The following is an interview with Bruce Gilley, author of The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy.
Q: Isn’t legitimacy just smoke and mirrors, a way for the powerful to mystify and subdue the weak?
Bruce Gilley: Well, if that’s true then a large part of the population of every major industrial liberal democracy, not to mention many developing countries, is brainwashed. I think that such a view is monstrously condescending, and, more to the point, untrue. People generally have good reasons for believing what they do. We might not agree with them, but that is a separate matter. In any case, I find in The Right to Rule that states which are more democratic, better governed, and developing faster tend to be more legitimate. What’s so bad about that? Even when you peer beneath the surface, legitimacy appears to be generated through reasonable and rational processes of communication and evaluation. Radicals of both left and right have long held the average person in great disdain. History speaks for the ravages of their alternative utopias. Once you start to take seriously the question of what is legitimate in the mind of the average person, you pretty much guarantee that you are going to design a state that is “populist” in some sense. That almost always means the sorts of dull democracies under which we live.
Q: But doesn’t that mean some pretty awful regimes can be popularly legitimate too?
BG: Yes, sometimes. And that’s when we need to be able to make the distinction between what is empirically legitimate and what is normatively legitimate. My argument here is that for the most part we need to be more sensitive to local conceptions of legitimacy. China is a good example, a country with a remarkably legitimate regime despite its poor human rights record. This case strains my own normative sensibilities, my willingness to allow a “margin of appreciation” for what a given notion of legitimacy should allow. But it is an outlier. Most countries with such poor rights records are reviled by their own citizens—think of Zimbabwe, or Myanmar. They are, in other words, in legitimacy crisis, and that has long been a central factor in political change or even political revolutions.
Q: Talking about legitimacy crisis, don’t we have one here in the United States?
BG: Actually, by any reasonable measure, no. In my own comparative measure (of 72 countries), the United States is the eighth most legitimate state in the world. Americans vote, pay their taxes, protest peacefully, and express an awful lot of support for their democracy and its institutions. Again, you might not like that fact. But it is true. If you think that the United States is illegitimate, you have a lot of work to do to convince your fellow Americans to share your view. And please don’t throw up your arms and cry out, “You’re brainwashed!” when they politely disagree with your arguments. Of course, I hasten to add that all political power suffers in some sense from a legitimacy deficit. A good portion, maybe 10 to 20 percent, of the people in my highest-ranked state, Denmark, also grumble about their state. Political power is by nature often nonconsensual—we are born into states and, short of death or emigration, do not have much choice but to live under their power. From that perspective, the achievement of legitimacy is a social miracle, and one that should be treated by all concerned as a precious commodity.
Q: But since it is all about self-interest, why not just call it “support” rather than use a fancy word like “legitimacy”?
BG: Because I think the two are different. Legitimacy, the right to rule, concerns evaluations made from a common good perspective, whereas support could be purely out of self-interest. We live in an era in which economistic or rationalistic views of human behavior predominate. These posit humans acting in ways to maximize some self-interest, often with a deep evolutionary drumbeat being played in the background. If there is any challenge to them, it is coming from behavioral theories that are no less primitive in their conceptions of humans, that we have deep-seated irrationalities that guide our behavior. I take legitimacy to be a good example of how these approaches fail, at least when one considers large groups and evaluations of their organizations. States that should be legitimate generally are, and those that are doing better and doing worse tend to see their legitimacy change correspondingly. At the individual level, people express beliefs in the legitimacy of their states even when they are personally doing very poorly, and vice versa. Legitimacy is a ringing reminder of the moral nature of mankind.
Q: So then why does legitimacy matter?
BG: Some have argued that legitimacy is the central question in all of the social sciences. I agree with them that it is important, but so are other factors—economic development levels come to mind—so I would not go so far. However, I think that within the study of politics, legitimacy is clearly among the most important issues. In the final chapter to The Right to Rule I consider a whole range of political outcomes—from economic growth and social revolutions to political change, failed states, and foreign policy—and conclude that no other factor has such a consistently important role in explanation as legitimacy. I cite some famous scholars who have made fun of the concept as too fluffy for the hard-boiled world of politics. Sometimes this is just so much posturing, putting on a hard-edged gloss in order to establish one’s bona fides as a good political scientist. Yet empirically, legitimacy is, I argue, a powerful and “hard” part of the explanation of many political outcomes. No state can escape the moral fetters of the population over which it rules and legitimacy, the question of whether a state has gained the right to rule, takes us right to the heart of this matter.
Q: What is your policy advice?
BG: I divide this into advice for low-legitimacy states (or low to medium) and for high-legitimacy states (or high to medium). For the former, I believe that creating a virtuous cycle of legitimation is a key challenge in order to escape from developmental or political crises. I have had some interesting exchanges on this question with colleagues and officials in Afghanistan and Iraq—both places where the centrality of legitimacy to state rebuilding is so obviously apparent to those on the ground. Like trust, legitimacy is difficult to build but easy to squander. I outline a particular “state-trusting-society” theory that seeks to show how countries caught in vicious cycles of delegitimation can escape—as did Uganda after 1986, which is the case study in the book. For the high- or higher-legitimacy states, my policy advice is to recognize that you cannot stand still. What is interesting about legitimacy is that it seems to constantly adjust to higher expectations. People recognize what other states are doing or have achieved, and come to expect the same. So to fall behind in meeting new standards of democracy, policy fairness, good governance, broadly shared development, or even cultural and social rejuvenation is to court legitimacy decline. I think France is the best example of this danger, a country that ranked 33rd out of my 72 states and that, as one can see, is constantly rocked by protests, violence, and broader social alienation. Legitimacy matters for every state, and my advice to policy makers, to quote one development economist who shares my view, is to “go out and get it.”
Bruce Gilley is an assistant professor of political science at Portland State University. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy and is the author of China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead; Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China’s New Elite; Model Rebels: The Rise and Fall of China’s Richest Village; and, with Andrew J. Nathan, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files.