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Is the United States Facing a Legitimacy Crisis?
The long-term decline of trust in government indicates that our political system has been struggling to meet the public's expectations for over half a century.
Many people are saying that the United States is in the grip of a legitimacy crisis. In the social sciences, legitimacy is defined as “the normative justification of political authority.” By extension, legitimate political authorities are those that “live up to the normative standards of the citizens — the ultimate arbiters of legitimacy.” From this perspective, the first step to evaluating the claim that the US is facing a legitimacy crisis is to determine if the government’s performance is in line with the public’s expectations. But what are the public’s expectations?
In liberal democracies, there are thought to be two sets of criteria that citizens use to judge the government’s performance: one having to do with its “inputs” and another having to do with its “outputs.” Governments that are recognized as having come to power through free and fair elections are said to have input legitimacy. Once in power, governments that respect democratic principles, follow the law, and achieve desirable policy outcomes are said to have output legitimacy. Viewed through this lens, the US is clearly struggling on both fronts.
Polls show that a large majority of Republican voters believe that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump - a bad sign for the government's input legitimacy. Many Republicans also believe that Biden isn’t merely doing a poor job in office - a sentiment shared by voters of all parties - but that he’s pursuing an agenda radically antithetical to their values and interests. The Justice Department’s recent decision to launch a criminal investigation into Trump’s activities appears to be turbocharging this perception. None of this bodes well for the government’s output legitimacy either.
But the White House isn’t the only political authority in this country, nor the only source of its legitimacy problems. Let’s make a distinction between a government, defined as an incumbent administration brought to power in an election; the state, defined as the permanent, unelected bureaucracies through which governments exercise power; and a regime, defined as the laws, norms, and institutions that set the rules for how that power must be exercised. Viewed through this lens, the US faces challenges on all three levels of political authority.
At the level of the state, Republicans have long argued that unelected bureaucrats wield excessive influence over public affairs, especially market activity. While the economic dimension of this critique enjoyed pride of place in conservative discourse prior to 2016, it’s been largely supplanted by a cultural dimension in the Trump era. Today, Republicans argue that a woke “successor ideology” has become hegemonic among the college-educated professionals who dominate the public sector, meaning that even when voters reject them at the ballot box, Democrats can still push their agenda using the tools of the administrative state. This anxiety has been fueling all sorts of flare-ups in the culture war, most notably over school curricula. It’s also contributed to the rise of candidates like Blake Masters and JD Vance, who’ve campaigned on purging state bureaucracies of left-wing elements.
At the level of the regime, Democrats argue that even though they enjoy a larger base of support than the GOP, the nature of their coalition makes it inordinately difficult to overcome the countermajoritarian features of the constitution. This dynamic cost them the White House in 2000 and 2016, which later made it possible for a right-wing supermajority to entrench itself on the Supreme Court. It also limits their numbers in the Senate, where abuse of the filibuster has made it impossible to legislate in most domains of public policy. While most Democrats remained skeptical about rocking the constitutional boat as recently as 2021, the defeat of Biden’s domestic agenda last fall and the end of Roe v. Wade this summer may be radicalizing them. Polls conducted this year show that most Democrats now support abolishing the Electoral College, packing the court, and scrapping the filibuster.
Thus, both tribes believe that even when they win elections, they can’t govern on the issues that have the highest salience in their culture, whether due to an intransigent state or an unjust regime. They further believe that they don’t win nearly as many elections as they should for the same reasons. In light of these developments, it’s hardly surprising that a survey conducted by the New York Times last month found that 53 percent Americans feel that the political system is “too divided to solve the nation’s problems,” while 58 percent think it’s time for “major reforms or a complete overhaul.”
In summary, it’s hard to deny that the American political system is failing to “live up to the normative standards of the citizens,” thus undermining its own legitimacy. But is that enough to conclude that the US is facing a legitimacy crisis?
So far, we’ve been discussing the various aspects of legitimacy in liberal democracies and some reasons why people might perceive them to be high or low. But is it possible to specify the point at which legitimacy dips so low that it triggers a crisis, and what exactly that looks like in practical terms? There is no consensus in the social science literature with respect to these questions. But in my opinion, the sociologist David Friedrichs was onto something when he distinguished between a benign legitimacy crisis and a malignant legitimacy crisis:
“It may in this sense be useful to distinguish between a benign legitimacy crisis, characterized by high levels of dissatisfaction among a significant proportion of citizens of an order and a withholding of affirmative legitimation–and a malignant legitimacy crisis, in which significant numbers and relatively potent segments of the citizenry have consciously delegitimated the order and are relatively active and organized around this perception.
The more groups challenging the legitimacy of the official order, the less likely it will be that it can govern effectively or even survive. In the final analysis, a legitimacy crisis can only be conceived of in terms of degree–and not as a discreet state of affairs.”
Borrowing from Friedrichs, I’d like to argue that the US has been in the grip of a benign legitimacy crisis for at least the past 15 years, and that we may be witnessing the emergence of its malignant stage. To see why, let’s take a look at some polling data that illustrates how the legitimacy of the our political system has changed over time.
For nearly 75 years, the American National Elections Studies project at the University of Michigan has been conducting surveys before and after each presidential election for the purpose of documenting changes in public opinion over time. Since 1958, its surveys have asked the following question: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right - just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?” Its purpose is to measure the amount of political trust in society, a concept that is closely related to legitimacy.
According to Arthur Miller, low political trust is more or less synonymous with low input and output legitimacy on the part of the government. Moreover, when trust in government remains low over a long period of time, it degrades the legitimacy of the entire political system:
“A democratic political system cannot survive for long without the support of a majority of its citizens. When such support wanes, underlying discontent is the necessary result, and the potential for revolutionary alteration of the political and social system is enhanced. [In liberal democracies,] such discontent may lead to political and social change or may result in the electoral process of ‘throwing the rascals out.’
[However,] a period of sustained discontent may result from deep-seated social conflict which, for some segment of the population, has been translated into a negative orientation toward the political system because their sense of insufficient political influence implies a futility in bringing about desired social change; hence, they feel government is generally not to be trusted because it does not function for them…Such feelings of powerlessness and normlessness are very likely to be accompanied by hostility toward political and social leaders, the institutions of government, and the regime as a whole.”
For these reasons, many academics use political trust as a metric to evaluate the legitimacy of liberal democracies. To get a sense of how political trust in the US has changed over time, let’s take a look at the the Pew Research Center’s Public Trust in Government index, which combines ANES data with survey results from five other pollsters that use identical language: Pew, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, and CNN.
In October 1964, a whopping 77 percent of Americans trusted Washington to do the right thing either all or most of the time. Remarkably, this belief was shared by the same proportion of white and black Americans, with both groups reporting a better view of Washington than they did in 1958. Trust was equally as high among members of both parties. Three months after the formal end of the apartheid regime in the American South, the legitimacy of the political system was at its zenith.
Sixteen years later, political trust had collapsed across every segment of society. By October 1980, only 25 percent of Americans had faith that Washington did the right thing either all or most of the time. Once again, this proportion was just about the same among white and black Americans and among members of both parties. This implosion was the result of more than a decade of political, economic, and military upheaval that rocked the foundations of the postwar social order. The most persistent problem was runaway inflation, punctuated by recurrent, lengthy recessions.
During this period, a wave of “crisis talk” swept through the academy as social scientists debated how the US had come to find itself in such a predicament, and why the government seemed incapable of formulating an adequate response. In 1973, the term “legitimation crisis” appeared for the first time in the academic literature. By 1980, here’s how Friedrichs was describing the elite consensus:
“A ‘legitimacy crisis’ is widely perceived to exist on the basis of polls of public attitudes reflecting a precipitous decline in confidence in societal leadership, increasing manifestations of illegal, antisocial and repressive behavior or policies, and the demonstrable structural failures of the state to respond to fundamental human needs.”
In the early 1980s, the economy started to rebound. Inflation abated, growth resumed, and political trust entered a period of renewal. By 1984, it was morning in America again. Seven years later, it was the end of history. In the two decades that followed, political trust settled into a relatively stable equilibrium. Crisis talk faded from the academy, and a new wave of scholarship proclaimed that liberal democracy was now stronger than ever, both in the US and around the globe.
Political trust peaked again after 9/11, but plummeted over the course of the George W. Bush administration. When the global financial crisis began in December 2007, the country hit a grim milestone: political trust sank below October 1980 levels. It finally bottomed out in October 2011, when just 15 percent of Americans had faith that Washington did the right thing either all or most of the time, with cynicism rampant across every demographic group. Over a decade later, political trust is lower today than it was amidst the notorious malaise of the 1970s, and crisis talk can be heard throughout the academy once again.
Of course, not everyone agrees that low political trust is cause for alarm. In his book “Tides of Consent,” James Stimson argues that this survey question taps into little more than the public’s level of satisfaction with recent government performance, mostly as it relates to the economy. To support this claim, he graphs the ebb and flow of political trust from 1980 to 2009 alongside presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial approval ratings during the same period, plus various economic indicators such as GDP growth and consumer confidence. His conclusion:
“The lines are hard to pull apart and distinguish because they are pretty clearly measuring the same thing…Approval and trust are generic, a syndrome of attitudes toward public affairs that only appears to be affected by and directed toward particular people and institutions.
Trust, in this story, loses its status as a barometer for democracy and becomes part of a syndrome of citizen response to everything. It goes up as well as down, and its movements require explanation but not concern.”
But if trust merely reflects current economic conditions, why didn’t it return to pre-1970 levels after the crisis of that decade came to an end? For that matter, why hasn’t it returned to pre-2008 levels almost 15 years after the end of the global financial crisis the Great Recession? While Stimson’s work is invaluable for helping us understand short-term fluctuations in political trust after it settles into a stable equilibrium, it doesn’t explain the long-term decline of that equilibrium since the 1970s.
In my opinion, when the equilibrium of political trust in society is destabilized by a period of acute economic and social crisis, it indicates a loss of capacity on the part of the political system to live up to the normative standards of its citizens. When enough citizens no longer trust the system to look out for them, a benign legitimacy crisis sets in. It seems clear that this occurred in the US during the 1970s and again in the 2000s. The difference is that while the system figured out a way to regenerate its legitimacy in the 1980s, it seems to no longer possess this ability today. But why?
This essay is the first in a three-part series on the legitimacy crisis in the United States. Next week, I’ll lay out a theory that accounts for why the US fell into crisis in the 1970s, and how it set the stage for the crisis we’re living through today. After that, I’ll examine what a malignant legitimacy crisis in the US might look like and what the chances are that one will emerge.
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