Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Legitimacy (political science)
Legitimacy in political science, is the popular acceptance of a governing regime or law as an authority. Wheras authority refers to a specific position in an established government, the term legitimacy is used when describing a system of government itself —where "government may be generalized to mean the wider "sphere of influence."
This concept has also been applied to other, non-political, kinds of authority, such as that of an employer hiring workers and further, to issues concerning the legitimacy of entire political-economic systems (such as capitalism) are discussed in the Marxist tradition.
The word legitimacy can be interpreted in either a normative or a positive way. For the former, which gets greater attention in moral philosophy, something is "legitimate" if one approves of it. For the latter, which gets greater attention in political science, an institution is legitimate if such approval is general among those subject to its authority. Issues of legitimacy are linked to those of consent, both explicit and tacit.
Legitimacy is considered a basic condition for rule: without at least a minimal amount of legitimacy, a government will deadlock or collapse. Robert A. Dahl explains legitimacy using the metaphor of a reservoir: as long as it stays at a certain level stability is maintained, if it falls below this level it is endangered. Regimes are sometimes seen as requiring the assent of a large proportion of the population to retain power, but this need not necessarily be the case: many unpopular regimes have been known to survive provided they are seen as legitimate within a small but influential elite.
In the case of laws, legitimacy should be distinguished from legality. Action can be legal without being legitimate (as in the case of an immoral law). Action can also be legitimate without being legal (as in the case of Rosa Parks' non-compliance). When sources of legitimacy conflict with each other, a constitutional crisis can often erupt.
Sources of legitimacy
The most common source of legitimacy today is the perception that a government is operating under democratic principles and is subject to the will of the people. Governments often claim a popular mandate to exercise power, however, how this mandate is derived can vary sharply from regime to regime. Liberal democratic states claim democratic legitimacy on the grounds that they have regular free and fair contested elections.
A liberal democratic state may also gain legitimacy if the population believes that the following factors hold:
- Free and fair elections
- A rigid written constitution, or well-respected constitutional conventions
- Popular participation
- A strong and independent media
- A system of checks and balances
- Economic stability
- Political stability
Democratic legitimacy is also claimed by states which reject liberal democracy, and the fact that states whose values are antithetical to liberal democracy claim democratic legitmacy causes much controversy over the meaning of the term democracy. Communist states often claim democratic legitimacy on the grounds that they won a popular revolution and are acting on behalf of the people in accordance with the scientific rules of Marxism. Nazism and Fascism has also claimed to represent the will of the people in a major they proponents claimed was more authentic than liberal democracy.
It has been claimed that liberal democratic states can be remarkably stable because the legitimacy of the state is not tied to an individual ruler or ruling party. According to this argument, in a dictatorial state, deposing the ruler can lead to total collapse in the system of government. However, in most well-functioning liberal democracies the ruling party is regularly replaced peacefully without any constitutional change. Critics of this argument claim that it is tautological stating essentially that stable liberal democratic states are stable, and ignoring historical cases in which a liberal democratic state has failed.
A related form of political legitimacy involves constitutionalism or the belief that an action is legitimate because it follows regular procedure. This form of legitimacy is related to democracy in that the justification of those constitutional procedures are agreed to be popular consent, but it may result in different results, in that constitutional procedure often require supermajorities or are intended to protect minority groups.
Patriotism and nationalism can inspire loyalty to a state. This can take many forms. Democracy as described above is sometimes called civic nationalism. Other forms of nationalism that can be beneficial to a state include ethnic nationalism, where the state derives legitimacy from cultural or hereditary groups, and religious nationalism, where the state derives legitimacy from a shared religion.
In principle, communist states acquire legitimacy through their fostering unmatched economic equality and economic growth. However, many communist states have fallen back on totalitarian methods when they failed to achieve these goals.
In monarchies, the king gained legitimacy through the popular perception that he was the rightful lord of the kingdom. This perception was often enhanced by propagating the belief that he was divinely ordained to hold his post. This form of legitimacy remains today in the form of absolute monarchy where the monarch still have effective power, and constitutional monarchy where traditional sources of legitimacy have been combine with democratic and constitutional sources of legimacy.
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