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Political Participation: Consent of the Governed


Recent response in a class concerning political participation, centralization of government, and consent of the governed:

The “reversal” of the “amount of responsibilities held by each level government” is going to be very difficult to bring about under the current system and with the history of the United States. Since the Civil War the federal government no longer depends on consent of the governed. While everyone should agree that the Southern states were wrong to insist on continuing the institution of slavery, the implications of the Civil War are far more universal than a single issue. Since that war, states no longer have the illusion that they could withdrawal their consent from a contractual agreement their predecessors entered into and if you are not able to withdrawal consent then you are not able to truly give it. The consequences of this is that the states no longer act as a true check against the expansion of federal government since they are no longer competitive with it, but are in fact subordinated to it. As long as the states to do hold the power to check the federal government either through nullification, refusal to enforce federal laws, or through the possibility of peaceful secession, then there will be no way to reverse the roles as you advocate.

Mainstream political thinkers call nullification and secession extreme views but they were tools often utilized by the states prior to the civil war. While the attempted secession of the South may have been the first time a group of states went through with secession, there were several other incidents where groups of states threatened to secede in order to protest and influence the federal government. Also, just because one advocates the right to secede” does not mean that one advocates actual secession. The mere possibility or threat of secession would be enough to check the federal governments power in most cases. As for nullification, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison passed resolutions in Kentucky and Virginia stating the right of states to judge the constitutionality of laws passed by the federal government and to refuse to enforce those laws they viewed as unconstitutional.

These principles can be applied all the way down to the individual level. Many western philosophers have recognized a “consent” problem with any government body, since it holds a monopoly on coercive power in a geographic area and the residents in that location have no real option in giving or withdrawing their consent. However, they try and rationalize it through the idea of “implied consent.” In other words so long as the people are not in revolution it can be taken for granted that they continue to consent to being governed by the current political establishment. This is also how they bypass reaffirming consent from generation to generation, since even if we assume that the founding generation actually all consented to the establishment of a government it does not follow that their children and grandchildren also agreed to the formation so their consent was never provided. People confuse the act of voting or other forms of political participation as giving consent to be governed by the current system, but the boundaries of political participation is only to influence “how” you are governed not “if” or by “whom”, you are governed. While many people may not have explicitly realized this consent problem they still feel the restrictions of their choices to those provided by the current political paradigm and if their will lies outside of that paradigm they quickly lose incentive to participate in the political process.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Mar 26, 2011