The United States was founded on noble ideals of freedom, self-governance, and equality. As a nation, of course, we’ve never fully lived up to those ideals. But striving for them has made us a better nation.
One of the core practical challenges in living up to those ideals is the question of what self-governance looks like in practice. What does consent of the governed mean in day-to-day life? If the people are supposed to be in charge, how do we insure that government officials respect their wishes?
In a thoughtful piece, Brookings’ scholar William Galston describes four different concepts that get wrapped up in the conversation: the republican principle, democracy, constitutionalism, and classical liberalism.
The republican principle is the idea that the people are in charge. Democracy suggests that everybody participates equally in public decision making and the majority rules. And, it assumes that a wide variety of issues should be decided by the public. Constitutionalism establishes basic structures of government and places limits on them through a system of checks and balances. Classical liberalism rests upon the concept of “unalienable rights” that governments do not create and individuals may not surrender. According to the US Declaration of Independence, governments are created to “to secure these rights,” not to redefine or abridge them.
There are plenty of conflicts between these competing and overlapping concepts. Democracy unchecked can deprive citizens of their individual rights. Constitutionalism sets up a formal governing framework that might not respect the principle that the people are in charge.
My own take is that the dissatisfaction with government today stems from the fact that too many political leaders pursued their own preferences rather than the views held consistently by a majority of Americans. I also agree with Galston that there is no reason to panic. Our governing elites may be out of synch with the nation at large, but their are self-correcting mechanisms at work.
Galston’s article is longer than most made for the Internet content, but it’s well worth the read.