Legitimacy (political)

Legitimacy (political)
John Locke

In political science, legitimacy is the popular acceptance of a governing law or régime as an authority. Whereas “authority” denotes a specific position in an established government, the term “legitimacy” denotes a system of government — wherein “government” denotes “sphere of influence”. Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which, a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite.[1]

In Chinese political philosophy, since the historical period of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the political legitimacy of a ruler and government was derived from the Mandate of Heaven, and that unjust rulers who lose said mandate, therefore lose the right to rule the people.

The Enlightenment-era British social theoretician John Locke said that political legitimacy derives from popular explicit and implicit consent: “The argument of the [Second] Treatise is that the government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed.”[2] The German political philosopher Dolf Sternberger said, “Legitimacy is the foundation of such governmental power as is exercised, both with a consciousness on the government’s part that it has a right to govern, and with some recognition by the governed of that right.”[3] The American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset said that legitimacy also “involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society.”[4] The American political theorist Robert A. Dahl explained legitimacy as a reservoir; so long as the water is at a given level, political stability is maintained, if it falls below the required level, political legitimacy is endangered.[5]

In moral philosophy, the term “legitimacy” often is positively interpreted as the normative status conferred by a governed people upon their governors’ institutions, offices, and actions, based upon the belief that their government's actions are appropriate uses of power by a legally constituted government.

In law, “legitimacy” is distinguished from “legality” (see colour of law), to establish that a government action can be legal whilst not being legitimate, e.g. a police search without proper warrant; conversely, a government action can be legitimate without being legal, e.g. a pre-emptive war, a military junta. An example of such matters arises when legitimate institutions clash in a constitutional crisis.


Types of legitimacy

Theocracy: Egyptian divine authority, Horus as a falcon.
Theocracy: The coat of arms of the Holy See, the seat of Papal government.

Legitimacy is “a value whereby something or someone is recognized and accepted as right and proper”. In political science, legitimacy usually is understood as the popular acceptance and recognition, by the public, of the authority of a governing régime, whereby authority has political power through consent and mutual understandings, not coercion. The three types of political legitimacy are: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal.

I. Traditional legitimacy derives from societal custom and habit that emphasize the history of the authority of tradition. Traditionalists understand this form of rule as historically accepted, hence its continuity, because it is the way society has always been. Therefore, the institutions of traditional government usually are historically continuous, as in monarchy and tribalism.

II. Charismatic legitimacy derives from the ideas and personal charisma of the leader, a man or woman whose authoritative persona charms and psychologically dominates the people of the society to agreement with the government’s régime and rule. A charismatic government usually features weak political and administrative institutions, because they derive authority from the persona of The Leader, and usually disappear without him or her in power. Yet, a government derived from charismatic legitimacy might continue if the charismatic leader has a successor.

III. Rational-legal legitimacy derives from a system of institutional procedure, wherein government institutions establish and enforce law and order in the public interest. Therefore, it is through public trust that the government will abide the law that confers rational-legal legitimacy. [6]

Forms of legitimacy

Numinous legitimacy

In a theocracy, government legitimacy derives from the spiritual authority of a god or a goddess.

  • In Ancient Egypt (ca. 3150 BC) the legitimacy of the dominion of a Pharaoh (god–king) was theologically established by doctrine that posited the pharaoh as the Egyptian patron god Horus, son of Osiris.
  • In the Roman Catholic Church, the priesthood derives its legitimacy from a divine source; the Church doctrines establish that the papacy based upon Jesus Christ’s designation of St. Peter as head of the earthly church, thus the sanctity and legitimacy of each pope.
Civil legitimacy

The political legitimacy of a civil government derives from agreement among the autonomous constituent institutions —legislative, judicial, executive — combined for the national common good; legitimate government office as a public trust, is expressed by means of public elections.

Sources of legitimacy

Max Weber
Mattei Dogan

The German economist and sociologist Max Weber identified three sources of political legitimacy.

  • Charismatic authority derived from the leader’s charisma, based upon the perception that he or she possesses supernatural attributes, e.g. a clan chieftain, a priestess, or an ayatollah.
  • Traditional authority derived from tradition, wherein the governed populace accept that form of government as legitimate because of its longevity by customs, e.g. monarchy.
  • Rational–legal authority derived from the popular perception that the government's power derives from established law and custom (a political constitution), e.g. representative democracy.

Moreover, like the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Weber proposed that societies behave cyclically in governing themselves with different types of governmental legitimacy. That democracy was unnecessary for establishing legitimacy, a condition that can be established with codified laws, customs, and cultural principles, not by means of popular suffrage. That a society might decide to revert from the legitimate government of a rational–legal authority to the charismatic government of a leader, e.g. the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler, Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini, and fascist Spain under General Francisco Franco.

The French political scientist Mattei Dogan’s contemporary interpretation of Max Weber’s types of political legitimacy (traditional, charismatic, legal-rational) proposes that they are conceptually insufficient to comprehend the complex relationships that constitute a legitimate political system in the twenty-first century.[7] Moreover Prof. Dogan proposed that traditional authority and charismatic authority are obsolete as forms of contemporary government, e.g. the Islamic Republic of Iran (est. 1979) rule by means of the priestly Koranic interpretations by the Ayatollah Khomeini. That traditional authority has disappeared in the Middle East; that the rule-proving exceptions are Islamic Iran and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the third Weber type of political legitimacy, rational–legal authority exists in so many permutations no longer allow it to be limited as a type of legitimate authority.

Forms of legitimate government

Political legitimacy is an essentially contested concept, a philosophic construct by Walter Bryce Gallie (1912–98), presented to facilitate understanding of the different applications and interpretations of qualitative and evaluative concepts such as “Art”, “social justice”, et cetera, as used in aesthetics, political philosophy, the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of religion.[8] The term “essentially contested concept” denotes that a key term has various denotations within an argument, and that dogmatism (“My answer is right, and all others are wrong”), scepticism (“All answers are equally true or [false], everyone has a right to his own truth”), and eclecticism (“Each meaning gives a partial view, so the more meanings the better”) are not philosophic stances appropriate to handling a variety of meanings.[9]

  • Constitutionalism — The modern political concept of constitutionalism establishes the law as supreme over the private will, by integrating nationalism, democracy, and limited government. The political legitimacy of constitutionalism derives from popular belief and acceptance that government action is legitimate for abiding the law codified in the political constitution. The political scientist Carl Joachim Friedrich said that constitutionalism, by dividing power among the organs of government, effectively restrains governmental action with codified law. (see checks and balances)[10]
  • Monarchy — In a monarchy, the governing legitimacy of the king or the queen derives from the popular perception (tradition and custom) that he or she is the rightful ruler, because of the divine right of kings. In the contemporary, twenty-first-century world, such political legitimacy is manifest in the absolute monarchy of the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. Its variant, Constitutional monarchy, is based upon a combination of traditional authority and legal–rational authority, in order to maintain nationalist unity (one people) and democratic administration (a political constitution).
  • Democracy — In a democracy, government legitimacy derives from the popular perception that government abides democratic principles in governing, and is legally accountable to its people.[11]
  • CommunismCommunist states claimed governmental legitimacy for having won a revolution or for having won an election, and, thus, their actions are legitimate, authorised by the people. In the early twentieth century, Communist parties based their arguments upon the scientific nature of Marxism
The Weimar Republic (1918–33), Carl Schmitt, whose work as the “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich” promoted fascism and deconstructed liberal democracy, addressed the matter of political legitimacy in Legalität und Legitimität (Legality and Legitimacy, 1932) a treatise polemically asking that, if 51 per cent of parliamentary votes make for law and legality, then why do the remaining 49 of parliamentarians accept the majority’s decision?[12]

See also


  1. ^ Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (pp. 124–188). New Haven (Connecticut) and London: Yale University Press, 1971
  2. ^ Ashcraft, Richard (ed.): John Locke: Critical Assessments (p. 524). London: Routledge, 1991
  3. ^ Sternberger, Dolf: "Legitimacy" in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (ed. D.L. Sills) Vol. 9 (p. 244). New York: Macmillan, 1968
  4. ^ Lipset, Seymour Martin: Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (2nd ed.) (p. 64). London: Heinemann, 1983
  5. ^ Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (pp. 124–188). New Haven (Connecticut) and London: Yale University Press, 1971
  6. ^ O'Neil, Patrick H. (2010). Essentials of Comparative Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 35–38. ISBN 9780393933765. 
  7. ^ Dogan, Mattei: Conceptions of Legitimacy, Encyclopedia of Government and Politics 2nd edition, Mary Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan editors, Vol. 2, pp. 116-219. London: Routledge 2003
  8. ^ Initially published as Gallie (1956a), then as Gallie (1964).
  9. ^ Garver (1978), p. 168.
  10. ^ Charlton, Roger: Political Realities: Comparative Government (p. 23). London: Longman, 1986
  11. ^ Charlton, Roger: Political Realities: Comparative Government (p. 23). London: Longman, 1986
  12. ^ Schmitt, Carl: Legality and Legitimacy (Jeffrey Seitzer trans.). Durham (North Carolina): Duke University Press, 2004

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Legitimacy — selfref| For the , see . |Legitimacy, from the Latin word legitimare (to make lawful), may refer to:* Legitimacy (law) * Legitimacy of standards * Legitimacy (political science) * Legitimate expectation * Legitimate peripheral participation *… …   Wikipedia

  • political science — political scientist. a social science dealing with political institutions and with the principles and conduct of government. [1770 80] * * * Academic discipline concerned with the empirical study of government and politics. Political scientists… …   Universalium

  • Political aspects of Islam — are derived from the Quran, the Sunna, Muslim history and sometimes elements of political movements outside Islam. Traditional political concepts in Islam include leadership by successors to the Prophet known as Caliphs, (Imamate for Shia); the… …   Wikipedia

  • legitimacy — legitimacy, legitimation Legitimation refers to the process by which power is not only institutionalized but more importantly is given moral grounding. Legitimacy (or authority) is what is accorded to such a stable distribution of power when it… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Political culture — can be defined as The orientation of the citizens of a nation toward politics, and their perceptions of political legitimacy and the traditions of political practice, and the feelings expressed by individuals in the position of the elected… …   Wikipedia

  • Political power — ( imperium in Latin) is a type of power held by a group in a society which allows administration of some or all of public resources, including labour, and wealth. There are many ways to obtain possession of such power. At the nation state level… …   Wikipedia

  • Political settlement — Political Settlement: Concept in political theory linked to Elite theory, States, and State building. Joel Migdal has suggested that the concept of political settlements has a pedigree going back to the work of Barrington Moore. Political… …   Wikipedia

  • Political parties in Iran — gives information on the political parties in Iran. Iran has regular presidential and parliamentary elections. Only those candidates and parties that are approved by the clerical Guardian Council can be elected. The system as a whole is presented …   Wikipedia

  • Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance — (PCIR), or the Political Council of Iraqi Resistance, is an Iraqi insurgent political coalition comprised of six major Sunni militant groups operating inside Iraq. The formation of the umbrella organization was announced on October 11, 2007 by a… …   Wikipedia

  • political icons (and art) — Political figures, artists, intellectuals and unruly elements have readily used emblems, icons and cultural paraphernalia both to express themselves and to claim, or generate, cultural capital. Sometimes the commercial sector has treated Party… …   Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.