Democracy and the Consent of the Governed: “All Black and Blue Lives Matter”

By Roger Niesen

I have given some thought to the “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” movements, and how our democracy relates to them. These thoughts do not come much from specific personal experience or research, but from general knowledge, observation, and my own sort of analysis. In order to speak about large scale dynamics, I make sweeping generalizations that may make no sense on a smaller scale. I hope I have not I mischaracterized things I have little personal contact with. Sometimes the views of an external observer may be useful.

Our Declaration of Independence spelled out the concept of “consent of the governed”, and that concept was central to the government system designed in the Constitution. Prior to that, most governments had been formed by whatever means (monarchies, theocracies, dictatorships, empires, etc.) and the laws were decided on by those in power and imposed on the subjects. Laws were typically complied with out of fear; authority and punishment tended to be quite severe.

The brilliance of a democracy is in securing this “consent of the governed”. Here’s the covenant, the deal: The population of the country gets to have a say, at least a vote, in establishing and maintaining their government, in choosing the leaders and making laws. In return, they tend (if not always agree) to accept what the results are. Additionally, in our nation, the Constitution sets out basic rights for everyone, to insure that the minority is protected from possible tyranny by the majority. This is how our government engages the public in a “buy-in”. Whether things go how any one voter or group want or not, they still feel they had their part in it and generally feel that the laws that govern them are “theirs”. The result is that people are far more likely to comply with these laws, even if they do not like them. As an example, for all that people dislike the federal income tax and complain, and for all those who try to tweak their returns on the edge of the laws or skirt them, we Americans overwhelmingly comply with them with self reporting. Rarely do police have to knock on our doors to collect these taxes. We also usually do stop at stop signs, whether anyone is coming or any police are watching. We generally follow them because they are “our” laws. Law enforcement and “corrections” in such a system can be minimized.

Add to this legal buy-in an economic one, where people are free to start businesses, follow employment of their choice, save a little money, buy a house and such. People are empowered to prosper, and so have a stake in the economic well-being of the society, as well. They can have a sense of economic agency, as well as political, and this, too, is important to their acceptance of the government.

Now consider for a moment what you may know about the history of Black people in America. Consider how closely poverty, crime, drugs, and race are correlated in “inner city” areas. This is not some coincidence that just happens to occur to people who are otherwise politically enfranchised and economically empowered. This is a direct result of the political and economic history that has been visited upon these folks since the beginning of the country. Our present police system has roots in replacing slavery with a legal/penal system for using Black people for prison labor. In my lifetime laws have had to be passed to outlaw discriminatory practices relating to voting rights, housing rights, equal financial opportunity and such. As recently as 2015 banks have been found to illegally deny equality in lending. For the people in these communities this oppression and disenfranchisement have been their reality forever. For their whole lives, their parents’ whole lives, their grandparents’ whole lives.

Back now to “consent of the governed”. Is it any wonder that in these areas there may exist a culture that does not hold and respect the laws of the land as “theirs”? That may consider these laws imposed from elsewhere by others? That may view police as much as an occupying force as an organization to “protect and serve”? These are areas which have largely been left out of the enfranchisement and empowerment that have been the cornerstone of our democracy and the typical citizen’s experience in much of the rest of the country.

Not all the rest of the country. This same dynamic may apply to Native American reservations, Latino communities, mining communities in Appalachia, and other areas where the dominant culture has marginalized various groups of people. The Constitution and laws of the land require that all people be treated equally under the law, with due process to protect their basic rights. Our socio-economic system has not been nearly as even-handed as our ideals. Here society has systemically failed to honor that covenant that elicits the “consent of the governed”. Minorities have been oppressed on a systemic basis, and rights have been denied. These systems derive from a long history, established and managed by people who, by today’s standards, have been racist. It may not have been a clearly deliberate process, but it has evolved that way just the same.

So the conflict between people in these areas and the police is an artifact of history, and quite real. This history plays out in the daily lives of both Black and Blue and will have to be understood and addressed if we are to move on into the promise of our intentions, as expressed in our founding documents. The enfranchisement and empowerment provided for in our laws has to be taken seriously in the administration of those laws by our leaders and by ourselves to make them real and enduring.

Given that, I find it disheartening that our President Trump has spent so much effort to try to disenfranchise voters in this last election. He and his party have filed lawsuits, have tried to influence legislators and election officials, have tried to invalidate ballots, have disparaged the diligence of poll workers all over the country to try to bend the election in his favor. He is trying to alter the census to exclude large numbers of people from the count. He has threatened to exclude certain (urban) areas from Covid-19 assistance. There are many other examples of how he has tried to carry on this history of disenfranchisement and exclusion. There are a lot of Trump supporters who have been encouraging these efforts. Why?

Here is my conjecture, based on reading news reports, viewing expressions on social media. It would be too easy, too simplistic to assume that these supporters are racist in intent. To some extent that will be true, as I believe in this country we are all inherently somewhat racist (as I have expressed in other writing). But this trend is too broad, and I believe the individuals are, in general, not that racist. Then what is it? 

The white working middle class has been the dominant culture in America: most numerous, most empowered, and most influential. For a number of reasons, that has been changing. Manufacturing jobs have gone to other countries while we make our living more from tech and financials. Corporate Ag has been squeezing out family farmers. Minorities who have gained on their constitutional freedoms have become more influential. Immigration has led to the increase in minority populations. More appreciation of cultural and religious diversity has led to more varied cultural expression, more broadly evident. So white working class American culture has been becoming a minority, as well as less economically powerful. These folks are feeling less enfranchised, less empowered. That has resulted in a lot of fear.

Why would folks be so afraid of this? We must not underestimate the depth and strength of this fear. Most would claim no such fear overtly, but I believe this is a powerful, fundamental, and visceral fear, mostly below the level of consciousness. These changes mean that the world a person grew up in and understands is shifting dramatically, leaving them a stranger in their “own” land. They see and feel that the cultural water they have been swimming in all their lives, what they perceive as “normal”, is draining fast. We see expressions of this on social media, about resenting pressing 1 for English, or about wishing people “Happy Holidays”, etc. This shift is the root of the “culture wars”. I think it is not exactly racism, but a fear of becoming a minority, and no longer of the dominant culture. What is so scary about that?
Look at the way minorities have been treated in this nation, as I addressed above. Minority rights have not been protected. The majority has engaged in all shades of tyranny. Life as minorities has often been very hard. It has to be unsettling to become a minority and think of that history, or worse, to consider how one may have contributed to such treatment. Add to this the awareness of how those minorities, becoming collectively a majority, must feel about their past. Here is where alarm about rioting becomes powerful. Here is where people fear for their own rights, with expressions I have seen such as gun ownership rights being the most important in order to protect other rights. I suggest that people becoming a minority may fear being treated like minorities have been treated through our history. That could be powerful.

That’s part of it. Add to this a possible belief that cultures are delicately balanced dynamics, fragile in nature. One might believe that societies can go down a “slippery slope” to “hell in a hand basket” very quickly. There are many people who have seen this happen first hand: people who have been to war, or to distressed countries, or have read some history, and have some vivid idea of what happens when cultures and governments collapse. They might fear that loss of balance does not take much. One can believe that the basic tenets of your own religion or nationalism are all that forms a cultural foundation, and unless they are widely enough believed, that foundation crumbles.

These are the fears that Donald Trump has spoken to starting with his “birtherism” and subsequently in his campaign targeting refugees, and throughout his administration. There was never a majority who shared these fears, but this minority was enough to leverage the electoral college once, and leverage power in the Senate for four years. These are both constitutional constructs designed to check the power of the majority, to give disproportional power to the minority. This fear is what explains the enduring minority popularity of this anomalous administration. 

As time goes on, as the historic dominance of this minority fades toward equality with other minorities, we must be aware of these dynamics. As we gradually fulfill the promise of equal rights to the historic minorities, we cannot forget the past transgressions. We must guard against disregarding the rights of a newer minority in the same way as we have mistreated others. Doing so would be a step backwards. Hopefully we have learned by now that maintaining the intended protections of the Constitution, maintaining the involvement and agency of all people in the process, are how we support the robust dynamics of a viable democracy. This is how we nurture and keep the “consent of the governed”.