The Politics of Legitimacy

Looking at the post-election craziness, there is no question we are in a confusing, exhausting moral muddle of civic conscience. The current crisis is about political legitimacy. How many times since the election have you heard someone say that Joe Biden’s claim to the presidency is illegitimate? Or that the vote count was illegitimate? Or, dialing back to the election campaign, Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Joe Biden echoed a widespread sentiment of Democrats that Trump’s presidency was illegitimate. 

We do not have to like or agree with our political leaders.”

Let’s remember that we’ve been here before. Throughout our history we have come through these crises as a stronger nation. Remember the hysteria of the John Birch Society? McCarthyism? The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago? What’s new about the current crisis of legitimacy is that a sitting president is leading the charge against legitimate transfer of power and, as Peggy Noonan points out, the echo chamber of social media magnifies confusion and hysteria.

How did legitimacy emerge as a political weapon? Does political legitimacy mean moral legitimacy? How do people reconcile personal and public morality in forming a civic conscience to uphold the common good? 

Americans enshrine political legitimacy in the vote. Bolstered by a catalogue of King George’s “repeated injuries and usurpations,” the Declaration of Independence rejected tyranny by weaponizing legitimacy in the vote – government without consent of the governed is illegitimate and must be overthrown. The founders established voting as the expression of political will legitimizing elected officials in governing “of, by, and for the people.” Americans have lived by this social contract since 1776. Weaponizing legitimacy in 2020 with accusations of voter fraud strikes at the heart of American political identity. Partisan accusers who call out political opponents under the guise of franchise illegitimacy may try to wrap themselves in a cloak of patriotism anchored in an American political mythology predisposed to valorize rebellion as heroic, but such tactics undermine effective governance. This may fuel short-term anger over grievances, but over the long haul Americans have always wanted a government that works.

Only recently have historians begun to explore the extent of divided colonial loyalties between the 1770s and 1800.

Political legitimacy is about values. Voting, especially for Americans, is a public expression of private morality guaranteed by constitutional right. Political legitimacy entails both rights and obligations derived from faith in a social order that commands compliance with a rule of law that may conflict with personal morality. The Charters of Freedom establish the values and principles of legitimate governance in America. Faith in the US constitutional social order means that citizens are willing to grapple with dilemmas of conscience in upholding a social order for the common good. At times this means principled dissent (perhaps even acting outside the law and accepting the consequences) to maintain personal integrity while working lawfully to create a moral majority to transform civic conscience. Kwame Appiah explores these “moral revolutions” as pivotal points in the evolution of our civic conscience as a nation. For instance, gentlemen no longer duel with pistols to resolve disputes of honor and public gatherings are no longer clouded with secondary cigarette smoke. For decades, partisan politics have weaponized morality around reproductive, racial, gender, health, and economic issues which have undermined public confidence in American democracy and disabled effective governance. Americans still do not have universal healthcare – in the middle of a deadly pandemic – because weaponized partisan politics have persuaded those who need it most, that it threatens their freedom. 

The United States was founded as a moral revolution. Since 1776, we have been testing the political legitimacy of democratic constitutional governance. American political mythology has long promoted the historical fiction of our near-total unity in a universal embrace of freedom and democracy. But we have been arguing and fighting with each other about the meaning of freedom and democracy since the founding of the nation. Only recently have historians begun to explore the extent of divided colonial loyalties between the 1770s and 1800. As the war of revolution dragged on, divisions deepened and intensified over democracy, religion, slave trade, taxes, tariffs, quartering of troops, and the cost of defending colonial borders against the competing indigenous and European territorial claims. In every dispute we have sifted our contested personal, partisan values through the sieve of deliberative debate to clarify our civic conscience. And with each moral revolution we discover new challenges to resolve. We are an endless laboratory of political legitimacy. Four hundred years after the Mayflower Compact, signed aboard the Mayflower in November 1620 and as a covenant of egalitarian cooperation among English men, we have yet to come to terms with the oppressive cruelty and injustice of our colonial roots.

E pluribus unum: We are a nation of people founded on the political legitimacy of moral dispute. Generations of moral argument have transformed us from a tiny collection of European religious dissidents, mercantilists, social outcasts, and privateers into one of the most diversely creative nations in history. We do not have to like or agree with our political leaders. We can be openly appalled at their petty self-dealing and lack of courage. We can – and do – vote them out. We do not have to agree with our laws and we can demand change. We can argue vehemently with each other. We can act like idiots in promoting our values and views. We can ignore it all and bury our heads in the sand. We can shout “defund the police” and “election fraud.” And we can resist attempts to silence our disagreement in the name of “unity.”

This is the freedom we vote for in every election.