” has come over the past decades to mean not persuasion but the practice of legerdemain, the use of political deals, cover from a friendly press apparat and taking advantage of voters’ rational ignorance, the governing classes have managed to achieve things that would surely have failed had the people known what was going on.

But while each little trick may have slipped by the voters, the voters have nonetheless noticed that the ultimate product isn’t what it used to be. The end result, as with Schlitz, is a tarnished brand. And rescuing tarnished brands is hard.

It gets worse. Not long ago, the federal government enjoyed a stellar reputation for honesty and competence. Now, according to a recent CNN poll, three quarters of Americans think that federal officials aren’t honest. 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.

Examiner contributor Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at

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