That one compact statement raises a question I thought we had settled quite some time ago: Are we a people who has a government, or a government that has a people? Pretty much the whole of Western political history is the story of becoming the former and fleeing the latter. And our pursuit of freedom, and flight from government’s proprietary embrace, has traditionally been something on which we have been of one mind.
But is that as true now as it has been in the past? The gentleman’s statement, as well as others made at the national conventions, suggests we ought to explicitly revisit what it is that holds us all together, what it is that has traditionally made us “one people.” Here are a few.
We don’t belong to the government. Government belongs to us. That is the gist of Abraham Lincoln’s formulation that ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is not a merely semantic quibble. We are fond of saying we are a sovereign people in this country. And that is quite true, which is why our Constitution’s preamble explains that it is “we the people” who established a more perfect union. The government did not arise of its own accord, nor did it create its own authority. It does not exist except by our consent, and cannot operate but through the authority we choose to delegate. We could be said to belong to a government only if it was totalitarian and tyrannical – at which point even John Locke would throw a flag and declare a revolution.