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What is Legitimacy?

Recently, I heard an exchange on a Canadian radio show.  An interviewee criticized a new Canadian government effort to pass an anti-Muslim law.  The radio host let slip a “standard” excuse /justification:  “The Canadian legislators are legitimate representatives duly elected by the people.”  The interviewee replied interestingly, “That doesn’t mean their actions are legitimate.”

Thus, it hit the nail on the head for the issue that we have been dancing around the ideologies for decades and centuries:  What is legitimacy in politics?

In honor of passing of the Singaporean leader, I ponder this question.

Legitimacy.  The Chinese called it “Mandate of Heaven”, the Europeans called it “Right to Rule”.

In Medieval times, the Europeans defined their “rights” as being “in the right”.  Thus, if a leader is “in the right”, he has the right to rule.  How was it determined?  Trial by Combat/War.  This was similar to the trial by combat used to settle legal disputes and finding criminal guilt.

But gradually, as with legal disputes, legitimacy gave way to the reasoning, trial by arguments, debates in modern times.

In China, Emperors for centuries, employed scholarly officials who debated on policies in imperial court.  Thus, dictators recognize the point of legitimacy.  That is, legitimacy is morally, ethically, correct and proper.

But what makes a government legitimate?

(1) if a government policies are legitimate, then the government is legitimate.  (Results define legitimacy).

or (2) if a government is legitimately formed, then the government is legitimate.  (Means define legitimacy).

The problem with (1) is, End cannot justify the Means.  If a tyrant comes into power immorally, then he cannot be legitimate, no matter how much good he does.  Hitler cannot murder and genocide his way to power, and then legitimize himself by charity.

The problem with (2) is, Means cannot guarantee the End.  Hitler, in fact, came into power by elections and legal means.  He didn’t threaten or use genocide to get his power.  But he did use his power to wage war and genocide.

So, it seems, legitimacy requires both legitimacy in Means and Results, not just 1 side.

The logic of Democracy seems to be, if the leaders are elected, then they have legitimacy of Means, and it predicates good legitimate results.  Even if the results turn out to be bad, it’s at least legitimate as agreed and accepted by the People.

Except, in reality, that’s not how it is with Democracy.  Legitimately elected leaders rarely do as “agreed” or accepted by the People.  Every one knows politicians lie.  It goes all the way back to the Athenian Leader Themistocles, who lied to the Athenian people, so he could get more money for the Navy.  He did it with good foresight, as his Navy was eventually used to keep the Persian invasion fleet away.

So in Thermistocles, he was a legitimately elected (means) leader, who resorted to illegitimate lies (means), to a legitimate result.  Was he legitimate?  If he did every thing by the book, it would have been a terrible result for the Greeks.

If Thermistocles was a dictator (means), he need no lies to justify his decisions, he could still get the same legitimate result.  Would he have been legitimate?

Of course, Thermistocles the dictator could have done wrong, by not building a navy, but Thermistocles the populist leader could have done the same wrong (as many other Athenians wanted).

So in Democracy, legitimate means is limited to “election”, and does not apply to the mountains of lies told in the Democratic process.  It also means accountability, limited to principles only, because accountability is limited to “popularity” (if you don’t like him, vote him out).

For example, there have been total of 2 US presidents impeached, neither convicted.  US President Andrew Jackson ignored a US Supreme Court ruling, but was never impeached, because he was a very popular, (and very racist) President.

But lies are never confined to “means” either.  Politicians lie about the Results too.  Naturally, by “plausible deniability”, it means, they don’t know what they did, and they don’t know what happened after either (See Bush Jr., Dick Cheney, etc.).  That way, they can’t ever be wrong, because their legitimacy is limited by the “election” only.

What happened AFTER the election is not their business.

And that is the rub with Democracy in practice.  It’s never about anything legitimate beyond the elections.

If that is the case, then, Democracy is not legitimate, it is merely a parade of the Righteous.  It is like Carnival in Brazil, lots of glitter and alcohol for the masses, but poverty for most for the rest of the year.

Seems to me, the parade of the election is not that important.  There is no 1 right way of parading or elections.  It’s enough that it happens every now and then.  Less often as possible.  That way, the politicians have fewer chance of spreading lies to the People.  (Again, Hitler didn’t just lie, he infected a nation with his lies, and made them into monsters along with him).  Let the politicians lie to each other.

What’s important is the debate and the proper policies for the rest of the years for most of the people.

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  1. N.M.Cheung
    March 28th, 2015 at 07:14 | #1

    West, especially U.S. considers China as authoritarian, while bill themselves as democratic, but what does it really mean? Xi Jinping, if we consider popular opinion, probably would be overwhelmingly elected if there is a real voting. While U.S. Congress, duly elected last year, have an approval rating in the teens. So does the means, election process, confer legitimacy? Is U.S. a real democracy? Do the people in U.S. have a real choice or just the appearance or illusion of it?
    Each election cycle, billions were spent by the Democratic and Republican party. U.S. Constitution is enshrined as a great document, but let’s examine the reality of it.
    1. Rule of law, supreme court is the final arbiter of meaning of law. 9 justices sit for life , nominated by presidents and approved by senate. Citizen United decision, a 5-4 ruling, with money is speech, of the 5 in favor, 3 were appointed by Bush Jr., who was made president by Bush v Gore decision, with Gore got a few more million votes than Bush nationally, a few thousand more in Florida, a supreme court with majority appointed by past republican presidents, the rational being time ran out for recount.
    2. Last presidential election, democratic candidates got more votes than republicans, yet republicans got a comfortable majority in House due to gerrymander and other quirks.
    3. 2 senators represent 38 million people in California, and 2 represent less than 1 million in Wyoming.
    4. Presidential election by electoral college, with various states passing voter ID laws to discourage poor from voting. There is even a movement by republicans to carve the electoral votes from states to congressional districts to ensure winning.
    5. Consider what come out of investigation from Ferguson, financing of the city from fines of poor people of minor violations, so they are in perpetual debt and bankrupt, no worry about voting.

    Looking at those points it seems that the process is pretty much rigged to start with.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    March 29th, 2015 at 20:40 | #2

    In the recent guancha.cn, there was an article of the debate between Fukuyama and Eric Li on the question of nature of politics and rule of law as it relates to China and U.S., but I find the accompanying commentaries by professor Zhang and Han more enlightening on the question of legitimacy. They all agreed that U.S. is entering a dead end which she may not be able to extricate. (vetocracy)
    现代社会政治活动中信息的不对称是普遍性的,任何一个国家,任何一种制度都存在这个问题。诚然,在一个对上负责的制度下,最高领导人掌握的全国信息一定会打折扣。但是,在一个幅员广大、人口众多的社会实行单方面向下负责的制度,信息缺乏的问题更为严重,因为现代民族国家跟两千多年前古希腊城邦国家在疆域大小和人口规模上已有根本不同。以美国为例,在自下而上的选举中,99% 的选民其实都却无法直接了解候选人的情况,选民知道的只是竞选团队通过大量的金钱包装出来的候选人形象,而不是候选人本身。选民看似主权在手,其实根本不知道候选人是谁,能力如何 ?德行如何?如果把中国执政党最高层对全国信息的了解与美国选民对候选人的了解做一个对比,后者一定远远落后于前者,因为前者负有把国家治理好的巨大责任和压力,必然会利用党的组织系统尽可能获取全国各地的信息,而后者作为单个个人,既缺乏压力也缺乏能力去了解候选人的真相。后者缺乏信息的直接后果就是政客可以轻易地忽悠选民。

  3. N.M.Cheung
    March 29th, 2015 at 20:48 | #3

    Let me just translate a little, In U.S. where 99% of the voters do not understand the issues involved, or anything about the candidates other than what the packaging of money allow you to see in advertisements. Voters may seem to have the initiative, yet they have no understanding of the ability, moral, or character of the candidates, so the process of democracy is rather meaningless.

  4. Black Pheonix
    March 30th, 2015 at 08:29 | #4


    “So does the means, election process, confer legitimacy? Is U.S. a real democracy? Do the people in U.S. have a real choice or just the appearance or illusion of it?”

    Yes, quite.

    How legitimate does it have to be? If I do it using process A, is it really more or less legitimate than process B?

    Even if assuming process A is more legitimate than process B, does that make process B “illegitimate”?

    In the end, Voting is a process of Abstraction. It is a process where the complex feelings of MILLIONS (billions in China) of People are distilled into a set of simple numbers and categories.

    Inevitably, important details are lost in the process, the picture gets grainy and fuzzy.

    And, then there is the question of real point of the process.

    If I can see the dog in the picture, do I really need to digitally scan the photo, pixelate the photo, and do an image recognition on it to tell me that it is a dog in the picture?

    Of course, morality and ethics are much more complex in the landscape of society, but such complex issues cannot be simply distilled by “feelings” and “votes”. Their debates must be continually tested by the good and the bad in the result.

    So NO, if the picture is not clear enough in the first place, there is no point in digitally enhancing it (No, it really doesn’t work like in the Movies or on TV. BTW, “digital image enhancement” is just another form of GUESSING.) If the picture is not clear enough, you try different angles of view, you keep observing until you see a clearer view.

    In other words, you don’t just snap the fuzzy picture and say, it looks like a cat.

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