When the governed stop consenting

(Denver Post, July 14) The recall elections pending for two state senators and the movement for ten rural counties to secede from Colorado, along with the chaos in Egypt, got me to thinking about political legitimacy.

No, it’s not a topic trending on Twitter right now. Stop 20 people on the street, and 19 of them couldn’t define it if you put a gun to their heads. But legitimacy matters, and it actually relates to guns in a couple of ways. If we start to lose it in this country, as they already have in Egypt, look out. So bear with me.

Political legitimacy is the minimum level of confidence that a government needs to have among the populace to keep civil order from breaking down and anarchy from breaking out. President Morsi’s elected regime in Cairo couldn’t sustain its legitimacy. Now the generals who toppled him may not be able to sustain theirs either. Rough waters ahead for a rudderless ship of state.

All this may seem like a far cry from the cat fight between liberal Senate President John Morse and his conservative Colorado Springs constituents, or the semi-comic rural revolt out in Akron last week, where a ballot issue to form the new state of North Colorado was kicked around. It’s not, because the same deadly serious political realities are involved.

The power for a few of us to rule the rest of us by passing laws and compelling obedience, taking our money or property, locking up the uncooperative, and even using lethal force, isn’t a natural thing like gravity. It’s a social convention like language. To endure and succeed over time, that power requires what the Declaration of Independence calls “the consent of the governed” – which shows signs of strain in our state right now.

“Hey, we didn’t sign up for this,” the petition-signers against Morse in Colorado Springs and his fellow Democrat, Sen. Angela Giron in Pueblo, as well as the angry farmers in Weld and neighboring counties, are saying in effect. Are they fed-up freemen or merely sore losers? Opinions will differ. But the harsh remedies being sought show they felt pushed too far by this year’s wave of leftist legislation, gun control and all the rest.

Am I saying that Denver’s Civic Center will end up like Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a seething mass of violent protesters? Of course not. The headlines from near and far are simply evoking once again the concern explored in my 2011 book, “Responsibility Reborn,” that the old age of nations will overtake America if we don’t pick up our game.

Legitimacy doesn’t collapse all at once. It frays, fades, and falters over time. American self-government has been steadily losing its grip on popular consent for at least a generation. Polls show it. To renew itself, the country needs a higher order of statesmanship from politicians in both parties than what we’re now getting – and a higher order of citizenship from we the people than what you and I see in the mirror.

Secession by the Greeley gang isn’t going to happen. Still it must be heeded as what our therapeutic age calls “a cry for help.” Recall of the two state senators by voters may or may not happen. (And recall of our U.S. senators definitely won’t, despite Tea Party voices in favor; it’s not constitutional.) But we should view all of this as symptoms of legitimacy at risk, and think hard about how to rebuild a deeper, wider consent.

Even if you are not interested in politics, politics is interested in you. So warned Pericles, 2500 years ago in the Athenian republic. That’s “res publica” from Latin. It means the public thing, everybody’s concern. No one can opt out, sorry. We’re all in this together.

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