My POS 201 Introduction to Politics class (at Northern Arizona University) is in large part an enquiry into the legitimacy of government. The 18th century Enlightenment writer John Locke wrote that government is only legitimate and democratic if it is derived from the consent of the people. Government that is imposed on the people, without their consent, is unpopular and bound to fail. Government must be seen to adhere to popular norms, values and beliefs. Government actions must be seen as appropriate. Legitimacy is derived from the Latin word for law (lex), but does not necessarily mean that all governmental actions have to adhere to domestic and international law. This explains how pre-emptive wars (for example, the US occupation of Iraq in 2003) are largely accepted by the governed, despite being illegal under the laws of war (humanitarian law).
The government must be perceived as sharing the same values as the governed. This implies trust and confidence.
I ask students whether for example, the US government is based on the values of ‘the people’. Students are asked to research various groups that are excluded from high levels of power: the poor, women, ethnic groups etc. For example, 40 percent of the US Congress are millionaires. Can the haves truly reflect the interests of the have nots?
Noam Chomsky, a US political writer, deconstructs the notion of legitimacy in Western government. He examines the methods by which governments gain trust, and thus, legitimacy.
Building from Locke’s idea that government must be consented to freely, Chomsky developed the concept of “the manufacture of consent” (Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media 1988, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky).
As the title suggests, Chomsky and Herman posit that the mass media, because it is owned by ruling elites, distort information and create misinformation to benefit corporate power and the interests of the very wealthy. I think at some level, the public believes it is being manipulated, but feels powerless to stop it. This is evidenced by the fact that only half the population bother to vote, feeling there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans. But that is speculation. More research should be done to find out why and how governments in Western style democracies lose the confidence of the people, and what can be done to restore it.