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What makes a government legitimate?

Currently in the US the willingness to mount a sustained protest against injustices is usually lacking. Even the tea party movement, while very vocal, did not take to the streets on a continuous basis. The closest we came to that in recent days was in Wisconsin when there were continuous protests at the state capital against the laws eliminating collective bargaining for public employees. For a while those mass protests spread to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Why didn’t they take root and spread?

Part of the reason is the fact that in the US voting is still perceived as a viable mechanism for change. This gives the government in power a legitimacy that people are unwilling to challenge. Many people in the US are wary of change that comes about through mass mobilizations in the street because of the sense that elected governments are more representative of the views of the population than crowds of demonstrators, however large.

This raises the question of what makes a government legitimate. One could argue that a government that gets into office as a result of a vote of the people has a presumptive claim to legitimacy, while authoritarian governments that seize and retain power without a vote of any kind are presumptively illegitimate. Those countries that have a tight grip on almost every aspect of their people’s life and can intimidate them into submission (such as North Korea and Burma) are clearly seen as illegitimate.

But things are not that simple. After all, many authoritarian governments (such as in Zimbabwe) conduct elections. Even Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had ‘elections’ that he regularly won by a landslide. Such elections are hardly free and fair since the rulers monopolize the media, restrict, arrest, or otherwise threaten their opponents, rig the ballot boxes, and so on. So the legitimacy of a government ultimately rests on something more subjective, whether large numbers of people in a country feel that their government is legitimate and is responsive to their needs. In Egypt, people clearly felt that it did not, and were willing to challenge it.

In the US, elections are also rigged but not in an obvious way. Here it is done by creating a system in which money rules. The extremely long election season, the dominance of two parties that are merely factions of a single pro-war/pro-business party, a media dominated by corporate interests, the important role that television advertisements play, all conspire to make the ability to raise large sums of money the most important criterion for getting elected to high office, and effectively rules out anyone who wants to challenge the oligarchy. The legitimacy of American governments can be questioned but the abuses are not as yet blatant enough to cause vast numbers of people to take to the streets and demand change.

Conversely, some authoritarian governments that do not hold elections may have more claims to legitimacy than those that do. Take for example China. It is undoubtedly an authoritarian government. It too controls the media to some extent, arrests dissidents, and cracks down on too much open dissent. With its huge population it should be possible to get millions of people into the streets to protest against the government if they felt strongly enough. But the people have not as yet done so, suggesting that they are not as yet willing to challenge the government’s claim to legitimacy.

So how does one measure the legitimacy of a country’s government? The above discussion suggests that one important measure is the ability to mobilize sufficient numbers of people to challenge the government on important issues, people who are willing to risk arrest, beatings, torture, even death for their rights and by doing so are able to inspire enough people to join in the protests that they paralyze the government and even make the military, the ultimate power, hesitant to move against them.

In Egypt, the demonstrators inspired the organized worker trade groups to join them in the later stages and this was an important step in delegitimizing the government. Currently in Greece there have been ongoing protests against the government’s austerity measures that are being forced on the people because of pressures from the IMF and France and Germany as a condition for getting aid that will eventually go to the banksters to bail them out of the crisis they were largely responsible for in the first place. The Greek trade unions have joined the protestors and are calling for general strikes.

The attempt to create a sustained mass protest beginning on October 6 that I wrote about yesterday is an attempt to relight the fires that flickered briefly in Wisconsin. The oligarchy in the US and its representatives in the US in the Democratic and Republican parties have been successful so far in their policy of divide and rule by pitting ordinary people against each other, public sector workers against private, whites against ethnic minorities, blacks against Hispanics, and so on. They will try to create such divisions again among the October 6 movement participants.

In the US, organized labor is often part of the Washington establishment and not eager for a confrontation in the streets and so they tend not to throw their support wholeheartedly into mass movements that they cannot control or which do not serve their narrow interests. This may change in the US as workers find themselves squeezed between losing their jobs overseas and facing cutbacks in wages, benefits, and public services at home. Sandy Pope, a 55-year old woman, is an insurgent candidate running for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, wants to make that union more independent of the Washington establishment.

But in the US, it is the unorganized and diverse middle class, even though getting steadily impoverished, that is the most significant group. How they respond to the protests will be a significant factor in its success. If the tea party groups ever realize that they have far more in common with the October 6 groups than with the oligarchy they have chosen to side with, then we might witness the beginnings of a real movement for change.

Comments

  1. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  2. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  3. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  4. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  5. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  6. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  7. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  8. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  9. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

  10. Nathan & the Cynic says

    I don’t disagree with Richard’s point about people rewriting the Constitution, but can you imagine what a Constitutional Convention would be like in this day and age? You’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of amendments proposed covering whatever the current cause of the moment was. Not to mention specific exemptions for certain acts for whomever was really in power at the time. And the media coverage would be terrifying. I literally can’t imagine one reaching whatever majority was needed, absent something like a civil war or total societal collapse.

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