Legitimising the state

We used the example of citizenship ceremonies to open up the issue of the links between state, nation and people. Citizenship ceremonies are just one way in which citizens are requested by the state to legitimise their relationship with the state. ‘Legitimacy’ refers to a belief in the state’s ‘rightness’, its right to rule, or the idea that its authority is proper. A state that is (believed to be or accepted as) legitimate is more likely to succeed in its constant tasks of political ordering than a state that is perceived as illegitimate. The majority of citizens in the UK, however, are unlikely to be called upon to participate in one of these ceremonies. So, in what other ways does the state seek to claim legitimacy from its citizens? We have already seen from Jill’s story that many of the everyday practices and discourses of the state, its symbols and the ways in which state actors and institutions represent themselves to the people, are involved in this process of legitimation; that is to say, the state’s claiming of legitimacy from its citizens.

In addition to these everyday practices and discourses, one of the main ways in which individuals express their acceptance or rejection of the state is through the ballot box. By and large, of course, elections do not tend to question the state’s overall legitimacy: they provide a means for people to question and reflect on this or that government policy, the adequacy of this or that government agency, or the talents and policies (or lack of them) of this or that party, candidate or official. Nevertheless, in the contemporary world, legitimacy – the sense that the state is in some way rightful – is closely associated with democratic principles. One prominent democratic theorist, David Beetham (1992), suggests that political legitimacy can arise from:

  1. legal validity (the government is formed, and state agencies operate, according to the rules of the constitution)
  2. the justifiability of those rules in terms of local values (the constitutional rules are themselves acceptable to the people who are ruled by them)
  3. evidence of express consent (the people have regular opportunities to give or withhold their agreement with government and policies, especially, though not solely, through democratic voting).

Political legitimacy

Political legitimacy arises in political orders that are rule governed, where the basic constitutional rules accord with the values of those who are governed and where the governed have opportunities to express their consent as to how they are governed.

Today, we would see free and fair democratic elections as the main, if not the only, reasonable indicator of whether people have given ‘express consent’ to those who hold state-derived power over them.

This is a key point. ‘Democracy’ is the word that, in the early twenty-first century, names the form of political order that few dare to oppose. To oppose democracy is to put oneself beyond the pale in most political discourse in most countries and cultures today. As the Nobel Prizewinning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has written:

In any age and social climate, there are some sweeping beliefs that seem to command respect as a kind of general rule – like a ‘default’ setting on a computer program; they are considered right unless their claim is somehow precisely negated. While democracy is not yet universally practised, nor indeed uniformly accepted, in the general climate of world opinion, democratic governance has now achieved the status of being taken to be generally right. The ball is very much in the court of those who want to rubbish democracy to provide justification for that rejection.

(Sen, 1999, p. 5)

Democracy, it seems, is virtually the only game in town. Beyond groups of ideological and religious extremists, plus the rulers and defenders of isolated regimes such as that of North Korea, few would explicitly oppose democracy, even if (as we shall see) they disagree on what democracy is. ‘Democracy’ is the word that describes the early twenty-first century’s political good thing, its must-have political system. There is irony in democracy’s popularity. Only just over 200 years ago, to be a ‘democrat’ was to be on the political fringe, perhaps a dangerous radical. At the time of the American and French revolutions – often taken to be the twin birthplaces of modern democracy – ‘democracy’ still largely meant what we would call ‘direct democracy’. Direct democracy is a system in which citizens make community decisions in face-to-face assemblies, as in the famous ancient Athenian democracy, or, in the more modern version, a system in which key (or even all) community decisions are made by direct votes of the people (in referendums).

Arguably, and to tell a complex story in simple terms, what those two great revolutions of the late 1700s invented was not ‘democracy’, but rather representative government. Over time, that system of representation based on elections, establishing a system of indirect rather than direct rule by the people, came to be known as ‘representative democracy’, and then simply as ‘democracy’. The foundations of what we call democracy today were laid by constitutional designers such as James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, who sought to restrain rather than to unleash the forces of democracy. The historical advance to today’s democratic systems was halting, dangerous and often bloody. Working-class men, then women, had to struggle to get the vote. Extensions of democracy were opposed strongly by conservative factions and parties at almost every step, in most European countries at least.

Setting the history largely to one side, the pressing question remains – how can we define democracy? If it is so crucial to state legitimation, just what is it? The first point to make is that democracy is not so much a ‘thing’ as a project; not so much something that is already built as something that is always still under construction. Arguably, there is no non-democracy that cannot be a democracy, and no democracy that cannot be more democratic. And democracy will always be built and run differently in different places, depending on local histories and cultures; Senegalese democracy is real, but it does not operate just like Indian or American democracy. A big part of what democracy is, is the continuing debate about what democracy is.

We can take each of those points on board and still be a little more precise, however. Many commentators refer to ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ approaches to democracy. Minimalists define democracy as competition in elections for the right to govern. Maximalists accept this as a minimal core, but go further – democracy also requires local and direct participation, or special forums for deliberation, or elements of direct democracy such as policy referendums, and so on. The democratic theorist Giovanni Sartori (1987) has argued that there are two key questions we need to ask: (1) Is this a democracy? (2) How democratic is it? In other words, there is a threshold and a continuum – the threshold specifies the minimum requirements of a democracy, and the continuum a range of further democratising institutions and practices on top of those requirements. That is one route to compromise between minimalists and maximalists. But throughout the twentieth century and up to today, there has been lively debate between the two camps as to who knows best the soul of democracy. Minimalists have claimed variously that they are realists, that they base their views on what works in the real world, and that they do empirical research (e.g. on elections and electoral systems) that backs up their views. Maximalists – variously known as ‘participative democrats’ or ‘direct democrats’, or more recently ‘deliberative democrats’ – claim that minimalists do not take seriously the genuinely radical call, as well as the real practical potential, of democracy as ‘rule by the people’. Nevertheless, the grounds for a compromise built on Sartori’s notions are strong. There is little point trying to extend democracy in terms, say, of citizens’ juries and policy referendums if a system of free and fair elections for parliamentary representatives is not in place. And there is equally little point in establishing free and fair elections and then saying to citizens ‘that’s it, just turn up to vote every four or five years and there’s nothing more you can or should do’.


Democracy can be defined minimally, in terms of procedures such as competitive elections, and maximally, in terms of ideas of participation, deliberation and the direct involvement of citizens in government.

There are other ways to look at democracy too. Of course, people’s lived experience of democracy will vary a great deal, within one place or country and between countries. Men and women, younger people and older people, members of different ethnic groups, rich and poor, working-class and middle-class people will experience democracy in divergent ways. Ideals associated with democracy, such as freedom and equality, are just abstract principles; how and to what extent people can understand them and act upon them puts flesh on the bones of these abstractions, and produces complex and mixed stories. There are different cultures of democracy. Further, critics have argued that there is a lot of window dressing involved in the popularity of ‘democracy’; political leaders and others may construct images of themselves as good democrats, but how far in specific cases does the image match people’s lived realities? In short, for all its rhetorical popularity today, democracy remains a set of practices and ideas that is subject to complexity and controversy.