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The Public's Revocation of Legitimacy


There is a famous phrase in American politics: "the consent of the governed." It is an important phrase. It is the essence of political legitimacy.

Throughout most of history, the consent of the governed has been grudging. People put up with the political system they live in. They think it is not worth their time to fool around with politics. The overwhelming number of people throughout history have ignored politics except its special election times. This has been a wise attitude. Salvation is not by politics.

The only society in history that has enjoyed nearly full-time interest in politics by the masses was classical Athens. It was a society that rested economically on slavery. Athens committed suicide through its empire and war. Alexander "the Great" had no trouble defeating Athens and Sparta. He was not a democrat. He had studied democracy under Aristotle, and he had contempt for it.

Classical Athens believed in salvation by politics. That religion did not last a century.

What most people want most of the time is to be left alone by civil government. They do not want to be bothered by the technical details of civil government. This always benefits political insiders and the small fraction of the population that is actively involved in politics.


We forget what should be obvious: grudging consent is nevertheless consent. People grouse about the government, but they rarely get involved in politics except to vote in major elections.

People groused about the government in the Soviet Union. The government even had a humor magazine that allowed a certain amount of criticism of local bureaucrats. It was titled Krokodil. People went into slave labor camps for open criticism of the Communist Party, but the Party allowed a certain latitude of criticism of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are always a problem for politicians. They can successfully resist political change. Politicians never trust bureaucrats, any more than the general public does. This is one of those rare examples of the shared wisdom of the general public and politicians.

The Soviet Union and its satellites in 1989 constituted the largest continuous empire in history, and it was also an enormous empire in terms of the number of people under its control. Yet it fell in 1991 almost without bloodshed. There was no organized revolution. But the Communist elite at the top had lost the will to govern. The Soviet Union had suffered a major military defeat in Afghanistan, 1979-88. Then its client state, Iraq, had its military destroyed in February 1991. Iraq used Soviet weaponry. The Soviet generals saw that the high-tech weapons of the United States had made Soviet military technology obsolete. When an empire that is based on military conquest and military control can no longer win on the battlefield, it has reached the end of the line — the party line. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev gave the world the greatest Christmas present in history. He shut down the Soviet Union. The empire was no more.

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