Home > News > From Barrett’s confirmation to today’s election, everyone is debating ‘legitimacy.’ Here’s what it means.
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From Barrett’s confirmation to today’s election, everyone is debating ‘legitimacy.’ Here’s what it means.

Three things to know about a critical democratic concept

- November 2, 2020

Will Americans feel that the 2020 election results are legitimate? Did Amy Coney Barrett’s rushed confirmation hurt the Supreme Court’s legitimacy? With questions like these being widely discussed, “legitimacy” has clearly become a hot button in U.S. political discussion.

So what is legitimacy, and why does it matter in politics? Here’s what you need to know.

What is legitimacy?

Most people have an intuitive understanding of what legitimacy means. It implies something more than just popularity and something different from legality. It’s easiest to think of it in terms of a relationship. On one side of the relationship are people who share norms, values, or expectations. On the other side is the object of legitimacy — such as an election, a nomination, a law, a leader, or any number of other things where legitimacy might be questioned.

Legitimacy means that the object of legitimacy meets peoples’ expectations, and that those people believe their expectations are desirable or appropriate. In this way, legitimacy is like fair play in a game. The rules define the relationship between two teams, and play is only fair when both teams approve of the rules, and when both play by the same rules.

For example, people in the United States select government officials through elections. The principle of “one person, one vote” sets the expectation that, in our elections, no person’s vote should count for more than another’s. If people in the United States consider this principle desirable or appropriate, then a U.S. election will only be considered legitimate if it adheres to that principle.

That’s why politicians on the right and the left are sounding alarms about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Whether they are making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud or condemning efforts at voter suppression, there is consensus that violating the one-person, one-vote principle will undermine the legitimacy of the election.

How will Americans respond when there’s another split between the electoral college and the popular vote?

Why are people talking about legitimacy?

Increasingly, informed observers have been asking whether U.S. political processes and institutions continue to have legitimacy.

In 2001, sociologist Morris Zelditch Jr. wrote, “Legitimation is a process that brings the unaccepted into accord with accepted norms, values, beliefs, practices, and procedures.” Legitimation, or establishing that something is legitimate, routinely relies on justifications. Justifications serve the social function of maintaining and repairing relationships when expectations have been violated. For example, if my family expects me home by 5 p.m. and instead I walk in unharmed three days later, our relationships might be damaged if I cannot offer an acceptable justification for my absence.

As social scientists have observed in other contexts, justifying something’s legitimacy is common when legitimacy is in doubt. Take for example Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extended discussion of legitimacy at Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing on Oct. 26. “Legitimacy comes from traditions, rules, and the Constitution,” McConnell said, adding, “We have abided by the norms and traditions dictated by our history.”

It seems likely that McConnell sought to blunt criticisms that the confirmation process was an illegitimate power grab. If voters’ expectations have been violated — for instance, voters may now expect that confirmations should not take place during an election year — the Republican Party may have felt it was important to justify Barrett’s confirmation as voters prepared to assess their relationships with the government today.

Trump’s refusal to respect the vote shatters ‘all the historically ingrained expectations’ about American democracy

Why does legitimacy matter?

Many social scientists see legitimacy as a precondition for effective governance. Legitimacy promotes stability, support and acceptance of authority. Ensuring that everyone agrees to a set of rules and everyone plays by those same rules increases the likelihood that people will accept an outcome — whether it is the winner of an election, the passage of a law, or the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice — even if that outcome is not what they’d hoped for.

When some aspect of our political process lacks legitimacy, we can no longer take for granted that people will accept or comply with the outcome.

That’s what we are seeing now. Because Republicans reversed their positions on whether the Senate should confirm Supreme Court nominees in a presidential election year, instead of widespread acceptance of a court that’s to be highly conservative for years to come, academics, politicians and legal experts alike are increasingly discussing judicial reform. And as the president has sown doubt about the legitimacy of this year’s election, his allies have hinted at the possibility of violence if he is not declared the winner.

To be sure, a loss of legitimacy will not necessarily cause the U.S. political system to collapse. As sociologist Colin Beck writes, “history is full of numerous examples of regimes that were believed to be popularly illegitimate but persisted.”

Rather, the risk of a political system losing legitimacy is that governing will depend on personal incentives — people supporting the system because it benefits them, or because they fear reprisal for opposition — instead of relying on a social contract. What is at risk, then, is the foundation of our democracy.

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Eric W. Schoon (@ewschoon) is assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.