Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, February 11, 2013

How much of a problem is ambiguity?

One of the themes of my review book is ambiguity (thanks to Chip Hauss).

For students who want to memorize the "right" answers, ambiguity causes problems, and comparative politics is full of ambiguity. So is the exam which asks students to identify best answers or better answers in its questions.

This analysis by Max Fisher in the Washington Post is a great illustration. It's not definitive and it won't answer all your questions about legitimacy, but it can be a good beginning of discussion and thinking. Or it can be a good prompt for a free response question.

Is the Iranian government legitimate?
At a White House press conference... a reporter asked a deceptively simple question: “Does the president believe the government of Iran is legitimate and elected?”... 

White House spokesperson Jay Carney sidestepped the question, which had to be asked a second and a third time before he finally said, “Look, it’s the government that we deal with, and it is the government that continues to flout its international obligations, and that behavior is illegitimate.” In other words, he wasn’t willing to say whether or not the U.S. considers the Iranian government to be legitimate…

[T]here’s another reason that the White House is probably not eager to make any public stands on the legitimacy of the Iranian government: it would beg the obvious follow-up question, why or why not? And, even worse, it would invite world leaders to consider what other government did or did not meet Obama’s standard of legitimacy.

The truth is that the question of what makes a government legitimate is a notoriously complicated one. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations with strong U.S. support, [identified]… a political theory called “the consent of the governed,” which says that governments get their legitimacy from a willfully governed populace and which was championed by 17th century English philosopher John Locke…

Our world is a little more complicated today, with a number of regimes such as Iran’s, authoritarian in its grip on power but also earnestly supported by some number of citizens. Are they legitimate? Where is the line between a government that rules through force rather than consent and one that has consent but is not actually democratic?…

“Despite the acknowledged importance of legitimacy, political science remains divided about its meaning and its sources,” Bruce Gilley, of Princeton University, wrote… “As a result, there is no existing cross-national data set on the legitimacy of states, much less an agreed way of creating one.”

In other words, there is no list of legitimate and illegitimate governments because, as Gilley shows, it is not a simple binary. Rather, he defines legitimacy as a question of degrees. “A state is more legitimate the more that it is treated by its citizens as rightfully holding and exercising political power,” he writes… But if you’re looking for the thin line that divides the legitimate governments from the illegitimate, you’re not going to find it.

Earlier scholars have argued that there are three ways that an individual citizen can shed legitimacy on his or her government, whether knowingly or not: through views of legality, views of justification and acts of consent. Democracy, of course, tends to fulfill all three. But perhaps you can see ways here that other forms of government, even if in practice they are headed by people we don’t like and tend to do some very bad things, can still pick up some legitimacy. Presumably, some number of people in Iran, not all of them, believe that the government’s crackdowns in 2009 were justified to maintain order. Or maybe they hate the government but, to get through the week, they still go to their civil service job. That doesn’t make Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei legitimate in a categorical sense, but it does offer him some degrees of legitimacy…

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At 8:51 PM, Blogger Ken Wedding said...

Another case study about legitimacy.

Awkward questions for Rajoy: If democracy is to retain Spaniards’ trust, the country’s political parties must be reformed

"MARIANO RAJOY, Spain’s conservative prime minister, likes to say that he “owes nothing to nobody”, a reference to his independence from the Catholic church, corporate Spain and the regional barons of his Popular Party (PP). Yet to many Spaniards those words now ring hollow. Handwritten account-books purported to have been kept by Luis Bárcenas, the PP’s former treasurer, have been leaked to the press. They seem to show that for more than a decade the party’s leaders received payments—around €25,000 ($34,000) a year in Mr Rajoy’s case—from a slush fund whose donors were mainly construction magnates… Mr Rajoy… insists the allegation is false… "

Spain’s government:
Another blow

"Yet the damage to Spain cannot be measured by the fate of a single party at the next general election. Spaniards have lost respect for their politicians. Other parties, especially the Convergence and Union coalition, which runs Catalonia, are knee-deep in allegations of corruption. The opposition Socialists have cases rumbling, too, especially in places where mayors and real-estate developers seemingly fell into a toxic embrace. Polls show that 96% of Spaniards believe many politicians are on the take. Support for the main parties has tumbled over the past year, as a double-dip recession deepened and unemployment climbed to 26%. The king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, and his business partner were recently told to post a €8.1m bail after being investigated for corruption charges that also involve regional PP governments…"


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