by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Legitimacy is a thorny problem in politics, because the notion itself is subtle and to some extent necessarily subjective. “Legitimate” doesn’t mean “good.” Legitimacy is instead bound up in the question of consent, and people have been known to consent not only to imperfect governments but to horrifying ones. There is a good argument to be made that the regime in Beijing, for example, enjoys widespread consent, offers a measure of upward accountability, and is legitimate as a political question even though it is both evil and repulsive, and even though the consent it enjoys is not universal. …
… We Americans have a tendency to collapse complex political questions into simpleminded questions of preference: hence “democratic” ends up meaning “I think this is good,” “unconstitutional” denotes only “I don’t like this,” etc. “Legitimate” ends up being used in the same way. This is a real civic failure, because it reinforces the tribal superstition that if a vote or a Supreme Court decision doesn’t go your way, then either the Constitution or democracy has suffered a violation, meaning that at any given time approximately one half of the population is expected to remain at a low boil of pre-revolutionary agitation. This is a reminder that positive education for citizenship is necessary because the alternative to good ideas is bad ideas, not no ideas. The civic mind is a garden, and something will grow there — either flowers or weeds.
“Legitimacy” selfishly construed can be a powerful political weapon. That is why each of the last three American presidents has been characterized by his opponents as illegitimate and why that characterization has been fortified by conspiracy theories: that Bush v. Gore was a corrupt decision, that Barack Obama was a Kenya-born interloper, that Donald Trump’s election was secured by Russian hackers.