Representing Whom?


The federal government of the United States is originally a republican government, but is safe to say it has evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into a representative democracy in many ways. It should be obvious the constitutional limits on power, and the separation of such, have not worked. The state is enormous and it has all the "qualities" of being democratic.

So let’s just stick to the fact that the federal government of the United States is as much democratic as the German or French governments. The people in Washington DC are, or so they claim, the representatives of the people and they have only the powers delegated to them by the citizenry. It is the social contract kind of thing, where the government is supposed to protect the people from each other as well as from foreign threats. That contract is the reason the people has originally instituted a government and that’s where the legitimacy of the state, as well as its powers, comes from.

This is also what underlies the basic human right to withdraw that very support if the government does not behave properly: the right to revolt against tyranny. I’m not saying the United States government is tyrannical, that’s not the point of this text. I simply wish to analyze the reasons for assuming legitimacy for the contemporary state.

If these theories were true, and I would say they essentially are, then government is for the people, by the people, and of the people, as Lincoln expressed it, or it is not. If the former, then there is, theoretically, no problem with it; if the latter, then its subjects have not granted it any legitimacy and so it is a violation of our basic right to selves and must go.

So let’s examine this legitimacy and where it comes from. It is impossible to, as the old philosophers did, simply assume this legitimacy is passed on from generation to generation. Also, whatever philosophical starting point you may think of, real legitimacy is either awarded now, at this very moment, or it is not. So either government is legitimate or it is not, it’s as simple as that.

But it is not serious to simply expect legitimacy to "be" there. It has to be expressed, and I’m sure you agree that support for something cannot be implicit or unnoticeable. So anyone supporting government thus has to actively grant it legitimacy. Is there a better way to do this than to take part in that great advance auction sale of stolen goods called elections? Probably not, since these elections make the very core of democratic government; it is so central to the idea of democratic government that politicians themselves claim legitimacy based on the ballots cast.

This means that people who really wish to grant legitimacy to government should take time to vote, while those who do not should not. It also means that government is legitimate only to the extent its subject population actively, through voting, supports it. So let’s look at the numbers.

Of the United States population of approximately 300 million, only 122 million voted in the presidential elections in 2004. President Bush was supported by 50.7% of voters, or 62,040,610 people.

But what does this mean? It means a terrifyingly large part of the population actually takes time to support government. But it also means that only about 40% of the population thinks it proper to grant government legitimacy — 60% didn’t care to vote. Also, it means less than 21% of the population voted for the president. That doesn’t make sense, now does it? 21% of the population, one in every five people, voted for the guy in the White House pretending to be a representative of that 21% and the other 79%.

It also means less than half of the population wanted to spend their precious time actively supporting government. So exactly how is the United States government legitimate?

In a recent poll made for CNN, the numbers above are confirmed: 54% said government was doing too much and that many of the decisions made should be made by businesses and individuals. Only 37% supported government growth.

Compare these 37% with the 40% of the population voting in 2004 to grant the growing government legitimacy. The numbers are almost the same. And 54% say government is doing too much, compared to 60% not voting. The numbers are approximately the same, so it would seem they are just about right. More than half of the United States population in fact does not support the government as it is, and these people do not want it to grow even more.

So the people in Washington DC may be the power elite in a representative democracy, dependent on "the people" granting them legitimacy. But the question we should ask is: who do they represent? It certainly isn’t the people.