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Not to be confused with Legitimacy (law).
John Locke: consent of the governed confers political legitimacy.

In political science, legitimacy is the popular acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime. 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.

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. the Southeast Asia Resolution, Public Law 88-408 (The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), which allowed the U.S. to war against Vietnam, without a formal declaration of war; 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.

The Enlightenment-era British social theoretician John Locke (1632–1704) said that political legitimacy derives from popular explicit and implicit consent of the governed: “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]

Types of legitimacy[edit]

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 described by Max Weber 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[edit]

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[edit]

Max Weber: societies are politically cyclical.
Mattei Dogan

The German economist and sociologist Max 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[edit]

In determining the political legitimacy of a system of rule and government, the term proper — political legitimacy — is philosophically an essentially contested concept that facilitates understanding the different applications and interpretations of abstract, qualitative, and evaluative concepts such as “Art”, “social justice”, et cetera, as applied in aesthetics, political philosophy, the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of religion.[8] Therefore, in defining the political legitimacy of a system of government and rule, the term “essentially contested concept” indicates that a key term (communism, democracy, constitutionalism, etc.) has different meanings within a given political argument. Hence, the intellectually restrictive politics of 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 inappropriate philosophic stances for managing a political term that has more than one meaning.[9] (see: (Walter Bryce Gallie)

  • 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 the actions of the government are legitimate because they abide the law codified in the political constitution. The political scientist Carl Joachim Friedrich (1901–84) said that in dividing political power among the organs of government, constitutional law effectively restrains the actions of the government.[10] (see checks and balances)
  • Democracy — In a democracy, government legitimacy derives from the popular perception that the elected government abides democratic principles in governing, and thus is legally accountable to its people.[11]
  • Fascism — In the 1920s and the 1930s, Fascism based its political legitimacy upon the arguments of traditional authority; respectively, the German National Socialists and the Italian Fascists claimed that the political legitimacy of their right to rule derived from philosophically denying the (popular) political legitimacy of elected liberal democratic governments. During the Weimar Republic (1918–33), the political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), whose legal work as the “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich” promoted fascism and deconstructed liberal democracy, addressed the matter in Legalität und Legitimität (Legality and Legitimacy, 1932) an anti-democratic polemic treatise that asked: How can parliamentary government make for law and legality, when a 49 per cent minority accepts as politically legitimate the political will of a 51 per cent majority?[12]

See also[edit]


  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 978-0-393-93376-5. 
  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 translator). Durham (North Carolina): Duke University Press, 2004

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