Elections and Legitimacy

The United States presidential election spectacle is equally entertaining and embarrassing to observe from a distance. Meant to be an illustration of the democratic ideal, it rather resembles a satirical spectacle, in which the pretence of democratic ideals goes through the motions, with the participation of campaign machines and media commentators, with a common agreement that it’s all fake. It’s also interesting from the perspective of political legitimacy.

Political legitimacy, broadly speaking, is the attribute of a selected government which makes it genuinely one that embodies the selectors’ wishes. In simpler terms, it’s about whether it’s really right for some people to be laying down the law, as opposed to just dictating it as they see fit, with the help of the violence that they can enact on those who oppose them.

A major development in political philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries, that is, in the Enlightenment Age, was the formulation and elaboration of the idea that the common people – everyday labourers which sustain a country via their work – should be able to also decide how their country is governed. The beginnings of this thought was not at all as democratic: Hobbes wouldn’t advocate a representative constitutional republic (he was a monarchist), but he advocated that society is governed by a contract, in which humans agree to cooperate. Elaborating upon this idea, John Locke would advance a more radical notion: that whether a government is that of a king or of a representative body of elected officials, what gives it true power is the consent of the ruled, who transfer their power to those who govern. In other words, what is legitimate is what is agreed to. This thought certainly can be found at the basis of a widespread ideal of how modern politics should function.

This is where it gets interesting. One may ask oneself about the legitimacy of the future president of the United States. And here, a curious phenomenon arises: while there surely will be only one winner decided by a vote, the winner – presuming it’s either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – will be the most unpopular in the history of polling. So unpopular, in fact, that a definite majority of voters support neither candidate. Thus we arrive at what seems a paradox of the political construct within the country – that a government will be lead by an official, elected by a majority of voters, who (according to the data) doesn’t actually represent the wishes or leanings of the majority of voters. In other words, we have agreement and representation without actual consent. Many things could be blamed for this state – some of it is certainly the failed idea of “lesser evil voting”. Regardless of how many pundits and public intellectuals advocate for it, the undeniable consequence is that things can get arbitrarily bad, so long as a worse alternative is presented. But the fact is that neither of the options presented is agreeable to those meant to decide.

What I think should be the conclusion is that the seeming paradox is a yet another illustration of a – more and more obvious – reality. It is the reason for the common antipathy towards the political system, and the feeling that working within it is pointless that so many people feel. On one level or another, the masses who don’t care to vote, and the young people who don’t care whatsoever, all realize the same thing: that they don’t actually have any control. They are not represented, the system is broken, and they don’t have any influence on it. And this feeling is not just reflective of a subjective appraisal: it’s an actual conclusion of a study. People who aren’t rich really don’t have power.

It’s therefore important to ponder this question: if the formalities of power are just theatrics, if the real power lies outside of the reach of the ruled, to what extent is this power legitimate? It might be a scary thing to ponder. Whatever happens, whoever they choose, Americans will be confronted with a yet another spectacle, and the illusion will become more and more apparent.


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