Political legitimacy is an example of a virtue relating to political institutions regarding the governing laws, policies and the candidates that aspire to hold political positions. In a narrow perspective, political legitimacy can be defined as the universal recognition of the governing law or regime and considering as authority. In this context, authority represents a political position that has been founded on an existing government. Legitimacy on the other hand signifies a system of government, which represents the sphere of influence. During the era of enlightenment, the aspect of political legitimacy is perceived as a fundamental pre-requisite for effective governing. This implies that lack of political results to the government facing a legislative deadlock that will ultimately result to its collapse. Political legitimacy is usually associated with the rationalization of use of coercive power and the establishment of political authority. In some cases, legitimacy is associated with the sanctioning of the current political authority, which represents the right to rule that entails the right to give commands and put into effect this commands through the use of coercive power. The significant area of concern is whether the aspect of political legitimacy includes political obligations or not. The aim of this paper is to explore the concept of political legitimacy as it developed from the enlightenment thinking and the various ways through which it has been incorporated into the American system of government. In addition, the paper outlines the history of legitimacy and its subsequent developments.
John Locke, a social theorist from Britain during the enlightenment era argued that political legitimacy is a result of explicit and implicit consent. The proposition of the Second Treatise with regard to the aspect of political legitimacy is that the government is not considered legitimate unless the government operates under the consent of the people that are being governed (Peter, 2008). The aspect of “consent of the governed” is a concept of political theory whereby the legitimacy of the government and its respective moral right to make use of the state power is valid and considered legal only if it comes from the people that are subjects of the political power. According to Dolf Sternberger, a German political philosopher, political legitimacy forms the basis of the government power basing on how it is administered; this entails the consciousness of the part of the government that it has the right of governing and with the consent of the people being governed. According to sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, political legitimacy incorporates the capacity and the capability of the existing political regime to bring about a belief that the government in place is the most suitable for the society. Robert Dahl, an American political theorist, on the other hand compared political legitimacy to a reservoir; political stability is attainable provided the water level reaches a particular level. The legitimacy of the political regime is usually endangered when the water levels does not reach the required threshold (Peter, 2008).
According to John Locke, individuals in a political regime that is legitimate are free owing to the fact they have equal political authority (Locke, 2010). This means that their consent forms the source of power for the government and they can dictate the manner in which they want the government to rule them. Locke’s viewpoint of political legitimacy is that it results to the creation of a state of equal rights. In addition, the legitimacy of a political regime at the civil state relies on whether the process of transferring authority was done in the correct manner in accordance to the consent of the individuals. As a result, any person who gives his/her consent to a political authority is bound to respect the laws established by the state. An analysis of Locke’s viewpoint regarding political legitimacy is negative because it provides an account of when an effective political authority stops being legitimate. Basing on this viewpoint, the legitimacy of a political regime is determined by the constraints it imposes on the natural law. A regime that overstates the limits of the natural law stops being legit, meaning that people who consented it no longer have the obligation to respect its laws. Such views were contrary to the opinions of Hobbes, who argues that political authority is determined by the limits of natural law and that it is subject to creation by social contract. According to this perspective, political legitimacy is determined by the capability of the state to offer adequate protection for its citizens (Hobbes, 1976). Therefore, it is justified for everyone to give his/her consent to the regime that guarantees his or her protection. The significant limitation of Hobbes viewpoint is that he fails to offer a precise distinction between legitimate and the deployment of coercive power when governing.
With regard to the works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he attempts to determine the relationship between political legitimacy and the establishment of authority. According to Rousseau, governing without legitimacy can be considered the use of power and not authority. This means that use of coercive power is justified in order to establish the citizens’ obligation to obey the state laws (Peter, 2008). In addition, Rousseau attempts to differentiate between a legitimate social order and a social system that is based on rules of the power. Expression of power is viewed as a characteristic of the civil state. This means that citizens are a slave of the civil state. The main issue of concern is the precise conditions that the civil state can use coercive power to augment its laws. A state with this attributes is considered legitimate. Rousseau viewpoint of political legitimacy can be distinguished from Locke’s viewpoint because it does correlate the aspect of natural law to the process that civil states oversteps the natural law to augment its laws and still be legitimate (Rousseau, 2008). Therefore, legitimate political authority is attained using convention (Grofman & Scott, 1998). Rousseau argues that the legitimacy of a political regime comes from the rationalization of the civil state laws. Such an approach can be used to determine the relationship that exists between political legitimacy with the imposition of the penal code and the role it plays in legitimizing the use of punishment and incarceration in the American system of justice. This implies that individuals in a state have the moral obligation to follow the laws established by the state. The basic argument is that the civil state and the respective political coercive power is a core requirement for ensuring moral and social order. It ensures that individuals in a state can conform to the rules of the state. This legitimizes the use of coercive order to foster legal public justice, which is used for ensuring morality and social conformance to the laws of the state (Montesquieu, 2006).
The aspect of political legitimacy is applicable in the United States under the concept of the “consent of the governed”. According to the theories that are analogous to the thinking of John Locke, the US founders were of the opinion that state that has been established basing on the sanction of free and equal citizens represents its legitimacy and legal authority. This is found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. Elections of the assembly members should serve to represent the people, and that the elections should be free in such a manner that all men that have adequate evidence of common interest to the community have the right of suffrage (Montesquieu, 2006). Despite the fact that the Continental Congress lacked explicit legal authority of governing after the American Revolution, the congress undertook all that government functions. Some of the government functions undertaken by the Continental Congress including the signing of treaties, the appointment of generals and ambassadors, issuance of money and disbursement of funds. The Congress lacked the legal authority to collect and impose taxes and it was required to ask for funds and supplies from the various states in order to offer the required support during the war. Political legitimacy is evident in the context of the Congress because the appointment of the delegates is based on popular conventions, meaning that the will of the United States citizens forms the source of power for the United States government. For instance, the people have the right to amend and change the constitution of the United States using a majority vote without considering the supermajority of the legislatures at the state level; this is a provision in Article V of the constitution of the United States (Peter, 2008).
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