(This seems like a good topic to follow my post about the Padres winning the NL West.)
I said that I would use this Weblog from time to time as a place to think about questions that come up in my PMP course but that I don’t have a chance to address at length in class.
On the first day, a couple of students asked about political legitimacy. This is one of those concepts I am never quite sure what to do with. It is one of the ultimate “slippery” concepts in political science (or in political discussion more generally).
It seems that ‘legitimacy’ has two rather distinct meaningsâ€”at least in the way it is used with reference to governments or political regimes. On the one hand, there is the meaning that is closest to its root. The word is derived from the Latin, lex (genitive, legis), meaning law. By this root of the word, a government (or, for that matter, a division champion) is legitimate if it holds its position according to the law. But it is often used in a broader sense, to denote a government that people accept. That is, independent of their preferences for this or some alternative government, they accept that the current government has a right to rule.
Now, is either meaning useful for objective political analysis? I doubt it, and that is why I encourage my students not to use it in class discussion or in their papers. How do we know a government is legitimate, and even if we could know it, of what use would that knowledge be?
The standard of complying with the law is too low. Virtually all governments, even those that have just taken power via a coup or revolutionary overthrow, engage in exercises to establish a basis in their country’s legal order for their rule. So I do not doubt that rulers want to claim to be legitimate. But this is a pretty low threshold for them to cross to be branded as “legitimate” by objective analysts. As an example, the Chilean military junta that took power on September 11, 1973, almost immediately issued a decree saying its actions were consistent with the 1925 constitution and that all institutional acts of the junta took the form of amendments to that constitution. And, voila, we’re legitimate!
So, if the root of the wordâ€”a basis in lawâ€”is too low a standard, how about the “right to rule”? Is this a better standard? I don’t think so. I like to use the illustration of the former Apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine a government with less of a right to rule over its own population. It ruled by explicit exclusion of the 90% of the population that was not white. What moral authority did it have to do so? Yet it ruled, and was a legal government under the country’s political institutions. It survived a very long time for a government with such a narrow base, and it was never subject to the widespread resistance that might have been expected for a government that surely was not accepted by large swaths of the population as fit to rule over them. (There were sproadic incidents of resistance, including some violence, but never anything resembling widespread manifest opposition.) And it ultimately negotiated a transition to majority rule. It was not overthrown. Was it actually illegitimate all along? By the right to rule standard, probably. Yet accepting the South African Apartheid regime as illegitimate helps us understand exactly what about the process that ultimately led to its transition to democracy? Beats me.
I don’t know what standard to impose on a government to determine whether it is “legitimate” or not. So I just eschew the term entirely when engaging in objective analysis.
Perhaps someone can convince me that the term is useful. Give it a shot.
Now back to those Padres. How legitimate is a dvision champion that has won only half its games, may still wind up with a losing record, and will be one of the four playoff teams from the league despite finishing with no better than the fifth best record in the leagueâ€”and maybe as low as 10th? Should they not be replaced by another wild card team with a better record? Would that not be more legitimate? Well, the rules say you are entitled to a playoff berth if you have the most wins of all the teams in your division. The Padres are. Is that legitimate? By the literal meaning of the word, and in the absence of an anti-mediocrity rule, yes. Do they have a right to be one of their league’s four teams to compete for baseball’s top prize? Well, that can’t be answered objectively, can it?
[UPDATE: Of course, the Padres wound up with a marginally winning record: 82-80, thanks to the hapless Giants and Dodgers. They face the 100-win Cardinals in the Division Series. And they might even be said to have a “legitimate” chance to win the series, but that’s a topic for another post.]