The Consent of the Governed: Essential Principles

Essential Principles

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are
among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . ."

Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776

The most fundamental concept of democracy is the idea that government exists to secure the rights of the people and must be based on the consent of the governed. Today, the quote above from the U.S. Declaration of Independence is considered a maxim of the ideal form of government.

The Statue of Liberty, adopted as a symbol for democracy by student protestors in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The essential meaning of “consent of the governed” can perhaps best be understood by examining countries where it is lacking. China is one example. In the spring of 1989, university students organized a prolonged series of protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to demand truth, accountability, freedom, and democracy from their government. They adopted as their symbol a likeness of the Statue of Liberty, calling it the Goddess of Liberty. Millions of people joined the students in Beijing and other cities across China to demand a voice in the government that had long been used to deny people's freedom.

Since the Communist Party had seized power in 1949, those who dared to oppose its dictates had been subject to arrest or worse. The regime's principal authority to govern was the Communist principle of "democratic centralism," meaning that the decisions of the party’s central leadership — and ultimately the party leader — could not be questioned. The Communist Party's repressive policies and ideological campaigns caused millions of deaths through famine, execution, and violent political purges.

The Chinese people consented to none of this. The communist regime had been built through revolution and terror; no free election had ever been held in the People's Republic. And in 1989 the Chinese people demanded democratic change. On June 4, Deng Xiaoping, the top Communist leader, ordered the use of force to put down the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and throughout China. The world saw students stand before tanks to resist, but ultimately they were helpless to prevent the mass killings and arrests that ensued. Nearly 30 years later, the Communist Party remains the supreme authority. The students and workers who sought democracy were imprisoned, expelled from school or fired from work, forced into exile, pressured to recant their views, and even denied housing. Until now, repression of human rights has effectively prevented any re-emergence of the popular demand for democracy. This is a system based on the opposite of the consent of the governed. (For a more detailed treatment of the People’s Republic of China and the repression of its democracy movement see Country Studies in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association.)

Before Consent of the Governed 

Until the original thirteen American states asserted the principle of consent of the governed as self-evident, it had been applied only rarely in the world’s annals. For most of recorded history, people lived under different types of dictatorship, usually a form of autocracy, the rule of a single leader exercising unlimited power. Sometimes, the ruler was the best warrior, able to seize power over a group or nation (such as Genghis Khan in 13th-century Asia). Such leaders often founded hereditary monarchies, the most common form of autocracy. In most cases, the monarch was all-powerful, claiming his or her position by "divine right" (as in Europe) or by the "mandate of heaven" (as in China). The ruler was sovereign, the supreme authority of a state. The people were not citizens but subjects. They never consented to be governed, yet owed their total obedience and loyalty to the ruler. Disobedience was punished, often by pain of death. In some countries, kings or emperors agreed to limit their powers in response to the demands of landowners and noblemen who had gained substantial wealth, establishing a system of consent by the aristocracy. England's Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215 is among the most famous agreements limiting the powers of a king. It guaranteed that the king and his successors would not violate the acknowledged rights and privileges of the aristocracy, the clergy, and even more limited property owners in towns (see also Section 3: Constitutional Limits).

But even when its powers were limited, monarchy meant arbitrary and unrepresentative rule for most subjects, locking them into a life of servitude. The idea that the people were themselves sovereign was — and in many places remains — revolutionary.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

Consent of the Governed: A Positive Definition

The United States of America was the first modern state formed around the principle of consent of the governed. The term implies that the people of a country or territory have the right of self-rule and must consent, either in a direct referendum or through elected representatives, to the establishment of their own government. In most modern cases, the form of the state is a republic, or rule by voting citizens within an agreed-upon constitutional and legal framework. But some monarchies also operate with the consent of the governed, as in the United Kingdom, where over time the monarch has given up most political and administrative functions to elected officials and the government is formed through regular elections.

An original consent of the governed —  the adoption of a new constitution or the formation of a new state — is usually achieved through direct democracy such as a referendum or plebiscite. But it may also be achieved through elected representative institutions, such as an existing legislature or a special constitutional assembly. In some cases, the establishment of a new governmental system requires a "supermajority," from three-fifths to three-quarters, to convey overwhelming popular assent, but often a simple majority suffices. (For example, the U.S. Constitution required the approval of ratifying conventions in at least nine of the thirteen states for it to take effect. An amendment to the constitution must be passed by three-quarters of the states either by a majority vote of their state legislatures or in ratifying state conventions. Yet, many countries have used simple popular majorities in national referenda to establish both national and supranational structures. What remains fixed is the principle that the people are sovereign and must provide their fundamental consent to be governed.

The most common form of democracy is a parliamentary system, in which the executive branch is controlled by the political party or coalition of political parties that wins a majority of seats in parliament and is able to form a government. Unlike in the American presidential system, parliamentary systems have few constitutional checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. The system relies heavily on the oversight of the opposition party or parties in parliament. Once a form of democratic government is established, elections are the main vehicle for renewing the consent of the governed. Each election is an opportunity for the people to change their leaders and the policies of the state. When a particular government loses the people's confidence, they have the right to replace it. The legislature may pass laws to reform the system within the bounds of the constitution; if laws are insufficient, the people and their representatives can choose to modify or replace the constitution itself.

Parliamentary systems provide a more direct consent of the governed through elections, whether in "first past the post" systems like the United Kingdom (where seats in parliament are won by the person with the most votes, whether or not it is a majority) or in proportional representation or mixed systems (where most seats are determined proporionally according to the national vote by party list). Oddly, the United States of America, the world's oldest continuous democracy, does not offer direct but inderect election for its national office through an Electoral College. While the Electoral College vote usually has coincided with the national vote, in 2016, for the second time in 16 years, the national vote winner (by 2.85 million) was denied the office of president in favor of the winner of the electoral college vote, which was achieved by several narrowly won victories in key states.

Consent of the Governed: A Negative Definition

As noted above, in defining consent of the governed, it is helpful to examine cases where it is absent. Modern authoritarian regimes offer many clear examples of what it means to have a system without the people’s consent. As is reviewed in the Country Studies of Democracy Web, these regimes take various forms, including autocracy (such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan), monarchy (such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia), theocracy (such as the Islamic Republic of Iran), military rule (common to Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and ‘80s, as in Bolivia, Chile and Guatemala), and apartheid (or rule by a racial minority as occurred in South Africa). But it is typical for all forms of authoritarian government to deny freedom to the majority of people, exercise power arbitrarily, and act ruthlessly to keep themselves in power. A distinct category of dictatorship is totalitarianism, which is based on a comprehensive ideology (such as fascism or communism) and a disciplined party apparatus. These regimes are defined by their total social control over the population, typically achieved through purges of public institutions, general repression, and mass execution. Historical examples include Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong. Current examples are Cuba and North Korea.

Many modern authoritarian rulers have seized power by citing the need to safeguard the integrity of the state against supposed external threats or to maintain political stability against unruly elements in society. Communist dictatorships purported to achieve economic and social rights of the population by exterminating the former ruling elites. What both types of regimes generally achieve is oppression and poverty. Often such arbitrary rule has led to famine, war, and even genocide.

Although most authoritarian rulers seize power through violent revolution or a coup d'état, they claim to have the consent of the governed. But they rarely allow free and fair elections or referendums to test their claims — what are called elections are controlled and manipulated by fraud. When a relatively free election or referendum has actually been allowed by a dictatorship, the people generally vote against it (as in Chile in 1988, Poland in 1989, and Serbia in 2000). There are some cases, such as Nazi Germany, in which a modern dictatorship has been described as coming to power through fair elections. In fact, the Nazi Party won only a parliamentary minority in the elections of 1933. Hitler, once given office, seized total power through intimidation and thuggery in what amounted to a coup d'état (see Country Study of Germany).

The Right to Rebellion

Implied in the principle of consent of the governed is the right to withdraw that consent — to overthrow a regime that abuses the people through tyrannical, arbitrary, incompetent, or unrepresentative rule. This was the right that the British philosopher John Locke asserted was intrinsic to a system of natural law (see History), and that the thirteen American states invoked against King George III in 1776

King George III of England, 1771.

Two centuries later, the people of Eastern Europe rose up to assert the same right against an oppressive Communist system. But Locke's principle is not a general right of rebellion or revolution; he did not advocate anarchy. The cause of rebellion — or the withdrawal of consent — must rest on the violation of the natural rights of citizens, that is, on the establishment of tyranny. Thus, in 1860, President Abraham Lincoln asserted the opposite principle, that a minority of states could not be allowed to rebel to preserve slavery (the tyranny of a minority) and thus destroy a constitutional system established on a representative, democratic system of governance. Such a republic had to be preserved against an anti-constitutional and anti-democratic rebellion.

Today, violent rebellion has come to be seen as a last resort. In most modern cases of the overthrow of dictatorship, from anticolonial movements to anti-Communist movements, peaceful protest and civic resistance has been a more successful form of "rebellion" than the violent overthrow of a government, especially for the purpose of establishing a democracy based on consent of the governed.

Minorities Withdrawing Consent

What happens when a subjugated minority asserts the right to withdraw its consent to be governed by the will of the majority? This has occurred in a number of places where ethnic or religious minorities desire independence from dominant and usually oppressive ethnic or religious majorities. In general, the world has recognized the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples to form their own self-governing regions or independent states, as was the case recently in Kosovo and East Timor. As well, in Sweden, Italy and other countries, minorities have gained increased autonomy without demanding independence. But for some minorities seeking independence or autonomy, the world has been less supportive of the assertion of the right of self-determination and has failed to prevent the suppression of rebellions, even when the government has resorted to mass killings or genocide. This has been the case in Chechnya and Darfur in the Sudan. Despite several international treaties and documents defining nationality and minority rights, the world’s nations have shown little consistency in this area (see also Majority Rule, Minority Rights and Human Rights).