“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These words of Thomas Jefferson can be found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, immediately after the more recognizable “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson writes that it is to secure these rights that governments exist.
The argument of the day was that King and Parliament did not have the consent of the American colonists and therefore could be legally and morally rejected.
What constitutes the consent of the governed? In a representative democracy such as the United States, this consent is implied by the free election of one set of candidates over another in a democratic election. Until recently most people understood that democracy means elections and elections mean somebody wins and somebody else loses. The losers are expected to begin gearing up for the next election while presenting at least an appearance of serving as the loyal opposition.
What did not happen in the twentieth century, at least the half of that century in which I lived, was a claim by the losing side that the election winner was illegitimate. The first presidential election I followed was in 1960, my interest requiring that I stay up all night listening to the radio for a winner to be declared. Little did I know at the time that credible evidence was presented to Richard Nixon that results from Illinois and Texas were suspect, although my ten-year-old brain did wonder why no results were reported from Chicago until the rest of the state’s were in.
Not only did Nixon not contest the result, he received a prolonged ovation in Congress when, as sitting vice president, he counted the Electoral College votes and declared the election to be an “eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system and of the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government.”
When the Times Square clock signaled a new century, this proud tradition was its first casualty. Al Gore contested the Florida vote count all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, allowing his partisans in politics and the media to declare George Bush “illegitimate.”
Unfortunately, this was not a one-off. Hilary Clinton refused to concede in 2016 and Donald Trump did likewise in 2020. Gore, Clinton and Trump should look to Nixon for a nobility that appears to have escaped them.
But this is just political elites whining, right? The problem is that this inflammatory rhetoric has affected the rest of us.
The University of Virginia Center for Politics recently released the results of a survey of voters which ought to alarm every lover of liberty, democracy and the Constitution. Consider these results:
Among Trump supporters 47 percent think Democrats are a threat to the American way of life and 38 percent consider violence to be justified to stop them.
Well, aren’t they simply a “basket of deplorables” in love with their religion and their guns, still wearing MAGA ball caps? Except that the same question when asked of Biden supporters came back with 52 percent believing Republicans are a threat and 41 percent justifying violence to stop them. Note that both Democrat numbers are higher than those of the Trump Republicans.It gets worse. When asked if America should consider a different form of government, one not democratic in essence, 31 percent of Trumpists and 24 percent of Bidenites said yes.
Does that frighten you as much as it does me?
Nearly half of our fellow citizens accept violence as a legitimate political act. We have a nation of putative Samuel Adamses just waiting to toss somebody’s tea chests into Boston Bay.
As frightening as this appeal of violence is, it is perplexing that one-quarter think there is a better form of government than our venerable republic.
If not democracy, then what? There are other forms of government, to be sure. The Declaration is an indictment of monarchy but to my knowledge hardly any monarchies exist today outside the Middle East.
If kings are not an alternative, then what is? We have the historical lessons of 1917 Russia and 1933 Germany to suggest other options. The simple lesson to be learned is that authoritarianism is the only other choice to democracy. Inexplicably, a very large percentage of our fellow citizens are willing to make a descent into that hell.
Count me out.
I am in my twilight years but I have kids and grandkids. America today hardly resembles the America of my youth. I despair thinking about what it will be for them. A quick survey of the world today reinforces that despair and a study of history does nothing to mitigate this. Republican Rome and democratic Greece both fell to despotism.
Is America next?
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.