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America’s Legitimation Crisis

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America is in the middle of a legitimation crisis.

     This is an extremely serious problem.


What Is a Legitimation Crisis?


Legitimation is one of the most fundamental aspects of societal survival.


Legitimation is the degree to which a society accepts the authorities of that society as being legitimate. Legitimate means accepting authorities right to hold the offices they hold, authorities’ right to do the job associated with their office and subordinates’ obligation to do what that authority says.


This does not have to be mindless slavish obedience. In a democracy, we criticize our leaders. We vote them out of office on occasion. At work, we can complain about the boss and make suggestions to the boss herself, or to her supervisors. We can decide whether or not we will undergo the surgery that our doctor recommends.


But we accept the right of the political leader, the boss and the doctor to be our political leader, boss or doctor, and to do the job associated with a political leader, boss or doctor. We do most of what that political leader, boss or doctor wants us to do.


We pay our taxes. We obey the laws. We show up at work when we are supposed to show up at work. We do our jobs in a professional manner. We show up for our doctor’s appointments. We take the pills our doctor wants us to take.


We may or may not think we have the perfect President, the perfect boss or the perfect doctor. But we acknowledge that those officials have a job they need to do and we support them doing it. The President is supposed to solve the problems of the nation. The boss is supposed to keep the company from going bankrupt. The doctor is supposed to keep you alive and comfortable.


If they can’t do their jobs, the nation careens from crisis to crisis, the company goes broke and you die from an untreated medical condition.


The importance of legitimation has been endorsed by conservative and leftist theorists alike. Conservative theorist Talcott Parsons argued that legitimation is the glue that keeps societies functioning. He suggested that half of the sub-systems of society – those of integration (social control) and those of latent-pattern-maintenance (culture) – were explicit mechanisms for ensuring that leaders would be legitimated. He argued that leadership requires talent. Not everyone has the skills to do the jobs that are required at the top. Having someone who knows what they are doing at the top is essential.


Societies have screening methods to ensure that good people get the top jobs. (They are not foolproof but they are not bad. Losing coaches don’t stay with their teams very long.) Once the right leaders are in there, the general population has to cooperate with them to see that their great plans come to reality. The new head of the cancer clinic, who wants to adjust treatment protocols from the old systems based on male-only research to the new systems that allow for gender differences in responses to treatment, has to be allowed to implement her plans. Otherwise female patients will die unnecessarily.


Jurgen Habermas, a German critical theorist, argued that the economy and the state survive only because of a widespread societal legitimation of authority. Being Marxist friendly, he was ambivalent about whether he was for or against the survival of capitalism. But he was convinced that economic growth did depend on the general population legitimating the capitalist class. He felt this was highly likely to become undone – either due to long term periods of economic stagnation or to unsolvable issues of ecological decline.


This was not a dumb prediction.


The current militant conservatism we see in the United States, and Europe comes in a large part from workers in dying industrial frostbelt areas – where jobs are leaching steadily to China and to the rest of the world. No government seems able to stop this. This makes the workers in these areas increasingly skeptical of government.


Ecological radicals are disenchanted with the business community, and to a lesser extent, with the government that is bound to the interests of that business community. They too are losing their faith in institutions, although their hostility is far greater to corporations.


The American Legitimation Crisis


We currently have a President, a political party and their entire base of supporters – essentially half the nation – who say that election wins are not legitimate.

Even if they lose all their court cases, the stalls and delays in implementing the next administration means that the American government will be paralyzed for its first few months in office.


Having a paralyzed government is not acceptable when there is a major pandemic killing the population, nor when there is a world full of serious geopolitical threats and an economy that needs rescuing. And this is not to mention such enduring problems as saving social security, or preventing the ecosystem from being destroyed, repairing a criminal justice system that is in disarray or maintaining the scientific and technological position of the nation against serious foreign competition.


Paralysis is never acceptable – even without urgent issues that require attention. When urgent issues require attention – paralysis can be lethal.


The assault on the legitimacy of the Biden regime is paralleled by

a. an assault on the legitimacy of all government agencies and the “deep state”

b. an assault on the validity of medical authority (inconceivable in a pandemic)

c. an assault on the validity of scientific authority (inconceivable in a world facing ecological destruction)


This is not purely a conservative phenomenon.


The left has promoted an assault on the legitimacy of big business. Business is the basis of economic growth.


Both sides have promoted an assault on the legitimacy of the cultural institutions of the other side. This includes news reporting and the presentation of facts.


De-legitimation has been the stock in trade of the Trump administration. The election and post-election have produced an exponential increase in de-legitimizing behavior and an exponential increase in social pathology.


Will democracy survive?


Will the American economy survive?


Will American society survive?


Will even we as individuals survive rampaging diseases and ecological threats?


A society with no legitimation is a society filled with hatred.


We are about to choke on our own bile.

For More Information

If you don’t want to read grand theory, there is a Wiki page on Legitimation Crisis that is surprisingly good.

On Parsons, see his 1951 Social System (Free Press.). Parsons is murderously difficult to read. His chapter six on the structuration of motivation gives a short view of the problem as does an explicit discussion on pp. 348-59.

Habermas is equally hard to read. See his 1975 Legitimation Crisis (Beacon).

On the current issues of the delegitimation of the state and of authorities in general, just turn on any news channel.

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