Marianne - Wikipedia

On the fifth of May, 1789, in France there was the start of an influential political process. It was on this day that King Louis XVI ordered a gathering of the “Assemblé Nationale”, and at that time rare meeting of the three different classes (nobility, clergy and citizenry) of Parliament, to discuss an impending bankruptcy of the French state. One day later, the third class, the citizenry who – despite being the largest class – had never been influential, announced its refusal to take part in the meeting with the other classes. And, on June 20th, declared itself the only legitimate government of France. These events would culminate in what we now know as the French Revolution.

The French revolution, and the American revolution after which it was partly modelled, both underscore the importance of the subject we are discussing in this article. In both of these cases, the population in question (the French citizenry and the English colonials) had been exploited for a long time. These populations had everything stripped from them until only the bare minimum remained, and sometimes not even that. As all this happened, the opposition (the first two classes and the British crown, respectively) lead lives of wealth and decadence. This lead to protests, which culminated in riots and eventually; revolution. 

We might think that these events are unique, or rare. But we would be mistaken. In fact, we see these kinds of events taking place steadily over the centuries. Where people are exploited for long enough, without having something to say about it, eventually they will revolt. The dutch had long and lasting fights with independence fighters in modern-day Indonesia and Papua. The British had long, arduous and recurring battles with freedom fighters in India. And that’s just naming a few. In all these cases, what happened is that the governments had lost their legitimacy. In fact, the political legitimacy was beyond repair and deserved to be violently, if not otherwise possible, overthrown. 

What is political legitimacy?

It should be noted, from our introduction, that political legitimacy is the key to governing. If a government loses its political legitimacy, it risks (violent) revolution. Of course, things are hardly ever as black and white as ‘revolution or no revolution’. Anyone who has ever seen clippings, photographs or videos of political protest will have seen and/or heard the legitimacy of the government be pulled into question. And in many cases, there was no rioting, let alone revolution. This is because, as with most concepts of political philosophy, there are personal and collective variants. I may find a government to be illegitimate, but that government’s continued existence will not be endangered until a large portion of the population shares that opinion. 

In short, political legitimacy can be considered to be a government’s ‘right to rule’. This ‘right to rule’ can be derived from a number of things, such as the use or threat of violence, adherence to some form of social contract, a constitution, a moral superiority etc. All of which, we will get into in the course of this article.

A government, then, is dependent on the people it rules. Ruling with absolute power, in the sense of forcing people to do things they don’t want to do and exploiting their labour in an exhaustive sense, isn’t sustainable. A government may, and in fact has to, take unpopular measures from time to time, though. It just can’t fall from the people’s graces badly enough for a large portion of them to want to organise, and for long enough to allow them to organise. This boils back down to the the individual perception of a government’s political legitimacy. 

Perception of legitimacy, the personal and the collective 

Let’s go back to France, prior to 05-05-1789. In hindsight, trouble was already brewing. There was a rift between the higher classes and the lower classes. The nobility and the clergy were living comfortable lives, for that time. They owned a lot of land, could not just put food on the table every day, but regularly gave feasts in which wine flowed freely, and all manner of foods were present. The lower classes, of farmers and merchants, were struggling. Often working long hours in poor conditions and still struggling to make rent and tax payments. Yet, because most farmers lived on the land of noblemen, they saw these feasts. And sitting in church every Sunday, they saw the new collection of goblets and the growing amounts of gold present in those churches. 

Now, if you were a noblemen or a cleric in those times, life would be good. You would be pretty satisfied with the government. After all, not only was your life satisfactory, you were actually an important part of the government. You may have differed with some eventual rulings made by the government, but you would rarely if ever feel victimised by them, let alone exploited. The government, to you, would have political legitimacy. 

Had you been a farmer in those days, you would likely strongly differ. You would see your taxes go up every year, as well as your rent (to be paid from the yield of your fields), but your field either stay the same or shrink, as yields were roughly the same. Adding to that the fact that the nobleman on whose field you worked and whose compounds you lived, could at any time conscript you or your son(s) to join their army, while you and your family had to get by on what little remained. Odds are that even the most subservient among us, would be pretty miffed at that point. The government, in this case, only retains some legitimacy because of tradition “This is just what it’s like”, and the fact that a revolution seems impossible due to the firepower of the government. 

We see here, that the legitimacy of a government is subject to the perception of that government from a specific perspective. People from different walks of life, be it socio-economical, religious or based on political colour, may have different opinions on the legitimacy of a government. This is not inherently threatening to a government, though. As long as the dissatisfied people are diverse enough, not unified and/or a minority either collectively or in themselves and lack the firepower to enact revolution, a government is safe from revolution. And its legitimacy, though controversial, may still be intact. 

As we know, that changed on 05-06-1789, when the third class declared itself the only legitimate government of France. All of a sudden, two new factors had entered the lives of the French workers; a clear catalyst in the form of an apparent bankruptcy despite their centuries of toil and payment, and a unification. They were no longer a minority. This is where the odds shifted in their favour, and the lack of the government’s legitimacy was first palpable. As we know, a long and violent revolution ensued. 

Is legitimacy solely based on perception? 

We could, and should, ask ourselves whether or not the political legitimacy of a government really as simple as the overall perceptions people have of their government, or whether it has something to do with other, more actual factors. It would be, probably, if the economists’ model of the ‘rational, informed consumer’ held any water. We would just have to look at the favorability ratings of a government and see if they were net positive or negative. Sadly, like there are very few rational, informed consumers, there is but a small percentage of any constituency that is actually informed and rational. 

Through no fault of their own, most of the time. The fact is, politics is complicated. It balances the nature of political decision-making, morality, economics and a host of different levels of politics, from municipal to global. To be both informed and rational about politics requires a lot of hours of study. And even then, it requires specialisation. So, some measure of irrationality and uninformedness should be accounted for. Aside from that, there are certain trends that influence the perceived legitimacy of a government, that don’t necessarily influence its legitimacy. 

One of those trends is found in the war-time government. When a country, let’s say the US (because that’s not at all common) goes to war, especially as a swift or immediate reprisal, we often see a rise in support for that government. This is partly because of propaganda campaigns that equate the war effort with things like patriotism, shared values or support for the service members. This, in turn, is needed to shore up support for the war effort, as it costs a lot of money that might otherwise be spent. We see here, though that this is a case of legitimising, rather than legitimacy. Support is given because support is demanded because support is necessary. Rather than; support is given because the population is supportive of the policies. 

Another trend is the economic crisis government. When an economic crisis occurs, we see many people being victimised. Stocks plummet, mortgages rise as does unemployment. Because governments have some control over economic policy (though the extent of their control is subject to debate and varies per government), governments are often held to account for economic crises and their support will decline. This seems rational enough, of course, were it not the case that it is either virtually or actually impossible for a single country to prevent an economic crisis, due to the dependence every country has on import and export. So, even a government that does everything right in response to an economic crisis will suffer a decline in perceived legitimacy. 

There are other trends in the course of governments when it comes to political legitimacy, such as newly elected governments being viewed more favourable, and heads of government that rule more than 10 years being perceived less favourable, but I believe I illustrated the point sufficiently here. 

What is the source of political legitimacy? 

As has been stated under the paragraph “What is political legitimacy?”, political legitimacy can come from a lot of sources. It is, however, also dependent on opinion. These opinions may then go on to influence the outlook on politics for the individual holding them. So, various views on where political legitimacy comes from and thus, what it is will be outlined under this paragraph. I will also try my best to illustrate the wider effects of the opinions listed.

There is no political legitimacy

Anarchism Symbol Anarchist Red" Greeting Card by BenjiKing | Redbubble

Some people, most notably, but not exclusively, anarchists hold the view that there is no such thing as political legitimacy. Typically, they hold that there can’t be such a thing as a right for one to rule another. When we accept that there is a right to rule, we implicitly accept that there is a right to enforce that rule (i.e. Use violence to force compliance). These people hold that the use of violence to enforce rule immediately disqualifies someone from having rights over other people. Hence, it is impossible to maintain a right to rule. This leads to anarchism in the first place, and in some milder cases to libertarianism. The denial of the right leads to a search for freedom and limitation of government intervention.

Aside from freedom, this opinion leads to a number of questions that the adherents ought to answer. Weighty questions like ‘what is freedom, if not freedom from violence? Wouldn’t freedom from government and thus a regulating force, lead to the freedom to use violence?’ another side effect of this idea would be egalitarianism, which may also be a reason to support it. But egalitarianism in this sense would have to answer the same questions ‘Aren’t we all equally allowed to use violence? And are we still equal if we both have the same rights to use violence, but I am better at it?’ These kinds of weighty questions make the idea that there is no political legitimacy hard to sustain, and they should be given careful thought. 

Political legitimacy comes from force and power

This is typically more an observation than an actual opinion, though it might still be prevalent in some circles. If is, however, more often a matter of fact than an opinion. If we look closely at some societies, such as North Korea or the warchiefs of Afghanistan, we see mainly a repressive force as giving the government legitimacy through the simple use of violence to force compliance. In the West, we may be fast to denounce this kind of legitimacy because we used to saying that unwarranted use of force is abuse of power. And perhaps it is, most of these regimes are certainly exploitative to the point of exhaustion. But nevertheless, these regimes are often long standing and legitimised by – if nothing else – the lack or exhaustion of protest. The question is, though, if a more violent regime topples the existing violent regime, does that make the new regime any more legitimate? Is the consolidation of power really the only (or primary) thing that justifies that power? 

A separation should be made here, however, between power and force. As Hannah Arendt describes both terms in her book “On Violence”, power is control of and through institutions, while force is the compulsory exercise of violence. 

So, in some ways, in a part, it is factually the case that the West has a sense of political legitimacy through power. Our presidents, prime ministers and what have you, all exercise their power through institutions such as police, parliament, executive order etc. The question remains, though, whether the legitimacy of rule comes from the control of institutions or the control of institutions comes from the legitimacy of rule. 

Political legitimacy comes from the social contract 

Du contrat social (Philosophie): Jean-Jacques Rousseau ...
The social contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written in 1762 had a great influence on the revolution and subsequent constitiution

The social contract is a tit-for-tat agreement between a government and their population. Often fictitious, but no less a real. Source for legitimacy, it outlines what kind of obligations governments have towards their people and vice versa. A social contract can range from being very specific to being just a global representation of an agreement between the two parties. The minimal version of a social contract would be;

  • The government agrees to keep or, endeavour to keep, its citizens safe from unwanted outside influence or violence. 
  • In return, the citizen pay the government a later to be agreed upon, reasonable percentage of their yields working a later decided upon job. 

This basic social contract has two major stipulations; the citizen pays taxes, and the government in turn protects its citizens.

The social contract theory, or contractarianism, is a fairly traditional way of viewing both how political institutions come to be and from where they get political legitimacy. Traditionally, contractarians have argued that the difference between a ruler and the ruled has come from such an agreement, though it seems to not be the case so much anymore. What remains is the use of contractarianism to explain political legitimacy.  The ruler is legitimate, as long as they keep up their end of the contract, as is the use of protections and provisions by the citizen. If either of their ends of the bargain are not upheld, their benefit from the legitimacy of the social contract becomes illegitimate, thus jeopardising the relationship. As an example of a citizen breaking the social contract, we might imagine me not paying my taxes. At this point, I might be thrown into prison, thus losing a lot of rights the social contract would have afforded me. The government can also break their promise, for instance by not protecting their population (well enough). At this point, the citizens might rise up as we have seen during the many revolutions. 

There are, like every other here mentioned source of political legitimacy,  still hard questions that need to be answered. For instance, ‘A contract is an agreement and thus requires consent. How does a citizen consent to the social contract? Can social contracts be renegotiated? Am I breaking or reinforcing the social contract if I use its provisions to try and emigrate?’ These are, again, hefty questions that may lead to the discarding of contractarianism all together if not carefully considered.

Political legitimacy comes from democracy

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It is a fairly modern way to look at political legitimacy as being provided through democracy. And it makes sense. After all, democracy is a way of having the people say “I consent to being ruled by these persons”. Not only that,  but due to the character of democracies, with terms, term limits etc., we actually arrive at a sort of controlled revolution. Multiple political theorists speculate that this is one of democracy’s most appealing characteristics and often actually what helped its global enstatement; it takes away the rulers’ fears of being killed in a revolution, like so many noblemen had been during the French revolution’s period of terror. 

Though modern and part of (Western) status quo, there are a lot of interesting, poignant questions to be answered; “why vote on by whom to be ruled whether than about whether to be ruled, or how to be ruled?”, “what makes the institutional roles voted on legitimate?”, “what standards determine if a ln election is legitimate?”, “ought we force an unwilling society to vote?” And much more, depending on the specific political climate. 

Political legitimacy comes from the constitution

Are there holes in the Constitution? - Harvard Law Today

A country’s constitution is its foundational law. A law that is the basis for all other laws, the respecting of which is often presided over by an extra chamber of parliament or a higher court of justice. And essentially, it is a social the flesh. It lays out duties and restrictions for the government, essential rights for its population and may be in some cases amended to include new stipulations or revise old ones. As they say, it is a “living document”, in this sense. 

As should be obvious by this description, a constitution is mainly a law that legitimises the government of the country. The whole point of a constitution is to be a tangible social contract, which can be referred to in cases of questionable legitimacy. However, the same essential problems occur when we inspect it more closely. Not only this, but we can question the validity of issues upholding the constitution.  Take for instance the supreme court of the US. It is a expressly constitutional court, devoted to upholding the constitution. However, the nomination of supreme court justices is a highly political, partisan issue. The interpretation of the constitution is thus a political issue rather than a merely legislative one. Hence, we can also ask ourselves the questions; “how long should a constitution be valid, when does it need to be replaced?”, “what makes the people who drafted the constitution legitimate or even qualified to do so?” And “is there a way to guarantee non-partisan enforcement of the constitution?”

Political legitimacy comes from governmental beneficence

The idea of legitimacy arising from governmental beneficence, is a pretty straightforward one. The point here is the government’s behaviour towards its citizens. In short, if the government behaves positively towards its citizens, it has legitimacy. On the face of it, this has some problems. Things like “what is positive behaviour from a government?” Spring to mind. But also questions like “can positive behaviour differ from positive policy?” Both very important questions that are typically answered in a myriad of different ways that we won’t get into here. Legitimacy from beneficence is a diverse for legitimacy, that can change from person to person and is therefore hard to pin down. Sufficed to say, though, that in most cases people will agree to being ruled more readily when they feel like they are being treated rightly.

Political legitimacy comes from the economy

Shortly treated already, political legitimacy from the economy, is a reflection of the government has over the economy, which is said to govern, in turn, the welfare of its citizens. Though a logical consequence of governments asserting and/or claiming they have control over the economy to some degree, the degree to which they actually have control is up for debate and varies from country to country. Writing this at the time of the Covid-19 outbreak, we see clearly the extent of control governments have over the economy, which is at the same time very large and very small. We see that the government has the control to shut down their economy, but we also see that they are near powerless when it comes to crises from the outside. On the other hand, though, we see governments having to choose who to save during such a crisis. 

This form of legitimacy also raises questions,  though. We measure the economy in a whole bunch of ways, and none of us a definitive answer as to how well the economy is doing. We look at the stock markets, but it is typically the rich minority of a country that owns stocks..we look at employment rates, but that ignores the possibility of underemployment. We look at the value of our currency, but that is a double edged sword. The problem, therefore, is that we don’t exactly know when an economy is doing well. This leads us to the question “when does legitimacy arise from a good economy”?

Political legitimacy conclusion

Even though there are many ways in which we can consider political legitimacy, we might never get to a comprehensive version of it. The simple, yet devastating fact of the matter, is that there isn’t a foolproof theory. Legitimacy, it seems, is not only subjective in large parts, but is likely to be a mixture of many -if not all- of the above mentioned theories. The most interesting conclusive remarks I can offer you, is that the way we look at political legitimacy is dependent oina  large amount of factors. From the culture in which we are raised, to our own political preferences, there is little we can offer to unify our view of political legitimacy across the board. 

Typically, we look at political legitimacy in the form of a social contract. In the end, whether or not there has been any consenting to a contract, we have relevant parties that each have the ability to ask or demand certain things from each other. These demands are subject to an underlying threat of violence that lends a certain urgency to the demands in question. In this way, perhaps, we could say that we are continually negotiating the social contract. Benevolence from the government will inspire loyalty and commitment to the bargaining process, as well as the processes of democracy. A constitution provides us with the baseline terms of negotiation, stipulating certain unbreachable agreements. A good economy and, in turn, prosperity, gives the population an incentive to keep negotiating. However, since we haven’t yet consented to the social contract, we should keep a good eye on what the government is doing and challenge their legitimacy whenever we can. Perhaps, in this sense, political legitimacy is the right to take place at the table for negotiation.