Consent : James Miller

Still, in some circumstances, as events in America and France would show, the radical implications of the Whig consent theory might nevertheless swing back into play. Sometimes – in the wake of a civil war or international conflict – the institutions and mores of a society were profoundly weakened; and in such circumstances, it was often difficult for ordinary citizens to feel obliged by the laws they had customarily upheld from time immemorial.

In such situations, a renewed demand for explicit consent could provoke radical upheaval; even if the rulers who instituted such reforms were equally eager to forge new habits of deference and create a new culture of default political obedience.

How could an observer tell if a given people had in fact consented to the laws they routinely obeyed? For theorists like Hobbes, the mere fact of continued obedience to the laws sufficed. For others interested in the problem, such customary acquiescence seemed self-evidently insufficient, especially if consent was understood to require an explicit act of informed volition. For such theorists – Jean-Jacques Rousseau is perhaps the most famous – consent had to be direct and fully voluntary, or else it wasn’t really consent at all. In his book On the Social Contract, Rousseau accordingly attacked the British form of so-called “representative” government as a fraud and a sham. In the same book, Rousseau imagined annual meetings of the citizenry in which the people in assembly would put to the vote two simple questions: “Does it please the sovereign to preserve the present form of government?” and “Does it please the people to leave the administration in the hands of those who are currently responsible for it?”10

Rousseau’s solution to the problem of obtaining ongoing consent might have been feasible in his native city-state of Geneva, which in fact held annual town meetings. But it was hard to see how to implement such assemblies in the context of larger nation-states.

Such were the circumstances that forced the most acute thinkers of the late eighteenth-century constitutional revolutions, James Madison and Condorcet, to advocate what was, in effect, an unstable but generally functional compromise between the views advanced by Locke and Rousseau. In both the United States and France, where annual assemblies of the people were obviously impractical, the new proxy for political consent became the periodic casting of ballots. Citizens would regularly renew their political obligations by electing representative officials, whom they authorized in this way to legislate and oversee the administration of the laws on their behalf.


In the twentieth century, the psychology of a citizenry became an object of social-scientific inquiry, as new techniques of market research and opinion polling made possible more targeted and effective forms of discerning, and molding, public opinion – one thinks, for example, of the pioneering market research and political propaganda efforts of Edward Bernays.

Professional pollsters take understandable pride (to quote a recent statement from the American Association for Public Opinion Research) that

to the extent that polls also are accurate in characterizing the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations of the electorate, we believe that pollsters, and the news media that use their poll findings, provide a great service to democracy by placing the opinions and preferences of the public in the forefront of the electoral process.

But the widespread use of polls to monitor public opinion continues to raise questions. One example: although publicizing poll data does focus attention on public opinion, it also turns the data presented into part of a feedback loop that may in turn influence opinion; this is one reason why the publication of polls is outlawed in some European states in the days before an election occurs. The more refined such data, the greater its potential for manipulating consensual decision-making. As one expert recently quipped after Barack Obama’s data-driven re-election as President of the United States, “the fact that the winning campaign’s ‘chief data scientist’ was previously employed ‘to maximize the efficiency of supermarket promotions’ does not thrill me.”11

10. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Book III, Chapter XVII.

11. Zeynep Tufecki, “Beware the Smart Campaign,” New York Times (November 17, 2012), A23.

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