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.