The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Legitimacy (Political Concepts Chapter 2)

Previous: Politics Itself

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Legitimacy is the belief that the people who make decisions for a society have the right to do so. It includes how those people are selected, as in democracy or monarchy, as well as how they are selected, what sort of decisions they can or should make (a monarch is not supposed to violate feudal rights, the US Constitution says they can’t make laws regulating speech or assembly), and what sort of people they are.

Legitimacy is a result of feelings. A constitution can say something is OK (slavery, perhaps) and in time that may become unacceptable. Whether written or unwritten, what people believe and feel is paramount, written constitutions simply set bright lines so one can say “this was not intended by those who wrote the constitution.”

For most of America history all politicians were male and of European descent. Those were the people who should be in charge. During the post war period you almost couldn’t get elected if you weren’t for New Deal style policies, since Reagan it’s nearly impossible to be elected if you are for those policies.

Legitimacy is important even in the rawest and most despotic of regimes: if power comes out of a barrel of a gun or at the edge of a sword, then the enforcement class, at least, must feel the government is legitimate. Often this is done by making the enforcement class the government: in feudal areas the armed nobility are in charge; in Athens the electorate essentially amounted to those males who were militarily useful, and Roman citizenship was similar: Senators fought, during the early and middle Republic even more than commoners, When Hannibal wiped out a Roman army at Cannae, killing seventy-thousand men, about one-third of the Senate was wiped out.

When Russia fell to the Communists, the Cossacks which the government had been expecting to save them chose not to relieve the besieged government, and their own guards, military cadets, mostly did not fight, though they were sufficient in number that they might have held off the attackers. Meanwhile the attacking forces were swollen with navy sailors who had gone over to the other side.

More recently, the USSR’s communist regime certainly had enough soldiers to stay in power, but even the ruling class felt they didn’t have the legitimacy to use them.

This points to the fact that legitimacy varies by group. Different groups have different ideas (ideologies) about legitimacy: what it is, who should have it and so on. The French revolution happened, in large part, because the Philosophes had spent almost a hundred years undermining the legitimacy of France’s monarchy: even many nobles could not make the case that they deserved to rule and no other group in France solidly believed it, though many were largely agnostic to the issue, which was almost as bad, since when push came to guillotine, they would not fight for the Ancien Regime.

Revolution is generally a result of splits in the elite classes, with some opposed to the government taking resources from them; an unwillingness of the enforcement class to prop up the state, often, but not always because a fiscal crisis has left the under or short-paid, and a rising from below of commoners.

Declines or increases in how legitimate elite and enforcer sub-groups feel the government is are most important for revolution, but not all losses of legitimacy lead to revolution, per se. In such cases the split is usually between elite factions, each mobilizing support from commoners.

The elections of Thatcher and Reagan can be seen as sub-ideological transitions: from post-war capitalism, which optimized for increasing wages and for equality, to neo-liberalism, which optimized for asset price increases and keeping increases in non-elite wages below the rate of inflation. In neither case was the government overthrown, but in both cases there was a switch in natural ruling party (from Labour to Conservative in the UK; from Democratic to Republican in the US) and the second party, under Clinton and Blair, accepted the newly legitimate ideology. Thatcher said that her greatest victory was when Labour agreed with how she ran the government and economy.

In both cases, support was bought: Thatcher let Brits who lived in council housing buy it for below its value; Reagan’s policies (primarily carried out thru the Federal Reserve & the Treasury) led to multi-generational faster-than-inflation increases in housing and stock prices, meaning anyone who already had a house or could get in in the first couple decades; or who could afford to buy stocks and hold, did very very well.

Legitimacy changes over time, in both smaller ways (sub-ideological transitions, like the ones in 79/80 and 1932) and in larger ways. Feudalism was entirely legitimate in most of Europe for almost a thousand years, even most revolutionaries would set up a new feudal regime and not overthrow feudalism. Monarchism, though not identical to feudalism, was still the default for most of Europe in the early 19th century: when Napoleon was defeated, he was replaced by a monarch in the Bourbon restoration.

A hundred years later, when the allies defeated the Germans and Austrians in World War I, they forced the monarchs of those nations to step down and set up democratic states.

Legitimacy thus changes over time and differs between different groups in society and different nations in the world. The Japanese did not feel that their Emperor was illegitimate, they just lost World War II to a country which did.

It’s also important to understand the difference between legitimacy of a system and legitimacy of incumbents. Perhaps a king is illegitimate, but monarchy is not: many wars were fought over this. Perhaps a party is no longer considered legitimate and is wiped out, as happened to the American Whig party. The Republican party  replaced it: anti-slavery and pro-industrialization and financial industry. In Britain the Whig party was not wiped out, but it became the third party, and Labour replaced it as one of the two primary parties who switch power with each other regularly.

The type of person who should rule also changes. At one time even in most democratic states, most of those in the legislature belonged to the old aristocracy. In time they were replaced by members of the bourgeoisie. Long before that the old urban elites of the Roman empire mostly lost their power (outside of Italy) to landed feudal nobility.

Once a group stops feeling a way of governing or a governing group is legitimate, they stop supporting that group or that way. Because force is inefficient (we’ll discuss this later), states where large groups don’t agree with the legitimacy of the rulers or government become less and less powerful.

When enough people and groups controlling enough resources: economic, violent and ideological no longer believe in the legitimacy of government, it is only a matter of time before that government falls, and if they don’t believe in the type of government, before that type is replaced.

A recent example of loss of legitimacy is that, as of August, 2021, about two-thirds of Republicans think that the 2020 US election was stolen. One-third felt violence was justified.

This makes total sense from an ideological legitimacy point of view: in a Democracy, an election is legitimate if, and only if, the candidate who takes power won by the rules, which includes all the votes being fairly counted. If the candidate didn’t, then the President (in this case) is not legitimate: they don’t have the right to power, or to make rules or enforce decisions.

The American state came about because of “taxation without representation”, and the revolution was violent. Violence is part of the American founding mythology and is justified by not having democratic representation.

That you only have the right to rule if fairly elected is an idea, and so also is that violence is acceptable to overthrow someone who wasn’t legitimately elected. That many people argue that Biden was fairly elected, makes the point: the argument isn’t about whether elections should be fair, but whether this election was.

Whether the US government has enough legitimacy to continue to rule is something that will be determined in the future, that it lost legitimacy in the 2020 election is clear, and that it has been losing legitimacy for some decades also seems clear.

Legitimacy is ultimately a result of ideas and identity: groups form because of identity, and ideas tell those groups whether or not rulers or ruling regimes are legitimate. While ideology is not separate from material circumstances or technology, ideas are the immediate cause of loss of legitimacy and the proximate cause of real changes in politics.

Which leads us, then, to ideology, which rules so much of the world even as we moderns pretend it doesn’t and that only other people have ideologies, while we are simply practical.

Next: Ideology

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Political Concepts: Politics Itself (Ch #1)


Ideology: Political Concepts Chapter 3


  1. Ian Welsh

    Let’s avoid argument over whether or not the 2020 election was stolen, the point is only that many people think it was and that they think that matters.

    (If you notice any mistakes, please leave a comment. I’ll delete the comment after correcting the article, but it’s MUCH appreciated.)

  2. different clue

    After Germany lost World War One, many Germans decided to believe that they did not really lose the war. Their side was trick-surrendered by a coalition of Communist and Jewish Traitors who stabbed Germany in the back with a trick surrender.

    Lets avoid argument over whether Germany was stabbed in the back or really lost World War One. The point is only that many Germans believed it was and what they thought mattered and the rest is history.

    It really does matter why the current Republicans think the election was stolen and who decided to instruct them and marinate them in that belief. And it matters who the instructors and the marinaters are and what their agenda has been and will be going forward.

    And if it matters that many Republicans “think” the election was “stolen”, many non-Republicans “think” the Republican view on this question is illegitimate and suspect that any Republican government going forward will win by stealing under cover of pretending to prevent stealing and will be illegitimate.

  3. different clue

    And millions of people feel the Democratic Party stole the nomination for Clinton and then for Biden, so political legitimacy is disappearing at that sub-state level also.

  4. Hugh

    Illegitimacy can also be a ploy. Republicans have to claim elections are illegitimate even as they do everything in their power to rig them, or accept their status as a minority party.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Yes, Hugh, as with the “stab in the back” mentioned by Different Clue, legitimacy isn’t always based on truth. But, if people believe…

  6. Hugh

    Com’on, man, Joe was a frontrunner. Only Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren were ahead of him.

  7. different clue

    Well . . . we have overlapping and competing narratives and belief-systems of betrayal and illegitimacy. The illegitimacy-grievance faction with the most guns and ammo will probably try provoking or engineering a civil war in the belief that they will conquer and rule or exterminate or expel all the other illegitimacy-grievance factions.

    In a multi-regional multi-factional country like America, predicting the future from there is difficult. I can imagine a scenario in which the PMC Democrats align with Wall Street and the Intelligence Community to prevail upon the Armed Forces to protect them from the Republicanazi Intrumpahamwe militias. The Armed Forces leadership would probably agree to do so in return for PMC Democrat/Wall Street/Intelligence Community backing for a Military Martial Law Emergency Government for as long as the Armed Forces deem it to be necessary.

    ” Okay, everybody get back in your boxes, shut up and be happy. There will be ORDER in the land”.

    If the Armed Forces themselves delaminate, then things will get even worse. I suspect the Air Force may have a minority of people in it who are genuine Rapturanian Armageddonites who would rather drop H-bombs on New York and San Francisco than on any foreign city. Pray they are so few that the Air Force in general can keep them contained, control-rodded and moderated.

    How did this happen? I like a theory held by David Emory and Jeff Wells. Late into World War II and after, the Rich Aristonazis realized that Germany and the visible street thug Hitler Party Nazis were going to lose the War. So they moved many billions of dollars worth of gold and other things out of Europe and spread it around in hiding in other places. They also rescued tens of thousands of various ethnic group fascists with paper clips and rat lines, to preserve them for possible later use. The Fascist International, which still existed and still exists, felt that World War II was a battle which they had lost, not the War to make the world Fascist which they would still figure out how to wage and win. They hated America for its part in defeating the Fascist Movement and worked to destroy it from within to get revenge and to remove it as an obstacle to the coming Fascist World.

    And through various means they have impoverished and destabilized America to the point of Fascistifying the worthwhile pieces and abandoning or scorched-earthing the rest if necessary. With witting or unwitting help from the Clinton Democrats who achieved the Corporate Globalonial Free Trade Plantation for them.

  8. bruce wilder

    The cynical use of charges that this election or that election has been in some way fraudulent or tainted by misconduct has become routine. In some respects, it works a little like a game of rumour or free association — few people know any details of specific charges and semantic generalization blends with paranoia to fabricate all kinds of sometimes weird beliefs and intuitions, while reinforcing prejudice. The cynicism, in the absence of any policy initiative founded in conviction, is corrosive in itself. My own cynicism has been amped up by techno-magic reforms that preclude any verification that might quell suspicion. It is like the people with authority witness what I witness but do not want to do anything to restore confidence, when they are having so much fun with the devisiveness of charge, counter-charge and fake outrage. I suppose the political operatives and close observers are even more cynical than I am, and cannot muster much concern for making electoral processes more secure, when they do not believe in voting as a political process, only an arena for manipulative gamesmanship. Is this how ideologies are ground to dust?

  9. Mark Pontin

    @ Ian –

    You have a couple of factual errors.

    [1] In graf beginning, ‘In both cases, support was bought: Thatcher let Brits who owned council housing buy it for below its value”

    You don’t mean owned because that wasn’t what happened (see below for what did) and because, obviously, if they already owned then they couldn’t buy (to own), could they?

    What happened was that Thatcher’s Housing Act of 1980 enabled _tenants_ who’d lived in their council homes for at least three years to buy at 33 percent discount of the market price and 44 percent for a flat. And if a tenant had been in a council home for over twenty years then they got a 50 percent discount. Sweet — for one generation.

    [2] In graf commencing ‘It’s also important to understand,’ you have the sentence, ‘Perhaps a party is no longer considered legitimate and is wiped out, as happened to the English and American Whig parties.’

    No. Unlike the American Whigs, the English Whigs weren’t wiped out but essentially modulated into becoming the twentieth century Liberal party (of Jeremy Thorpe, forex) and then today’s Lib Dems, who under deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (now w. Facebook!) were in a coalition with David Cameron’s Tories from 2010-2015, and in the 2019 UK election got 11.6 percent of the vote. So in that limited sense the UK Whigs are arguably still extant.

  10. Mark Pontin

    different clue wrote: ‘The Fascist International, which still existed and still exists, felt that World War II was a battle which they had lost, not the War to make the world Fascist which they would still figure out how to wage and win. They hated America….’

    Pfft. Pretty fanciful.

    Nah. As George Orwell pointed out ‘Fascism is a form of capitalism.’ And it’s America’s own capitalist ownership class — its homegrown fascists — who simply wanted to restore the pre-New Deal dispensation, and who now have mostly done that.

    Weren’t you the one repeating Tony Wikrent’s theory about the reactionary capitalist class having had a ninety-year Long Game? Well, Wikrent’s absolutely correct as far as that goes, although his belief that 1776 and the ‘Republic’ was anything besides more of the same American colonial kleptocracy is a fantasy, given the actual historical facts rather than the propaganda peddled in American high school civics classes.

  11. Ché Pasa

    US elections have never been particularly free or fair, and their integrity of voting systems has long been suspect. Vote rigging is the least of it. And strangely — or perhaps not — there’s been little genuine effort at “reform.” Instead, ever more elaborate technological fixes, some of which have no paper backup or means of re-count/review, have been implemented at vast cost. For example, following the 2000 presidential election debacle, the “Help America Vote Act” made what had been a messy situation demonstrably worse. We’re still in recovery from that.

    So in any election and afterwards, the legitimacy of the winning candidate and party is in question. That led to a Civil War at one time, and perpetual guerrilla wars over elections ever after. It’s considered “normal.” Part and parcel of democratic politics.

    It’s most often been dealt with by grudgingly accepting the authority of the winner temporarily, knowing that the next time around, your side might win. But at some point that acceptance fails, and the grudge takes the forefront. That seems to be what’s been happening in the US since the 2000 election debacle when the Supreme Court lawlessly intervened to emplace their preferred candidate in the White House.

    Anarchists as a rule don’t have elections, partly because of this legitimacy issue. Instead, they seek consensus — which means that proposals and actions can take a long time to reach fruition, and in some cases, perhaps many, will never do so. But consensus is a means to maintain community and cohesion, something that a democratic electoral process, even if perfectly implemented, by its nature can’t do.

    The trend toward fascism is not unique to the United States. It’s global. It’s perhaps an instinctive response to cumulative crises that affect nearly everyone. In the short term, it’s probably not opposable, in part because the crises aren’t being mitigated or alleviated by democratic electoral processes. So the turn toward authoritarianism, fascism in particular, is understandable, if wrongheaded. But if the fascist takeover is eventually successful, how legitimate will it be? Or rather how will it establish and maintain legitimacy? Force may impose it, but force doesn’t legitimize it. I’m thinking particularly about the long-running and largely successful fascist regimes in Spain, Portugal and much of Latin America before, during and long after WWII.

  12. Plague Species

    So long as the wealthy elite own all the choices, elections are illegitimate. Claims of cheating, i.e. voter fraud, are hilarious in the face of this predicament. For the wealthy elite, it’s always a win regardless of who is elected. McDonald Trump, they win. Biden, they win. Obama, they win. Shrub, they win. Bubba Clinton, they win.

  13. Ian Welsh

    Mark Pontin,

    thanks much for those corrections. Greatly appreciated.

    Chicago Clubs, thanks. Fixed (was about half a sentence, but it’s there now.)

  14. StewartM

    A recent example of loss of legitimacy is that, as of August, 2021, about two-thirds of Republicans think that the 2020 US election was stolen. One-third felt violence was justified.

    Ian, this is just a continuation of a trend that’s been going on since Reagan. All my adult life, when a Democrat wins, it’s not legitimate or “fair” to Republicans. Clinton won in 1992 and 1996 just because of Ross Perot (never mind that polling showed that if Perot wasn’t in the race, his support would have split almost evenly between Clinton and Bush/Dole, or his supporters would have stayed home or not voted for President). Obama’s wins too were illegitimate to them because he was a sekrit Muslim Marxist Kenyan.

    By contrast, the Dems (rightly or wrongly) accepted Dubya’s election even though it wasn’t legitimate, if the recounts had been allowed to proceed. By contrast, the Rs happily accepted both Dubya’s and Trump’s wins which were clearly wins with a popular minority as some “mandate from the people” which allowed them to ram through full-throttle the conservative movement agenda.

    So this isn’t a ‘both sides’ issue, but a reflection of this country’s march towards fascism.

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