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Political Participation: Consent of the Governed

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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

Political Participation: Reasons for its Decline

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Response in recent class on why political participation is in decline:

In a democracy, the government draw its sense of legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the idea of acting in accordance with the general will. However, if the citizens stop participating in the political system, for example not voting, then that system begins to lose legitimacy since it is hard for it to claim that it has a political mandate of the majority of the people. The United States is currently heading in this direction. A recent international survey cited in “Money, Participation, and Votes” by Jeff Manza et al, showed that “turnout in U.S. national elections ranks an extraordinary 138th among 170 countries that hold elections.” (2005, p. 208) National election results show that voting participation among the voting age population is slightly over half on Presidential election years and just slightly over one-third during mid term elections. This coupled with job approval ratings for the President below 50% and for Congress below 25% (www.realclearpolitics.com) and a grim picture for America’s political system starts to emerge. Also, there appears to be a trend in the increase of citizens who self-report being unaffiliated, independent, or supporting third-parties, none of which have noticeable, let alone proportional to their support, representation in the government. One of the questions Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and Michael Sauder try and answer is what is causing this decrease in political participation.

Manza et al, broke the sources of political participation, or lack there of, into two categories: individual sources based primarily on “social cleavage” and institutional sources, effects that are inherent to political system itself. “Social cleavages” are divisions in society “stemming from race/ethnicity, class, gender, religion, language, or national identity” that “give rise to groups of people with shared interests or statuses.” (Manza et al, 2005, p. 205-206) However, the studies in this area are full of statistical uncertainties and often contradict each other leading the authors to “conclude that there is at best only modest evidence for an increase in social cleavage impacts on turnout.” (p. 213) Instead it appears more likely that the American citizens’ “lack of interest in politics, low levels of political efficacy, or apparent apathy toward election outcomes may reflect substantive views of the party system or the character of elite political conflicts.” (p. 210)

What are the flaws inherent to the American political system that causes such political apathy. The likely culprits are increased centralization, single-member districts, two party system, amount of representation, and perceived illegitimacy of the current role of government. As government has become more centralized and most important decisions that impact citizens’ lives being made at higher levels, the individual’s influence drastically decreases. His voice is now 1/230 million as opposed to 1/10-100 thousand at the local level. This sense of having the impact of a grain of sand on a beach could lead to the economic calculation that political participation is not worth one’s time or effort. Another source of disillusionment with the political system is the single-member district, which inevitably leads to a two party system. The lack of variety in candidates or parties could lead many individuals to believe there is no one that represents their views even running for office. Also, since 1920 Congress has frozen the number of representatives at 435, in spite of the fact that the population has increased dramatically. As each member now represents hundreds of thousands people, their constituents feel as though they are lost at sea when it comes to influencing their representatives. Finally, many individuals believe that the government is not acting in a beneficial role in society and refuse to provide legitimacy for the very institution they oppose by participating in it.

Manza, J., Brooks, C.,& Sauder, M. (2005). Money, Participation, and Votes: Social Cleavages and Electoral Politics. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (33-53). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
President Obama Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/
Congressional Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/

In a democracy, the government draw its sense of legitimacy from popular sovereignty, the idea of acting in accordance with the general will. However, if the citizens stop participating in the political system, for example not voting, then that system begins to lose legitimacy since it is hard for it to claim that it has a political mandate of the majority of the people. The United States is currently heading in this direction. A recent international survey cited in “Money, Participation, and Votes” by Jeff Manza et al, showed that “turnout in U.S. national elections ranks an extraordinary 138th among 170 countries that hold elections.” (2005, p. 208) National election results show that voting participation among the voting age population is slightly over half on Presidential election years and just slightly over one-third during mid term elections. This coupled with job approval ratings for the President below 50% and for Congress below 25% (www.realclearpolitics.com) and a grim picture for America’s political system starts to emerge. Also, there appears to be a trend in the increase of citizens who self-report being unaffiliated, independent, or supporting third-parties, none of which have noticeable, let alone proportional to their support, representation in the government. One of the questions Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and Michael Sauder try and answer is what is causing this decrease in political participation.

Manza et al, broke the sources of political participation, or lack there of, into two categories: individual sources based primarily on “social cleavage” and institutional sources, effects that are inherent to political system itself. “Social cleavages” are divisions in society “stemming from race/ethnicity, class, gender, religion, language, or national identity” that “give rise to groups of people with shared interests or statuses.” (Manza et al, 2005, p. 205-206# However, the studies in this area are full of statistical uncertainties and often contradict each other leading the authors to “conclude that there is at best only modest evidence for an increase in social cleavage impacts on turnout.” #p. 213# Instead it appears more likely that the American citizens’ “lack of interest in politics, low levels of political efficacy, or apparent apathy toward election outcomes may reflect substantive views of the party system or the character of elite political conflicts.” #p. 210#

What are the flaws inherent to the American political system that causes such political apathy. The likely culprits are increased centralization, single-member districts, two party system, amount of representation, and perceived illegitimacy of the current role of government. As government has become more centralized and most important decisions that impact citizens’ lives being made at higher levels, the individual’s influence drastically decreases. His voice is now 1/230 million as opposed to 1/10-100 thousand at the local level. This sense of having the impact of a grain of sand on a beach could lead to the economic calculation that political participation is not worth one’s time or effort. Another source of disillusionment with the political system is the single-member district, which inevitably leads to a two party system. The lack of variety in candidates or parties could lead many individuals to believe there is no one that represents their views even running for office. Also, since 1920 Congress has frozen the number of representatives at 435, in spite of the fact that the population has increased dramatically. As each member now represents hundreds of thousands people, their constituents feel as though they are lost at sea when it comes to influencing their representatives. Finally, many individuals believe that the government is not acting in a beneficial role in society and refuse to provide legitimacy for the very institution they oppose by participating in it.

Manza, J., Brooks, C.,& Sauder, M. #2005#. Money, Participation, and Votes: Social Cleavages and Electoral Politics. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz #Eds.#, Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization #33-53#. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
President Obama Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/
Congressional Job Approval. Retrieved March 23, 2011 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Mar 26, 2011