End of Political Legitimacy in America

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime. Whereas “authority” denotes a specific position in an established government, the term “legitimacy” denotes a system of government — wherein “government” denotes “sphere of influence”. An authority viewed as legitimate often has the right and justification to exercise power. Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse.

We’ve come to that point of legislative deadlock during this administration and the forecast is uncertain. Now of course the sudden collapse of legitimacy has been long in preparing. Just as a singer or writer who becomes an overnight success normally gets there after many years of hard work, the implosion of a system of government normally follows many years of bad decisions and unheeded warnings, and it’s not too hard in retrospect to trace how simmering unrest with our American political process will eventually rise to a full boil in the near term future.

As Greer says, “We have seen plenty of equally tawdry scandals in the United States of late, and it’s easy to ignore the impact of, let’s say, the Obama administration’s systematic refusal to bring charges against any of the financiers whose spectacularly blatant acts of fraud helped fuel, and then pop, the housing bubble of a few years back. Had Obama acted otherwise, the Democratic party would likely have come to dominate the American political scene for the next forty years as thoroughly as it did for the four decades or so after 1932; instead, by giving the country a remarkably good idea of what third and fourth terms of George W. Bush would have looked like, the Obama administration has convinced a sizable fraction of Americans that they have nothing to hope for from either party.”1

It’s this loss of faith in the Party system itself that is at the heart of our current malaise. No one trusts either party to work for the people. Both parties seem closed off in their own ghostspeak tunnel-vision worlds, their corporate funding, think tanks, intellectuals, and media pundits completely out of touch with the vast majority of constituents.

In the crisis of legitimacy that’s building in today’s America, a rising spiral of conflicts between regions also plays an important role, but this time the federal government can hardly count on the passionate loyalty it got a century and a half ago from the Northeast and the Midwest; in fact, it’s hard to think of any corner of the country where distrust and disaffection for the current government haven’t put down deep roots already.

If and when the crisis comes, it’s anyone’s guess what exactly will happen, but the possibility that the states will call on their power to redefine the Constitution — whether they use it to reshape the national government, or to let the country split apart into smaller nations along regional lines — belongs somewhere on the list of potential outcomes. For that matter, it’s anyone’s guess what will spark such a crisis, if in fact one does come. The triggering event might be political, or economic, or even environmental. (Greer, pp. 103-104)


  1. Greer, John Michael. Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America (pp. 99-100). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.