Consent of the governed

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Swan Street in Lambertville, New Jersey, sports red, white, and blue on Memorial Day, May 27, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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, —

Declaration of Independence, 1776

That’s what it’s all about. This revolutionary idea should have been obvious to all: Everyone comes into this world with equal rights, and we form governments by mutual consent so we can keep those rights.

It doesn’t really matter whether you believe, as the Founders did, in a Creator. The point is that people have certain birthrights, and governments exist to protect them.

This turned generations of political thought on its head. Until then, citizens were subjects of the crown, ruled by a royal family and a parliament loyal to the king.

The Founders had a word for a government that could censor and imprison dissenters, place soldiers in private homes, encourage citizens to inform on one another, and even dictate its citizens’ religion: Tyranny.

The opposite of tyranny is freedom. But ultimate freedom is anarchy. To protect their freedoms and preserve order, they developed a system by which the people would make their own laws. The complex republic they crafted is designed to require debate, negotiation, and cooperation: consent of the governed.

Why a republic and not a pure democracy, where the majority rules? To avoid just that: a tyranny of the majority. Today we understand minority rights and spend a great deal of time defending them.

Ironically, the “winning” side that prevails in a democracy can itself become a tyranny by forcing the minority opinion into submission. That quashes debate, outshouts differing opinions, denies freedom of expression, brands opponents as traitors and criminals, even sets citizens to spy on one another.

In other words, it’s no different from old-fashioned tyranny.

Tyranny of the majority is real and has come from both sides, right and left, repeatedly throughout our history. Conservatives did it during the Red Scare. Liberals do it today. In both cases, the majority claimed they were right because the other side is so wrong that it became a threat.

The Left fears fascism. The Right fears socialism as a path to communism. In truth, though, all three -isms are different flavors of tyranny. Eventually they end up with one strong central government led by a small group as a dictatorship.

That’s why we rely on consent of the governed rather than tyranny of the majority. At any time, the majority may change. Demographically and economically, it is already changing. It has been for centuries.

But only through mutual consent can we hope to make it a change for the better. Resist tyranny in all its forms. Stand up for human rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — while you still can.

Happy Independence Day!

2 thoughts on “Consent of the governed

  1. Hi Howard, this is a very pertinent piece also for other democracies and republics of the world which are sliding towards “tyranny of the majority.”
    Happy fourth of July!

  2. Thanks, Shekhar! Yes, it’s a fine line to tread. America’s two-party system makes it even more difficult.

    The multi-party system in many other countries depends on building coalitions, which is literally a foreign concept here. The hope for American politics lies with the “moderates” and independents, whose swing votes keep us on an even keel.

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