Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed; that is a foundational principle of our republic. To a stunning degree, however, Americans don’t believe that their own government meets that standard. Scott Rasmussen finds that only 23 percent of voters believe that “the federal government today has the consent of the governed.” A remarkable 62 percent of voters say that our government does not enjoy that consent.
How can this be, given our seemingly free and vibrant democracy? I think there are two main reasons, one specific to our present political environment and one more general.
The immediate cause is the fact that the Obama administration and its Congressional allies have embarked on an ambitious, left-wing program that seeks to transform America into a country quite different from what most Americans want. Elections have consequences, as the Democrats never tire of telling us. The problem is that the Democrats, most notably Barack Obama, did not run on the divisive, far-left program they are now trying to implement. Obama postured himself as a rather centrist, post-racial figure. His style as President has been the opposite.
So it is no wonder that most Americans believe they have gotten a government that they didn’t vote for.
I think the more significant cause, however, is the general one–a growing conviction that America is governed by a political class that has its own agenda, involving its own enrichment as well as the endless expansion of its own power, and that this political class is contemptuous of the opinions of ordinary Americans and is determined to impose its will regardless of how Americans vote. I think this perception is in fact true.
The strongest evidence is the history of federal spending in the modern era, which began in the 1960s. Here it is, in constant dollars; click to enlarge:
There have been several occasions when the American people have voted for smaller government; most notably in 1972, 1980 and 1994. But it really doesn’t matter. You can vote for limited government, but you can’t get it; the political class won’t let you. This is not to assert the silly proposition that there is no major difference between Democrats and Republicans. The fiscal disaster that we have witnessed since the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007 proves the contrary. But still: experience shows that voting for Republicans hasn’t been enough to offset the power of the political class.
The main currents of our contemporary politics involve ordinary citizens rebelling against their masters in the political class. While by no means the only manifestation of this rebellion, the Tea Party movement is the most notable. What has happened to the Tea Party is instructive. It was first ignored, then ridiculed. Agents of the status quo like news services, newspapers, network news operations and the NAACP have been enlisted to lodge absurd charges of “racism” against Americans who protest out-of-control government spending. The Empire is striking back.
It remains to be seen whether the American people can finally break the grip of a political class that remains determined to run their lives and misappropriate trillions of dollars of their wealth. It will be, I think, a close-run thing. In the meantime, there is no mystery as to why most Americans do not regard the federal government as legitimate in Jeffersonian terms.
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds offers advice on fighting back against the ruling class.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill
“Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.” Inscription on the Liberty Bell