Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed

Conservatives prefer to see the American Revolution and Founding as part of a Lockean lineage. This would be true for some of the Founders, but not true for all. One Founder conservatives take as an example of a Lockean founder is Thomas Jefferson.

Many scholars have assumed a connection of Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and Locke’s “life, liberty and estate”:

“Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property”, which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty, and estate”. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote that the magistrate’s power was limited to preserving a person’s “civil interest”, which he described as “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things”. He declared in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.”

Even if that were the case:

“According to those scholars who saw the root of Jefferson’s thought in Locke’s doctrine, Jefferson replaced “estate” with “the pursuit of happiness”, although this does not mean that Jefferson meant the “pursuit of happiness” to refer primarily or exclusively to property. Under such an assumption, the Declaration of Independence would declare that government existed primarily for the reasons Locke gave, and some have extended that line of thinking to support a conception of limited government.”

Besides, Jefferson wasn’t alone in his views:

“Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of “property” as a goal of government. It is noted that Franklin found property to be a “creature of society” and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society.”

Furthermore, other scholars have offered and alternative interpretation:

“Garry Wills has argued that Jefferson did not take the phrase from Locke and that it was indeed meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged. Wills suggests Adam Ferguson as a good guide to what Jefferson had in mind:

“If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.”
—Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

“The 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness”. Locke never associated natural rights with happiness, but his philosophical opponent Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz made such an association in the introduction to his Codex Iuris Gentium. William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated describes the “truest definition” of “natural religion” as being “The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth”. An English translation of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural and Politic Law prepared in 1763 extolled the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness” in the opening chapter discussing natural rights. Historian Jack Rakove posits Burlamaqui as the inspiration for Jefferson’s phrase.”

A more nuanced view is offered by Howard Schwartz in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment (Kindle Locations 485-506):

“I offer a different approach to the question of the Declaration’s position on rights, arguing that a key aspect of the Declaration’s meaning and function has been missed. Instead of asking whether the Declaration is Lockean or what literary documents are the source of its ideas, I will suggest that the Declaration’s position on natural rights and independence is much more equivocal than has been typically realized. The question about the source of Jefferson’s ideas is less relevant and interesting than the question of what position on rights was getting articulated. The answer to that question is more ambiguous than typically thought. And the equivocation is one part of the Declaration’s meaning and function. Indeed, one central purpose of the Declaration was to unite the colonies behind the decision to declare independence. As such, the Declaration had to evade and sidestep any disagreements about rights that might still have lingered. In this sense, the Declaration had to speak as if “debate had ended,” to use the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense, when in fact on the matter of American rights, the debate had not completely ended and there remained some significant disagreements about the foundations of and nature of natural and American rights. Jefferson himself did not agree with the view endorsed by the First Continental Congress in 1774, though that constituted the official view endorsed by the Congress on behalf of the colonies. When Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration, he had to find words to unite those who otherwise had diverging views. On this interpretation of the situation, Jefferson’s brilliance was not only in his powerful rhetorical performance, but in finding an articulation of rights that would seemingly be amenable to as many parties as possible, including himself. In this sense, “all its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day,” to use Jefferson’s own words, is a more profound and ironic interpretation than anyone has fully appreciated.21 If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence captures the American Mind, then it does so in all the complexity and disagreement that characterized the “American Mind” at the time. There was arguably no single American Mind on the question of rights.22 And the Declaration was harmonizing a tradition that did in fact have divergent views and loose ends. This statement on rights would have to speak not just to those who endorsed the position of the First Congress, but also those who did not, including its author. This interpretation of the Declaration thus takes a position that both affirms and criticizes all of the various the positions in the debate. The Declaration does endorse natural rights language and a Lockean-like view but at the same time it exhibits some of ambivalence about natural rights and the way natural rights are linked up to American rights. It thus affirms that Locke’s ideas were in the air but also argues that these ideas were contested and doubted. The American foundation of rights was not a settled matter.”

As for Jefferson’s personal view, a fundamental right related to happiness had to do with consent. A government earned consent by ensuring the happiness of citizens. When that happiness abated, so did the requirement of consent. This puts “pursuit of Happiness” in a whole other context.

Democracy, Legitimacy, & Consent of the Governed

Here I continue my personal exploration of American conservatism. The topic of this post, the 2012 election, is what all of my recent posts have been building up to. The impetus to my thinking was experiencing the campaign season in stereo with the news media in one ear and my parents in the other. Frustration is the result.

As others have already explained: If America could survive 8 years of Bush without becoming a corporatist plutocracy and outright fascist police state, then America can survive 8 years of Obama without becoming communist. Besides, considering the GOP used to be far to the left of Obama: If as Bircher-inspired Tea Partiers claim Obama is a secret commie and as the Birchers claimed Eisenhower was a secret commie, why did the US government including both parties spend so many decades fighting the commies until the greatest communist nation finally collapsed?

Conservatives think they’ve somehow lost America. I don’t know that they ever had it, but certainly the it they thought they had was never what they thought it was. There is a disconnect that is perplexing. And when perplexed by some issue of conservatism, I consider how such things play out in the thinking and lives of my parents. I do indeed observe this disconnect in them and, although I’m sure it existed in the past, I don’t remember it always being so blatant. What happened?

My family moved to South Carolina and my parents ended up spending a couple of decades there. While there, many things changed, besides just their being surrounded by a more right-wing version of conservatives than is typically found in the Midwest where our family lived prior to that.

The right-wing backlash was going mainstream and becoming empowered during the 1990’s. Like most conservatives, my parents were swept up in the changing atmosphere. But one thing kept my parents going too far right while I was still living down there and in the years immediately following my departure.

For my entire childhood and well into my adulthood, my parents consistently attended very liberal churches, mostly the Unity Church. They, however, began to feel a growing chasm between their own beliefs and the worldview of Unity Church, a growing chasm that wasn’t caused by any changes within the Unity Church. The inner right-winger was awakening within my parents. So, they left the Unity Church and began looking for more conservative churches, finally settling on one that they remained with for their last decade in South Carolina.

This was also the time when my brothers and I were back in the Midwest. And this was the time when Fox News was launched (1996). This left my parents to have no source of liberalism to balance out an increasing influence of right-wing rhetoric. No liberal children, no liberal church, no liberal Midwestern community, no liberal local media.

On top of that, my parents were increasingly associating with a more upper class set of friends, having left behind their poor years when my dad had gone back to school. Furthermore, along with my dad’s business management friends, their new church didn’t seem to have the socioeconomic diversity found in the Unity Church. To clarify why this matters, I should explain that in the Deep South upper class tends to mean very conservative.

This gets at a point that few Americans and fewer conservatives understand. The South isn’t as conservative or as Republican as it seems. The South was a part of the Populist alliance that pushed for many liberal reforms. More importantly, most of the eligible voters in the South lean Democratic. Republicans have maintained power in the South by disenfranchising minorities and the poor, one method being voting laws such as how some Southern states disallow early voting, restrict who can use an absentee ballot, and close polling stations early. Such voter disenfranchisement in certain states causes the majority of eligible voters to not even vote.

There is a stronger class divide in the Deep South which, of course, goes hand in hand with a race divide. Private schools and gated communities (also, majority white conservative suburbs) separate the haves from the have nots. Plus, even churches are divided along the same class and race lines. If like my parents one is an upper class white conservative in the Deep South, it is easy to become disconnected from not only most people in the country but also most people in one’s own community. A similar dynamic plays out in the majority white conservative regions in the rural South.

This is how so many conservatives became so deluded about this being their country. They’ve been surrounded by people who are like them such that they didn’t realize how isolated they had become. The last two presidential elections were a slap to the face for conservatives. They could no longer be oblivious to the larger social changes that were happening all around them. It wasn’t just a change in minorities. The youth, increasingly multicultural and multiracial, were changing as well. Even in some Southern states (including South Carolina), Obama won the youth white vote which is the future adult white vote.

As a leftist, I don’t have the privilege to suffer the type of delusions conservatives indulge in. Even though I know from history that US politics has always been liberal in a general sense (as in having no tradition of traditional conservatism), I also know that the US never has been dominated by left-wingers. I’ve never even lived in a state that would be the radically left-wing equivalent of Deep South states. I don’t romanticize the past and so I don’t have the sense of doom as is more common among those on the right.

My parents think that democracy has become corrupt simply because minorities are growing in numbers, thus diluting the superior white culture that made American great… or something like that. Conservatives used to blame it on the dilution of Christian values; they can’t do that anymore since minorities are more religious than whites. Maybe I’m not being fair in pointing their racialist-tinged worldview, but that is how it looks to an outside observer.

Once again, as a leftist, I know there never has been a golden age of democracy in the US. I’ve been saying for more than a decade that US democracy is problematic at best, often saying this to my parents. But my dad always dismissed my criticisms and argued it was perfectly fine. This was easy for him to say when Republicans had power with gaining Congress in the 1990s and regaining the presidency in the 2000s, less easy now. Only when minorities, women and the youth voted Obama into the presidency twice did my dad all of a sudden think democracy was corrupt.

I find this response disingenuous, certainly considering how morally righteous my parents have expressed themselves.

In 2000, the Republican government in Florida targeted minorities with a voter purge and then when a recount was attempted the Republican majority Supreme Court stopped it. The entire democratic system was thrown to the side by Republicans as if it meant nothing. This is the type of anti-democratic event we’re used to hearing about from third world countries with recent histories of political oppression. And if this had happened in a third world country, there would have been intervention by international organizations.

But this didn’t bother my parents at all. My dad still to this day denies that a full Florida recount was never attempted and that the Supreme Court stopped even the partial recount, even though these are rationally indisputable facts. In typical conservative fashion, he simply denies inconvenient information.

If the entirety of democracy being unconstitutionally undermined doesn’t bother my parents, then what finally convinced them that democracy had failed? It wasn’t just that demographics with traditionally low voting rates now voted in high numbers. They certainly don’t blame themselves for the GOP trying to suppress the vote, thus unintentionally causing greater voter engagement and turnout. No, they blame the Democratic Party.

I should explain my parents’ experience. Since they are retired, they decided to work as poll workers for this past presidential election. That was probably a mistake, considering that they are now living in this city that is dominated by uber-liberal Democrats. That just made Obama’s victory feel even more traumatic.

Two specific things about that poll work experience really hit a nerve.

First, my mom was bothered by how special needs people were not only allowed to vote but brought in by their helpers to vote. They were in a precinct that apparently included the place that houses special needs people with various issues: autism, low IQ, etc. It’s not that ton of these people came in, but the fact that they would be brought in at all made my mom outraged, maybe more upset than I’ve ever seen her in my entire life. I got the feeling that my mom thought this was a covert evil plan to get all the mentally challenged people to help steal the election for Obama.

Second, my dad was bothered by the official representatives of the Democratic Party. There were the typical poll watchers of both parties who are volunteers, but the Obama campaign also had two sharply dressed and knowledgeable professionals who stood there the entire time. They kept track of the names of who had voted and continually checked those names against the list of potential Democratic voters in that precinct. They would then call volunteers who would try to persuade these people to vote. My dad thought this was the “Chicago Machine” in action.

I sort of understand my parents’ general criticisms, but when they get to specifics they sound like conspiracy theorists. They feel that we need election reform. I agree as probably do most Americans, left and right. But too many eligible voters voting isn’t the problem that is undermining democracy and that needs reforming.

There is a big difference between voter reform and voter suppression, a difference that my parents don’t understand. They believe that if people can’t get themselves to the polling station without any help or encouragement, without any absentee ballots or early voting, then they shouldn’t vote (or be allowed to vote?). As the rhetoric goes, voting is a privilege, not a right… well, the constitution happens to disagree with conservatives on this issue.

Besides, conservatives are ignoring the history of voter suppression with roots in racism and classism which in turn has deeper roots in slavery and plutocracy. Ignoring this past isn’t just being historically clueless. It verges on being morally depraved. This is a very dark history, and a history that specifically has privileged people like my parents… how convenient.

So many conservatives don’t seem to understand democracy (or are they playing dumb?). Consent of the governed necessitates that the public (or at least a very large majority) is convinced of the legitimacy of the government. When people are disenfranchised from the political system, it brings into doubt this legitimacy. The act of voting, based on the right and ability to vote, is the most basic expression of the consent of the governed. When the majority doesn’t even vote, epecially because of voter suppression, the cornerstone of democracy is shown to be crumbling. The fight for voter rights and against voter suppression was a fight for democracy, and this fight was hard won.

After the country was founded, only a few percentage of Americans were both eligible to vote and eligible for election to public office. It took almost two centuries for nearly all Americans to get the right to vote. In fact, my parents were already adults when the Voting Rights Act was passed. The history of previous voter suppression is not just within living memory but specifically within the living memory of my parents’ generation. Even so, growing up, my parents were probably oblivious of it.

When I told my mom that she experienced privileges that others didn’t have, she denied this by literally screaming over and over, “I worked hard!” So fucking what!?! Most people work hard, including the poor and minorities, including liberals and civil rights activists, including all the Americans throughout history who’ve experienced voter suppression and other forms of political oppression.

I take democracy very seriously. It’s not that my parents simply dismiss democracy out of hand. Part of it is that, sadly like many other Americans, they lack a fundamental grasp of what democracy is about. Another part is even more basic. They don’t understand democracy because they don’t prioritize it as a value. If my parents were to be honest, they’d have to admit that they put their ideology, their belief system before democracy. What this means is that religion (social conservatism) and capitalism/’meritocracy’ (fiscal conservatism) will always come first, even if that means underming or sacrificing elements of democracy in the process.

My parents are closer to some of the founding fathers. Most of the founding fathers didn’t want democracy, maybe because they didn’t even know what it was. But the problem that the founding fathers faced was that most early Americans did want democracy. Right-wing conservatives now face a similar problem as they find themselves in the minority.

There is very interesting data about American democracy in terms of voting.

This past election inspired high rates of voter turnout which is a heartening thing to see for us lovers of democracy. Actually, voter turnout has been rising for about a decade now, although it hasn’t risen back up to the 1960s level when more than 60% voted.

After the 1960s, the voter turnout continuously dropped until hitting a low point in the 1990s. It was in 1994 that Republicans gained majority in Congress which hadn’t been seen in 4 decades, even with the popular influence they had earlier with Reagan. A sad thing happened in 1996, two years into this Republican majority in Congress, interestingly the same year that Fox News was launched. It was the precise moment when the voter turnout dropped below 50%, voter turnout having barely hovered above 50% during the 1980s. The right-wing had become so loud as to dominate the media narrative. Instead of being energized, voters apparently became demoralized.

In 2000, however, voter turnout became an irrelevant issue since votes literally didn’t count or rather weren’t counted. For a democracy based on consent of the governed, the rise of the right-wing between 1994 and 2000 was a precarious time. Like Obama or not, there is some reassurance in having a president that won the popular vote twice (a rare event) during a time of increasing voter turnout.

For those on the right, this provokes paranoid conspiracy theories. For me as a leftist, this gives me a glimmer of hope.