Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

Legitimacy, Democracy and Electoral College System

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If a political institution lacks in legitimacy it will not last long. States are the foundation of governments and regimes, and use power and fear to keep order. People need to believe in the institution, or else people will revolt. When the demands exceed the legitimacy, order is in peril. There are three main types of demands regarding the state and the population (Langenbacher 2018). First, there are the demands the state places on the people. For example, taxes and having people serve in the army (Langenbacher 2018). Second, the demands people place on the state (Langenbacher 2018).

eople expect protection and for their basic needs to be provided. Lastly, how demanding life becomes. If people lose their sons to the military, they expect some type of compensation in return for the financial burden it causes (Langenbacher 2018). There are also three main forms of legitimacy. Prior to democracies, the most common was traditional legitimacy, which entails that the ruler and system is justified because that is the way it has always been (Gerth and Mills 1946: 79). Second, there is charismatic legitimacy, which is based off of a person who many people follow (Gerth and Mills 1946: 79).

Examples of this are Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. This type of legitimacy is very temporary because it usually dies with the person, but it can sometimes be turned into traditional legitimacy. Finally, there is rational, or legal, legitimacy (Gerth and Mills 1946: 79). This is based on rules and is the system the United States has with the constitution. Weber describes these as “rational rules,” which legitimate the ruler’s power as abiding by the norm (1922: 954). In this case, “obedience is given to the norms rather than to the person” (Weber 1922: 954).

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In the U.S., for example, most people accept the laws and those who are elected because it is the established norm that majority rule is the least unequal for of government. We have become accustomed to obey since we see our system as legitimate. Whenever U.S. citizens question something or defend themselves, they turn to the U.S. Constitution because it is arguably the most fundamentally aspect of the American political system. Demands and legitimacy intersected in 1789 due to the French Revolution, and legitimacy has declined ever since (Langenbacher 2018).

A legitimacy deficit connotes instability. States wanted a literate population, so they could be more useful. This backfired on them, since when people become educated they stop believing in the divine right of kings and realize that God does not want them to be poor forever. Traditional legitimacy died with modernization, and once it is broken, all the king’s horses and men cannot put it back together again. Political thinkers started to look for new ways for governments to gain legitimacy because it is necessary for any successful political institution. They turned to nationalism and the creation of nations as a solution. Making people believe that their country is the best and that they should work hard to gain success for their country became a crucial part of the concept.

Trotsky, a Marxist, said, “every state is founded on force” (Gerth and Mills 1946: 78). If states use force to complete functions then that force needs to be justified with some sort of legitimacy. If there is an outcome in politics that some people are upset by, but they respect the institution and the process by which the decision was made, then there is legitimacy. However, Donald Trump, is an example of how a government leader can make a mockery of a political institution itself. It is not just a matter of people who did not like him being upset that he was elected as president, but about how little respect people have for him to serve as the leader of the free world. If a reality TV star accused of sexual assault and corruption can become president, then how can we trust that our political system can serve and protect us? Trump being elected destroyed the trust many, if not most, American citizens had for the election process and electoral college system. Without trust and respect, there is no legitimacy.

Fortunately, the state institutions in America are strong enough that they cannot be brought down by one mistake, but if this becomes a trend, the American political system may break to the point of no return. Strauss writes about legitimacy in regards to Professor Fallon’s work. He discusses how a president would face illegitimacy in 2005, and little did he know his work would have even more relevance in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected. He states, “To say that a President was not legitimately elected is not necessarily to assert the right to disregard a bill that that President has signed into law […] the claim of illegitimacy asserts that in some respect the President should not be accorded the deference he would otherwise receive: his proposed appointees will be scrutinized more closely; his legislative initiatives will encounter more hostility” (Strauss 2005: 1854).

This is exactly what has been happening with President Trump that I had to do a double take of the date the article was published. Trump’s legislation is not completely disregarded, though maybe it should be, but everything he says and does is analyzed more closely and he is not treated with the same respect past presidents have. People do not see him as having legitimacy, so they do not see him deserving their respect. Strauss also discusses legitimacy questions regarding the Supreme Court, and I again was reminded of current events because of Kavanaugh.

The fact that a man who is firstly, credibly accused of sexual assault with no real investigation, and secondly so blatantly partisan, was confirmed on pure party lines to serve as a lifetime judge on the Supreme Court baffles me. The legitimacy of the institution and the trust in the process to seat qualified individuals is gone. Gerth and Mills define a state as “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (1946: 78). People obey out of fear and force, but also out of respect that what is happening is just and right. They continue on Weber by saying, “organized domination, which calls for continuous administration, requires that human conduct be conditioned to obedience towards those masters who claim to be the bearers of legitimate power” (Gerth and Mills 1946: 80).

This domination should be by a ruler with legitimate reason to be in power. Hopefully the power the ruler has over the ruled is first dimension, in that everybody involved is aware of the rules and has equal opportunity to gain power (Gaventa 1980: 5). However, that is usually not the case, and the power dynamics lie in the second dimension. In the second dimension, both parties are aware of the rules, but one knows they cannot act a certain way without consequences (Gaventa 1980: 8). Those who face inequalities do as they are told because they have something to lose if they disobey.

This is what happens in United States’ elections because parties are trying to win an election, so they will refrain from certain behavior because of this. Lastly there is the third dimension of power, which is when the powerless are not even aware of the domination imposed on them, and they actually believe what is happening is to their benefit (Gaventa 1980: 11). For example, poor minorities who voted for Donald Trump because they actually believed he would help them. Rosanvallon cites a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau which to him implies that, “the idea that political legitimacy is not fully achieved until a regime enjoys the unanimous support of its citizens” (2011: 17). This sounds extreme, but makes sense if you think about it. Almost every American supports the system of democracy in place.

Yes, many people have things they would want to change here and there, but overall would not want to change regime types to socialism or authoritarianism. In regards to history, Marx said, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (year: 595). Not only do people remember the failed forms of government, but they use that memory to attempt to not have history repeat itself. Marx continues, “just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, […] they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service” (year: 595).

It seems he is convinced that there will never be an entirely new order. This makes sense because aspects of regimes will most likely have similarities, but what Marx was calling for was a complete overthrow of the government. Though I would argue that the United States is running with rational, or legal, legitimacy, there are aspects of the other two involved. Traditional, because we keep the voting system, electoral college, four-year term limit in place, because that’s the way it’s always been.

Presidents are elected and then re-elected because they have charismatic qualities people can get behind. Yes, they will be replaced because that is the structure of government we have, but one reason someone was elected was because he was seen as a legitimate candidate to be president. In his other work, Weber explored the “validity of a domination” (1922: 953). Not only do the people need to think the ruler is legitimate, but he does too. In most cases, leaders see themselves as “deserved” and having “superiority” (Weber 1922: 953).

Weber explains that domination needs to legitimize itself when he states, “generally observable need of any power, or even of any advantage of life, to justify itself” (1922: 953). Someone cannot just take up power and start dictating peoples’ lives without justification. People would not listen and revolt if someone used violence to oppress them and the people saw them as illegitimate. Weber states that, “without exception every sphere of social action is profoundly influenced by structures of dominancy” (1922: 941).

Legitimacy of political institutions is so profoundly important because it affects almost every aspect of everyone’s lives. People need to trust that their leader will act in their best interest because it can directly affect them and could even mean in some cases life or death for them. In return, people will respect them and abide by their laws, that they see as fair. If this relationship or mutual respect and understanding does not exist, then the regime is doomed.

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