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The Consent of the Governed: Essential Principles

"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, United States of America, 1776

The most fundamental concept of democracy is the idea that government exists to secure the rights of the people and must be based on the consent of the governed. Today, the quote above from the U.S. Declaration of Independence is considered an indisputable maxim of the ideal form of government.

The essential meaning of consent of the governed can be better understood by examining countries where it is lacking. In 1989, Chinese students who had gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square adopted the Statue of Liberty—calling it the Goddess of Liberty—as the symbol of their demands for truth, freedom, and democracy from their government.



The Statue of Liberty, adopted in 1989 by protestors in China's Tiananmen Square
Millions of workers, professionals, and peasants joined the students in Beijing and in cities across China to take back a government that had long been used to deny people's freedom. Since the Communist Party seized power in 1949, anyone who opposed its dictates and ideological campaigns had been subject to arrest or worse. The party's policies caused millions of deaths through famine, execution, and violent political purges.

The Chinese people consented to none of this. Indeed, the regime's only authority to govern was the Communist principle of "democratic centralism," according to which the decisions of the party leadership could not be questioned. In 1989, Deng Xiao Ping, the top Communist leader, ordered the use of force to put down the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China. The world saw students stand before tanks, but ultimately they were helpless to prevent the mass killings and arrests that ensued. Nearly 20 years later, the Communist Party remains the supreme authority. The students who sought democracy were imprisoned, expelled from school, forced into exile, pressured to recant their views, or denied their livelihood or even housing. Workers were treated even more harshly, and today China's booming export-based economy is built on the severe exploitation of labor. For now, repression has effectively prevented any reemergence of the popular demand for democracy. This is the result of a system based on the opposite of the consent of the governed (see also Country Study of People's Republic of China under "Freedom of Expression".

Before Consent of the Governed

Until the original 13 American states asserted the principle of consent of the governed as self-evident, it had been applied only rarely around the world (see below). For much of recorded history, people lived under different types of autocracy, ruled by a single leader exercising unlimited power. Sometimes, the ruler was the best warrior, able to seize power over a group or nation (for example, Genghis Khan in 13th-century Asia). Such leaders often founded hereditary monarchies, the most common form of autocracy. In most cases, the monarch was all-powerful, claiming his or her position by "divine right" (as in Europe) or the "mandate of heaven" (as in China). The ruler was sovereign, the supreme authority of a state. The people were not citizens but subjects. They never consented to be governed, but owed their total obedience and loyalty to the ruler, often on pain of death. In some countries, kings or emperors agreed to limit their powers in response to the demands of landowners and noblemen, establishing a system of consent by the aristocracy. England's Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215 is among the most famous agreements limiting the powers of a king. It guaranteed that the king and his successors would not violate the acknowledged rights and privileges of the aristocracy, the clergy, and semiautonomous towns (see "Constitutional Government").

But even when its powers were limited, monarchy meant arbitrary and unrepresentative rule for most subjects, locking them into a life of servitude. The idea that the people were sovereign was—and in many places remains—revolutionary.



King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215

Consent of the Governed: A Positive Definition

The United States of America was the first modern state formed around the principle of consent of the governed. The term implies that the people of a country or territory are sovereign and consent, in a direct referendum or through elected representatives, to the establishment of their own government. In most modern cases, the form of the state is a republic, or rule by voting citizens within an agreed-upon constitutional and legal framework. But some monarchies also operate with the consent of the governed, as in Great Britain, where over time the monarch has given up most political and administrative functions to elected officials.

Implied in the principle of consent is the right to withdraw consent— to overthrow a regime that abuses the people through tyrannical, arbitrary, or unrepresentative rule.

The original consent of the governed—for a new constitution or the formation of a new state—is achieved either through direct democracy, such as a referendum or plebiscite, or through elected representative institutions, such as an existing legislature or a special constitutional assembly. In some cases, the establishment of a new governmental system requires a "supermajority," from three-fifths to three-quarters, to convey overwhelming popular assent, but often a simple majority suffices. (The U.S. Constitution required the approval of ratifying conventions in at least nine of the 13 states; an amendment must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress as well as the elected legislatures of three-quarters of the states.) What remains fixed is the principle that the people are sovereign and must provide their fundamental consent to be governed.

The most common form of democracy is the parliamentary system, in which the executive branch is controlled by the party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of seats in parliament. Unlike in the American presidential system, there are few constitutional checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, and the system relies heavily on the oversight of the opposition party or parties in parliament (see "Constitutional Limits," and "Multiparty System").

Once the form of democratic government is established, elections are the main vehicle for renewing the consent of the governed. Each election is an opportunity for the people to change their leaders. When a particular government loses the people's confidence, they have the right to replace it. If the system requires modification, the legislature may pass laws to reform it within the bounds of the constitution; if laws are insufficient, the people and their representatives can choose to modify or replace the constitution itself.

Consent of the Governed: A Negative Definition

As noted above, in defining consent of the governed, it is helpful to examine cases where it is absent. Modern authoritarian regimes offer clear examples. These take various forms, including dictatorship (Zimbabwe), theocracy (Islamic Republic of Iran), military rule (Burma), and apartheid (as occurred in South Africa). But all forms of authoritarian government deny people freedom, take away property, exercise power arbitrarily, and act ruthlessly to maintain themselves. A distinct category of modern authoritarian rule is totalitarianism, which is based on violent revolution, a comprehensive ideology (such as fascism or communism), and a disciplined party apparatus. These regimes are distinguished by their system of social control over the whole population. Examples include Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong.

Modern authoritarians claim power by citing the need to safeguard the integrity of the state against supposed external threats, political stability against an unruly society, and economic equality against the upper classes. What they have actually achieved is oppression, famine, catastrophic war, genocide, and the general lowering of living standards for the population. As the American philosopher Sidney Hook once observed,

How can there be genuine security so long as arbitrary power, whether it be of an employer or a group, or especially of the state as employer, is not subject to the restraints of a freely operating democratic process?

Although most seize control through violent revolution or coup d'etat, modern authoritarian rulers claim to have the consent of the governed. But they rarely allow free and fair elections or referendums to test their claims, and when they do the people generally vote against them (as in Chile in 1988, Poland in 1989, and Serbia in 2000). There are some cases, such as Nazi Germany, in which a modern authoritarian regime can be said on some level to have come to power through elections. But in fact the Nazi Party was a parliamentary minority that seized total power through intimidation and thuggery in what amounted to a coup d'etat (see also Country Study of the Federal Republic of Germany).

The Right to Rebellion

Implied in the principle of consent is the right to withdraw consent—to overthrow a regime that abuses the people through tyrannical, arbitrary, or unrepresentative rule. This was the right that the British philosopher John Locke claimed was intrinsic to a system of natural law (see below), and that the 13 American states invoked against King George III in 1776.



King George III of England, 1771, five years before the start of the American Revolution
Two centuries later, the people of Eastern Europe rose up to claim the same right against an oppressive Communist system. But Locke's principle is not a general right of rebellion or revolution; he did not advocate anarchy. The cause of rebellion—or the withdrawal of consent—must amount to tyranny, and the system that the people rebel against must first violate their natural rights. Violent rebellion has come to be seen only as a last resort. In most modern cases, from anticolonial movements to anti-Communist movements, peaceful protest has been a more successful form of "rebellion" for the purpose of establishing a democracy based on consent of the governed.

Minorities Withdrawing Consent

What happens when a minority asserts the right to withdraw its consent to be governed? This has occurred in a number of places where minorities desire independence from dominant or oppressive majorities. In general, the world has recognized the right of oppressed peoples to form their own self-governing regions or independent states, as in Kosovo and East Timor. In Sweden, Italy, and other countries, minorities have gained autonomy without violence. But for some regions seeking independence or autonomy, such as Chechnya in Russia and Darfur in Sudan, the world has been less supportive and has failed to prevent the majority government from committing mass killings or genocide. Despite numerous international treaties and documents defining nationality and minority rights, there is little consistency in this area.