“But if there’s an upside to the increasing unhappiness that most Americans feel toward the political class, it’s that maybe it means people are paying closer attention.
Americans are out of sorts, and increasingly they’re unhappy with the government. According to a Pew poll released last week, more than half of Americans view government as a threat to their freedom.
And it’s not just Republicans unhappy with Obama, or gun owners afraid that the government will take their guns: 38% of Democrats, and 45% of non-gun owners, see the government as a threat.
Add this to another recent poll in which only 22% of likely voters feel America’s government has the “consent of the governed,” and you’ve got a pretty depressing picture — and a recipe for potential trouble. Governments operate, to a degree, by force, but ultimately they depend on legitimacy. A government that a majority views as a threat, and that only a small minority sees as enjoying the consent of the governed, is a government with legitimacy problems.
I suspect that these issues also have something to do with the increasing bitterness and polarization of today’s politics, but not the way you might think. As science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle wrote in 2008, “We have always known that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. It’s worse now, because capture of government is so much more important than it once was. There was a time when there was enough freedom that it hardly mattered which brand of crooks ran government. That has not been true for a long time — not during most of your lifetimes, and for much of mine — and it will probably never be true again.”
That captures an important point. The more powerful the government becomes, the more people are willing to do in order to seize the prize, and the more afraid they become when someone else has control. So it was after the 2004 election when liberals talked revolution, and so again after 2012, when secession petitions flooded the White House.
There are two possible ways to address this problem. One is to elect people that everyone trusts. The problem with that is that there aren’t any politicians that everyone trusts — and, alas, if there were, the odds are good that such trust would turn out to be misplaced.
The other option is to place less power within the political sphere. The less power the government has, the less incentive for corruption, and the less that can go wrong when the government misbehaves. The problem with this approach is that the political class likes a powerful government — it’s one of the reasons that the Washington, DC, area, where much of the political class lives, is beginning to resemble the Capital City in The Hunger Games, prospering while the rest of the country suffers.
The political class usually gets its way, because it thinks about politics — and its own position — every waking moment, while the rest of America thinks about these things only in fits and starts, in between living everyday life. But if there’s an upside to the increasing unhappiness that most Americans feel toward the political class, it’s that maybe it means people are paying closer attention.
What’s next? In my constitutional law class the other day, most of my students took the position that they would be unlikely to see a Constitutional Convention in their lifetimes. I’m not so sure. Last year I spoke at a Harvard Law School conference on holding a new Constitutional Convention, one which had participants from all sorts of ideological positions ranging from the Tea Party to the Occupy Wall Street movement. (People got along surprisingly well.)
In the American system, a Constitutional Convention — which has never been held since the Constitution was adopted — is the last stop before revolution. It was intended as a way for the people to end-run the political establishment; if enough states request a convention, Congress has no choice but to call it, and the resulting proposals go straight to the states for ratification, bypassing Congress. It’s a way to make drastic changes when the political class has blocked smaller ones.
Are we there yet? I don’t think so. But we’re getting closer all the time. Political class, take note.”