Consent of the governed is one of those phrases of political philosophy that strike the listener as being a high-flying, abstract notion. That is incorrect. It is actually a rock bottom principle that must guide our democratic government, that has gone badly awry, and everyone knows it.
Consent of the Governed refers to the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is only justified and legal when derived from the people or society over which that power is exercised. Such consent is contrasted to the divine right of kings. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government." The founders of the United States believed in a state built upon the consent of "free and equal" citizens; a state otherwise conceived would lack legitimacy and authority. This was expressed, among other places, in the Declaration of Independence and in the Virginia Bill of Rights, especially Section 6, which stated:
“That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly, ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, the attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for publick uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented, for the public good."
In her remarkable speech to the conference, "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" at Hunter College in New York on October 15, 2011, Gloria Steinem pointed out that the current political upheaval in the United States (and indeed throughout the Western World, Japan and South Korea) stems from the fact that people in democratic countries correctly object to being goverend without their consent, and clearly not “for the public good,” to use the language of the Virginia Bill of Rights. She argued that within the United States, many white men had grown accustomed to being in control of virtually everything of importance, from their relationship with their wife and children, to conditions within their workplace, to control of racial and religious minorities, and other aspects of daily life, almost as if it were a divine right. Such control has been considered a white male entitlement in America. Steinem referred to violent crimes of white men (or teenage boys) against women or others in society, rapes or mass shootings in schools and places of employment, as stemming from their fear of loss of control. She argued that the rise of the Radical Right in America is just such a largely white male reaction to losing the ability to control American society and their personal lives as they see fit, regardless of the rights of other Americans. Steiman nested the discussion of the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the abuse of Anita Hill as a witness, within this context. She argued that it was an attempt by the Radical Right to wrest control over the Constitutional Rights of Americans by appointing an unqualified, illegitimate person to the US Supreme Court, who would obediently endorse their repressive policies.
She concluded her remarks by noting that the current “Occupy” and “99%” political demonstrations are the outward expression, essentially the last resort, of those of us who are governed, to express their grievance to those in government for their lack of democratic representation. The heart of the matter is that a relatively small number of people (as if by Divine Right) is in control of major corporate financial interests which are now in charge of most of American pseudo-democratic processes. Congressional and Senate seats are bought by corporate interests, as are even seats on the Supreme Court. That means that those who are intended to represent the bulk of the American people no longer do so, they represent those corporate interests. Similar reactions throughout Europe and parts of Asia indicate this is a universal reaction to lack of consent of the governed of their Government’s failure to act in the public interest. Steinem concluded by noting that those who have been in power will not concede control quietly, like the man who murders his abused wife because she will no longer tolerate the abuse, or the mass shooter who kills everyone in his workplace because he feels he no longer has control. She said in conclusion, “We are in a time of great danger and need to protect one another. We are about to be free and restore democracy, and we we need to be clear that we are not going to stop.”