Consent of the Governed: Study Questions

Suggested Study Questions and Activities 

Teachers: The following are questions and activities that can be given to your students after they read the materials in each section. The questions are meant to be asked as a review exercise, although some encourage critical thinking as well. The activities can be presented as classroom exercises or as individual homework assignments. Unlike the questions, they tend to require additional research. Some call for students to create mock trials or debates that would engage the entire class. Both the questions and the activities are formatted so that they might be used directly by students, although you may rewrite them as you feel necessary. 

Essential Principles 

Class Questions 

How did the United States achieve consent of the governed, and what constitutes consent of the governed in the United States today? Did the 2016 presidential and congressional elections reaffirm the consent of the governed? Is there consent of the governed when the sole national office is won by a national minority of voters?

Abraham Lincoln asserted that a minority seeking to undermine a democratically established government in order to achieve anti-democratic ends (the preservation of slavery) could not be tolerated, and that the Union (“conceived in liberty”) had to be preserved. Can a minority assert the right to withdraw its consent to be governed? Under which conditions? What conditions does John Locke provide for legitimate rebellion and which does he not recognize?


There are a number of issues that make consent of the governed a difficult concept to define precisely. Discuss with the class how to define consent of the governed. Who constitutes "the people" granting consent? Can consent of the governed be achieved through representative institutions or is the "direct democracy" of popular referendums required? Is a constitution legitimate if it is adopted — by either of those means — under an electoral system with limited suffrage? Does consent of the governed mean a single act of approval or is it a continuous process? Answer the questions by examining the examples used in the Country Studies section: Do the countries have consent of the governed? If so, how was it achieved? Does the manner in which consent of the governed was achieved signal potential political instability or did it create a stable constitutional system? From this analysis, ask students to write an essay: Is there a preferred means of establishing the consent of the governed? 

The 2016 U.S. elections raised many questions as to the legitimacy of the Electoral College system in selecting US presidents. Have students research the creation and intent of the Electoral College in the Constitution (e.g. by the notes of Madison of the Constitutional Convention or Federalist Papers 39 and 68).  Look at attempts to amend the Electoral College System (e.g. the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact). Organize a Debate: "Is the Electoral College Outmoded: Should it be Changed?"

South Africa 


South Africa has been governed by the same party since the abolition of apartheid. Is it in danger of becoming an undemocratic, one-party state? Why does Freedom House rank South Africa as a Free Country? What aspects of governance, politics, and the economy in South Africa make it free? What issues threaten South Africa’s freedom? 


After his death on December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela was hailed as one of the great political leaders of the 20th century. Read the coverage in The New York Times and Economist and other accounts of Mandela’s life (e.g. his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, or Playing the Enemy by John Carlin). What qualities have been cited as making Mandela a great leader? Compare Mandela with similar leaders of freedom movements (Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, e.g.). How were they similar? How were they different? 

Compare the profiles of South Africa, Bolivia, and Iran. Why does Freedom House designate the three countries Free, Partly Free, and Not Free? What does Freedom House uses as criteria for measuring the countries’ level of freedom? After answering the questions, review Freedom House's description of its methodology to test whether you identified the same criteria. Discuss your findings in class. 



With its 2009 Constitution, has Bolivia achieved the consent of the governed? Did it have such consent in its previous history? 


Read articles cited in the Resources section and in The New York Times and Economist on Bolivia covering the period since December 2005 (e.g. on elections to the constitutional or general assembly in 2006, adoption of the constitution, the referendum of 2009 and elections the same year, the TIPNIS protests in 2011). In a brief essay, answer the question, “Has the adoption of the new constitution and the re-election of Evo Morales as president guaranteed more or less ‘consent of the governed’ and fulfillment of democratic rights in Bolivia?” Why or why not? Defend your opinion to the class. 



Although the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Constitution was adopted overwhelmingly in a plebiscite in April 1979, it is not considered to allow “consent of the governed.” Why? Contrast with the description of the constitutions and processes for approving the constitutions in Bolivia and South Africa following the overthrow of dictatorships. What makes the Iranian constitution less democratic? What provides greater protection for the consent of the governed in Bolivia and South Africa? 

How did Iranian reformers use elections as a strategy to promote democratic change? Why didn't they succeed? 


After the reassertion of control by clerical leaders and hard-liners in the 2004, 2005, 2009, and 2012 elections in Iran and the suppression of the 2009 protest movement, is it possible to support democracy from within Iranian society? Examine cases of democratic transitions from authoritarian rule in other countries (e.g., Poland, South Africa) to identify practical methods for achieving democratic reform in Iran. What are the basic preconditions for a transition to democracy? Share your findings with the class. 

Screen one or more films of Iran’s House of Cinema school (see Resources). Ask students to identify the use of allegory and irony to express social and political criticism and to describe the current situation in Iran.

Watch the UTube posted video “Happy in Teheran” (an Iranian dance video of Pharrell Williams’s popular hit song “Happy”). Review articles regarding the video and the government’s response. Why did the video become a viral hit? What do the arrests, the reaction of President Rouhani, and the ongoing prosecution of the director show about the nature of Iran’s regime?