Legitimacy (political)


political science Political science is the scientific study of politics Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of ...
, legitimacy is the
right Rights are legal Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is describe ...
and acceptance of an
authority In the fields of sociology Sociology is the study of society, human social behaviour, patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture that surrounds everyday life. It is a social science that uses various methods of Empiric ...

, usually a governing law or a
regime In politics Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. The branch of social sc ...

. Whereas ''authority'' denotes a specific position in an established government, the term ''legitimacy'' denotes a system of government—wherein ''government'' denotes "
sphere of influence In the field of international relations, a sphere of influence (SOI) is a spatial region or concept division over which a state or organization has a level of cultural Culture () is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and ...
". An authority viewed as legitimate often has the right and justification to exercise
power Power typically refers to: * Power (physics) In physics, power is the amount of energy transferred or converted per unit time. In the International System of Units, the unit of power is the watt, equal to one joule per second. In older works, p ...
. 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 In political Politics (from , ) is the set of activities that are associated with Decision-making, making decisions in Social group, groups, or other forms of Power (social and political), power relations between individuals, such as the di ...

.Dahl, Robert A. ''Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition'' (pp. 124–188). New Haven (Connecticut) and London: Yale University Press, 1971 In Chinese political philosophy, since the historical period of the
Zhou Dynasty The Zhou dynasty ( ; Old Chinese Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese, and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscript ...
(1046–256 BC), the political legitimacy of a ruler and government was derived from the
Mandate of Heaven The Mandate of Heaven () is a Chinese political philosophy that was used in ancient Ancient history is the aggregate of past eventsAztec King Nezahualpiltzintli of Texcoco King is the title given to a male monarch in a variety of cont ...
, and unjust rulers who lost said mandate therefore lost the right to rule the people. In
moral philosophy Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, Metaphysics, existence, Epistemology, knowledge, Ethics, values, Philosophy of min ...

moral philosophy
, the term ''legitimacy'' is often positively interpreted as the
normative Normative generally means relating to an evaluative standard. Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm Nor ...
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. The
Enlightenment Enlightenment, enlighten or enlightened may refer to: Age of Enlightenment * Age of Enlightenment, period in Western intellectual history from the late 17th to late 18th century, centered in France but also encompassing: ** Midlands Enlightenment ...
-era British social philosopher
John Locke John Locke (; 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism Liberalism is a ...

John Locke
(1632–1704) said that political legitimacy derives from popular explicit and implicit
consent of the governed Consent occurs when one person voluntarily agrees to the proposal or desires of another. It is a term of common speech, with specific definitions as used in such fields as the law, medicine, research, and sexual relationships. Consent as understo ...
: "The argument of the 'Second''''Treatise'' is that the government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed." The German
political philosopher Political philosophy is the philosophical Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, existence, knowledge Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someo ...

political philosopher
Dolf Sternberger Dolf Sternberger (originally ''Adolf Sternberger''; July 28, 1907 in Wiesbaden Wiesbaden () is a city A city is a large human settlement.Goodall, B. (1987) ''The Penguin Dictionary of Human Geography''. London: Penguin.Kuper, A. and Kuper ...
said that " gitimacy 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". The American political sociologist
Seymour Martin Lipset Seymour Martin Lipset (March 18, 1922 – December 31, 2006) was an American sociologist. His major work was in the fields of political sociology, trade union organization, social stratification, public opinion, and the sociology of intellectua ...
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". The American political scientist 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.


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 German sociologist Max Weber are traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal: * 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 Tribe, tribalism. * Charismatic legitimacy derives from the ideas and personal charisma of the leader, a person 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 the leader in power. However, if the charismatic leader has a successor, a government derived from charismatic legitimacy might continue. * 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.


Numinous legitimacy

In a theocracy, government legitimacy derives from the spiritual authority of a god or a goddess. * In ancient Egypt (c. 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.

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. One way civil society grants legitimacy to governments is through public elections. There are also those who refute the legitimacy offered by public elections, pointing out that the amount of legitimacy public elections can grant depends significantly on the electoral system conducting the elections. In the United States, this issue has surfaced around how voting is impacted by gerrymandering, the United States Electoral College's ability to produce winners by minority rule and discouragement of voter turnout outside of Swing states, and the Shelby County v. Holder, repeal of part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Another challenge to the political legitimacy offered by elections is whether or not marginalized groups such as women or those who are incarcerated are allowed to vote. Civil legitimacy can be granted through different measures for accountability than voting, such as financial transparency and stake-holder accountability. In the international system another method for measuring civil legitimacy is through accountability to international human rights norms. In an effort to determine what makes a government legitimate, the Center for Public Impact launched a project to hold a global conversation about legitimacy stating, inviting citizens, academics and governments to participate. The organization also publishes case studies that consider the theme of legitimacy as it applies to projects in a number of different countries including Bristol, Lebanon and Canada.

"Good" governance vs "bad" governance

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission (OHCHR) established standards of what is considered "good governance" that include the key attributes transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation and responsiveness (to the needs of the people).

Input, output and throughput legitimacy

Assessing the political legitimacy of a government can be done by looking at three different aspects of which a government can derive legitimacy. Fritz W. Scharpf, Fritz Scharpf introduced two normative criteria, which are output legitimacy, i.e. the effectiveness of policy outcomes for people and input legitimacy, the responsiveness to citizen concerns as a result of participation by the people. A third normative criterion was added by Vivien A. Schmidt, Vivien Schmidt, who analyzes legitimacy also in terms of what she calls throughput, i.e. the governance processes that happen in between input and output.

Negative and positive legitimacy

Abulof distinguishes between negative political legitimacy (NPL), which is about the object of legitimation (answering ''what'' is legitimate), and positive political legitimacy (PPL), which is about the source of legitimation (answering ''who'' is the 'legitimator'). NPL is concerned with establishing where to draw the line between good and bad; PPL with who should be drawing it in the first place. From the NPL perspective, political legitimacy emanates from appropriate actions; from a PPL perspective, it emanates from appropriate actors. In the social contract tradition, Hobbes and Locke focused on NPL (stressing security and liberty, respectively), while Rousseau focused more on PPL ("the people" as the legitimator). Arguably, political stability depends on both forms of legitimacy.Abulof, Uriel (2015).
"Can't Buy Me Legitimacy": The Elusive and Illusive Stability of Mideast Rentier Regimes
Journal of International Relations and Development.

Instrumental and substantive legitimacy

Weber's understanding of legitimacy rests on shared ''values'', such as tradition and rational-legality. But policies that aim at (re-)constructing legitimacy by improving the service delivery or 'output' of a state often only respond to shared ''needs''. Therefore, substantive sources of legitimacy need to be distinguished from more instrumental ones. ''Instrumental legitimacy'' rests on "the rational assessment of the usefulness of an authority ..., describing to what extent an authority responds to shared needs. Instrumental legitimacy is very much based on the perceived effectiveness of service delivery. Conversely, ''substantive legitimacy'' is a more abstract normative judgment, which is underpinned by shared values. If a person believes that an entity has the right to exercise social control, he or she may also accept personal disadvantages."

Perceived legitimacy

Establishing legitimacy is not simply transactional; service provision, elections and rule of law do not automatically grant legitimacy. State legitimacy rests on citizens’ perceptions and expectations of the state, and these are co-constructed between state actors and citizens. What legitimises a state is also contextually specific. McCullough et al. (2020) show that in different countries, provision of different services build state legitimacy. In Nepal public water provision was most associated with state legitimacy, while in Pakistan it was health services.


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 voting, 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, Fascism, Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini, and Francoist Spain under General Francisco Franco. The French political scientist Mattei Dogan's contemporary interpretation of 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 21st century. Moreover, 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 Ruhollah Khomeini. That traditional authority has disappeared in the Middle East; that the rule-proving exceptions are Islamic Republic of Iran, 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

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 properties, qualitative, and Evaluation, evaluative concepts such as "art", "social justice", et cetera, as applied in aesthetics, political philosophy, the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of religion. 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 Dogma#Dogma outside of religion, dogmatism ("My answer is right, and all others are wrong"), scepticism ("I don't know what is true, and I even doubt my own opinion"), 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 (see W. B. Gallie, Walter Bryce Gallie). Establishing what qualifies as a legitimate form of government continues to be a topic of great philosophical controversy. Forms of legitimate government are posited to include: * Communism, where the legitimacy of a Communist state derives from having won a civil war, a revolution, or from having won an election such as the Presidency of Salvador Allende (1970–73) in Chile; thus, the actions of the Communist government are legitimate, authorised by the people. In the early 20th century, Communism, Communist parties based the arguments supporting the legitimacy of their rule and government upon the scientific nature of Marxism (see dialectical materialism). * Constitutionalism. where 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 by the law codified in the political constitution. The political scientist Carl Joachim Friedrich (1901–1984) said that, in dividing political power among the organs of government, constitutional law effectively restrains the actions of the governmentCharlton, Roger: ''Political Realities: Comparative Government'' (p. 23). London: Longman, 1986 (see checks and balances). * Democracy, where government legitimacy derives from the popular perception that the elected government abides by democratic principles in governing, and thus is legally accountable to its people. * Fascism, where in the 1920s and the 1930s it based its political legitimacy upon the arguments of traditional authority; respectively, the German Nazism, National Socialists and the Italian Fascism, Italian Fascists claimed that the political legitimacy of their right to rule derived from philosophically denying the (popular) political legitimacy of elected Liberalism, liberal democracy, democratic governments. During the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), the political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888–1985)—whose legal work as the "Crown Jurist of the Third Reich" promoted fascism and Deconstruction, deconstructed liberal democracy—addressed the matter in ''Legalität und Legitimität'' (Legality and Legitimacy, 1932), an anti-democratic Polemics, 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?" * Monarchy, where the divine right of kings establishes the political legitimacy of the rule of the monarch (king or queen); legitimacy also derives from the popular perception (tradition and Convention (norm), custom) and acceptance of the monarch as the rightful ruler of nation and country. Contemporarily, such divine-right legitimacy is manifest in the absolute monarchy of the House of Saud (est. 1744), a royal family who have ruled and governed Saudi Arabia since the 18th century. Moreover, constitutional monarchy is a variant form of monarchic political legitimacy which combines traditional authority and legal–rational authority, by which means the monarch maintains nationalist unity (one people) and democratic administration (a political constitution).

See also


{{Authority control Authority Political concepts Political culture Social concepts Sovereignty