There is a myth that underlies much of American society, and this myth is the greatest support to those who wield authority in our country. It is the myth that “We The People of these United States” somehow hold inherent authority… just by virtue of being “the People”. I have come to believe that this myth is one of the primary roots of oppression in our society. The deconstruction of this myth might also represent the fulcrum point whereby a great shift in our society could occur.
Like any good myth, it rests upon a series of assumptions that are so culturally bound, it is difficult for those deeply embedded in the culture to see. Yet, over the last few decades, we have seen those assumptions decay before us. Let me begin first with a few of the assumptions behind this myth.
The first cultural assumption behind this myth is just exactly who “the People” are. Most people conceive of “the People” as those who share the same ideology and socio-political class as they do… or those who are less privileged or educated than themselves whom they can safely claim paternalistic ownership over. We are often quite shocked to discover that large portions of “the People” do not agree with us, even those that we feel we “are fighting for”. We have begun to realize that there is no cohesive or even coherent body of human beings who can be called “the People”, and for activists, politicians, terrorists, and even whole democracies who claim their derivative authority as arising from “the People”, the growing realization that there is no such thing as “the People” places their whole claim to authority in jeopardy. Hence shifts in the definition of “the People”… you know, the Real Americans, like you and me. So that we can more easily identify who the real “We the People” are.
The second cultural assumption is that there is any such thing as inherent authority. It is imbuing “the People” with a mystical quality of authority, which then grants authority by derivation to anyone who can successfully claim that they have “the support of the People”. Claims to inherent authority are always mystical. Monarchs of Europe for over a millennium claimed a mystical source for their authority (the Divine Right of Kings). The Roman Empire claimed multiple mystical sources for its authority (Roman origin story, Greco-Roman Pantheon, Romanized Christianity) depending on the era of its rule. Capitalism deifies money, making having it in significant quantities its own source of divine and mystical authority. “The People” have been imbued with that same kind of mystical authority, which can be referenced and wielded to shore up about any claim to derivative authority. Because you can’t pin down exactly who “the People” are or what they support, this support can be claimed by anyone for anything. You don’t even need the Pope to confirm it.
The third cultural assumption is that “the People” however you define them, can somehow, when acting together, provide not only authority but good guidance and oversight of those to whom they “give” derivative authority. Just as the Divine Right of Kings was based in the belief that God was providing guidance and oversight to those who ruled, so too the belief in the inherent authority of “the People” rests on the assumption that “the People” have the ability to exercise guidance and oversight over those who hold derivative authority. Leaving aside that, at best, this would mean the official government, which assumes that this is where most derivative authority in our country now rests, what it means is that 50 percent plus 1 of “the People” who show up in some way in the political process can express what they are feeling at a particular moment. And this is at best. When democracy is functioning as it is supposed to. Frankly, the opinions of God as interpreted by the Pope formed a more stable basis on which to rest inherent authority.
It is true that, a group of people who are actively engaged and committed, on a near equal footing to one another, can serve as an appropriate source of authority for an institution. They can provide the necessary guidance and oversight to said institution to live the democratic ideal. This is one of the reasons why I love Church in the Congregational Tradition, and have made the study of Congregational Church one of the focuses of my life. But what makes this possible is the small size of almost any religious community, and the level of personal investment and commitment that religious community asks of us. Some non-profits can function in a similar way. Perhaps even some local governments, in some small and close knit cities.
Most governments of any size cannot function deriving their authority from the People who are governed. And they do not. They never have. Even at the founding of our country, who “the People” were was so circumscribed it was a small enough group that most people were only a step or two away from those who claimed derivative authority. And so, authority is actually derived from those who are closest to those who hold the derivative authority. Which is why I have claimed in the past that the only form of human government beside tyranny is oligarchy… or the rule by the few.
I am going to say something now that I know will be controversial. I believe that both the Divine Right of Kings theory and the Consent of the Governed theory exists to cover-up a truth that we do not like to admit, even to ourselves. Beyond the level of the small community, where it is possible to have authentic relationships no more than one or two steps from authority… beyond the level of small community like that of a church, a community group, or the government of some small towns… beyond this level where intentional and personal relationship is possible, all Authority in human society is based on force and coercion. The source of the authority of a Government is not the mythical consent of the People, but the ability of that government to exercise coercive force over their citizens and the citizens of other nations. The source of the authority of a heirarchial employer (in a capitalist system) is the ability of that employer to exercise coercive force through withholding a vital necessity for life, namely money.
This system of deriving authority from force and coercion permeates all of our society. It is the accepted norm for many of the relationships in our society. It is such a part of our culture it is often hard to see. Prisons serve as a public reminder and expression of the coercive force of governmental authority. Money serves as a public reminder and expression of the coercive force of both government and non-government authority. Most of our entertainment serves as a public reminder and expression of the coercive force of both government and non-government authority. We see it in human relationships, in many church conflicts, in our legal system, in advertising… and even in our expression of sports. Most of American Society cries out that the source of Authority is coercive force.
And yet, that is hard for us to accept… and so we pretend to those beautiful words written into the Declaration of Independence as the comforting myth that we want to believe. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”. It comforts us because it lets us pretend we, as the People, have some kind of inherent authority.