Revised 24 August 1996
The problem of political legitimacy complements that of sovereignty -- indeed, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Sovereignty involves the source of authority and legitimacy its acceptance. Traditionally, with supernatural sanctions, kings and emperors were viewed as having sovereign powers by virtue of a divine mandate or even their incarnation as divinities (Hocart Kingship). The obligation to serve a king, to pay tributes and to obey the king's servants, was not just based on fear and reverence but, in addition, it depended heavily on beliefs concerning spiritual forces that could be appeased and guided by royal ceremonies and rituals to bring health and welfare to the ruler's subjects. To be a subject was to be oppressed and exploited but, rather, to be protected and strengthened. To be "His Majesty's Servant" was a badge of honor.
The "divine right of kings" was also a source of supernatural sustenance for the king's subjects. Disobedience and disloyalty would not only lead to physical punishments but also to disorder and disasters in the world -- the legitimacy of royal authority was, therefore, reinforced by a strong sense of self-interest. Subjects who wanted to prosper and be healthy, to achieve their own goals in life, felt that loyal obedience to authority was not only a duty but a privilege and a road to success.
No doubt, in the real world, actual kings were often so incompetent, selfish or vain that they tended to invalidate their own authority. Traditionally, in China, emperors were thought to have a "Mandate from Heaven" that assured prosperity and peace to all of their subjects. When disasters occurred, they were viewed as evidence that emperors had lost this mandate and deserved to be overthrown -- a rationalization accepted by all those who sought, during bad times, to overthrow and replace emperors. In Europe, during the post-Westphalian period of state formation, European kings lost the spiritual legitimacy that had somehow persisted under the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, despite all the disorder of European feudalism. The Reformation brought national churches and reduced the sacred mystique of monarchs who came, increasingly, to be viewed as tyrants and autocrats. As anarchy grew, the need for new political foundations increased and, after the Peace of Westphalia, the notion of an independent secular state gained ground.
In this context, the rising power of capitalists and the explosive forces of the industrial revolution evolved and producing growing conflict between society and monarchs. The American and French Revolutions shattered the surviving mystique of monarchic rule. But what should take its place? The French case was so chaotic and it is so well known that I shall not speak of it. Let me, instead, say a few words about the American Revolution which, after an interim period, moved to create a Federal State headed by an elected president.
The sovereign powers of a king were replaced by popular sovereignty and the people, instead of divine forces, would legitimate the authority of the state. However, the Founding Fathers were suspected that the "people" would elect a demagogue who would, ironically, oppress minorities -- notably the propertied interests whose support had enabled the Revolution to succeed. To prevent this from happening, they decided to institute an Electoral College whose members would be appointed by the governors of each state and, hopefully, they would be conservative men of property since, in the states, property qualifications for voting generally prevailed. Hence, although de jure sovereignty might be in the hands of the "people," de facto it would be exercised by propertied people, forming a REGO (oligarchy, representative government).
However, the new oligarchs understood that they could not exercise any rights of sovereignty. They knew that the people had to be the ultimate source of authority in the new republic. Thus the myth of the "people" as sovereign was to legitimize the exercise of executive authority. All the benefits that, traditionally, were thought to flow from royal sovereignty were, instead, to be conferred by popular sovereignty. This was scarcely a self-evident truth: there were many Tories among the American colonists who resisted the Revolution and remained loyal to the monarchy. Some of them, after the British surrender, fled to Canada and their descendents still celebrate their loyalism -- especially in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The legitimacy of the new republic was by no means universally accepted. How, then, could the rising bourgeoisie gain widespread acceptance for a secular republic?
Presidentialism. Precisely because popular sovereignty was still dubious and untested, the American constitution created, in fact, a surrogate king. Some of the Founding Fathers actually wanted to establish a monarchy and urged the election of a president for life. In the end, fear of autocracy prevailed and they decided to let a President hold office for only four years, but with the possibility of re-election any number of times. Moreover, the Founders gave the president all the functions of an eighteenth century king, including the right to reign as head of state plus the right to ruling as head of government. Actually, they could not distinguish between the functions of head of state and head of government -- kings and presidents, in their minds, were executives whose authority, however, to be limited by the countervailing authority of Congress, following the current British parliamentary model.
The distinction between the functions of reigning and ruling evolved only subsequently, and its evolution in England is paradigmatic. There, after the experience of the Commonwealth and the violence of parliamentary power, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 established a monarchy with curtailed powers (no doubt, Magna Carta of 1215 had paved the way). But even a century later, the functional division between the powers of a king were not clearly understood.
Only after it became clear that a king's prime minister and cabinet could, in fact, rule with the consent of parliament, the distinction between the ceremonial functions of head of state, reserved to the monarch, and the cabinet's political functions as head of government became clear (Needler). The constitutional history of England is a familiar story, but political scientists tend to view the ceremonial functions of a constitutional monarch as little more than a vestige of tradition and a dispensable luxury. Even ordinary "people," in democratic monarchies, have begun to ask whether or not the royal institutions cost more than they are worth and some among them are promoting republicanism. Once monarchy has lost its charms, its ability to serve as a legitimizing force for government declines -- but is it dead? 13
A good test case involves Japan whose emperor remained as a powerful symbol after that country's military defeat. Although the natural instinct of MacArthur and his staff during the subsequent Military Occupation was to establish a presidential republic (as the U.S. did in South Korea and South Vietnam) the imperial presence was so strong that the American-designed new constitution respected the emperor's authority and established a parliamentary system patterned, in part, on the imperial constitution which had been granted that country by imperial edict following the Meiji Restoration in 1867. The remarkable stability of post-war Japan after its crushing defeat and unconditional surrender in World War II can be attributed, in part at least, to the steadying influence of its imperial institution.
With these cases in mind, one has to look at the history of Western Europe where it appears that the countries which retained their monarchies while establishing parliamentary regimes (Great Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries) have been more stable and enjoyed more legitimacy than the European republics: France, Germany, Italy and Spain (until the restoration in 1975). Switzerland may be viewed as an exceptional case that I cannot discuss here except to say that its stability appears to hinge on the negative force of "neutrality." The fear of powerful neighbors may have done more to cement the loyalty of the Swiss people to their confederal regime than any centripetal domestic forces.
If my guess that surviving constitutional monarchies have helped legitimize the authority of parliamentary regimes is correct, we can turn our attention to the situation in republics, both presidential and parliamentary in structure -- does either form have an advantage over the other with respect to the creation of a sense of legitimacy in governance. In both cases, the locus of sovereignty has moved from the monarch to the people. How has it worked out?
Concrete Experiences. In presidentialist regimes, following the American prototype, an elected president has in every case, been expected to reign as well as to rule. So long as the agenda confronting governments remained limited, the challenges facing the president as head of government were minimal. However, the industrial revolution plus the increasing complexity caused by multi-ethnic diversity and growing interdependence with the world system have greatly increased the problems facing any contemporary president as head of government. As the issues and competing interests involved in modern government have increased, the role of head of government has become increasingly complex and controversial. Inescapably, American presidents who could formerly concentrate on their ceremonial functions as head of state have become, in today's world, so deeply involved in major controversies as to make it almost impossible for them to preside as well as to rule.
Increasingly, also, presidents face the same public image problems as all other celebrities: they are exposed to ridicule and attacks by the mass media and trivial suits can be brought against them for alleged misdeeds, including those that may have occurred long before they were elected to office. The notion that "the king can do no wrong" which protected monarchs from such belittling harassments does not apply to elected presidents. To the degree that presidents are humiliated and caught up in political controversies, their ability to reign as heads of state is undermined.
In this context, even in the United States where, I think, most Americans still accept the right of the government to govern, there are growing and frightening movements that challenge the legitimacy of government. The widely reported standoff between the FBI and the "Freemen" in Montana is only, I fear, the visible top of an iceberg of mounting efforts to discredit and nullify the government as an illicit monster. Rising terrorism and the fear it engenders may be another symptom that, in turn, provokes the regime to redouble its efforts to catch terrorists and criminals, thereby also provoking more fear and distrust of the regime.
Until recent years, popular support for the government and the constitution in the United States -- at least after the Civil War -- has been widespread. To the degree that state nations in the Western world were able to assimilate their citizens and create a sense of shared identity as members of a national community, they were able to translate sentiments of popular sovereignty into notions of the legitimacy of the state as an expression of that identity. Institutionally, however, presidentialist regimes have suffered from the lack of a legitimating focus of authority for the state and all its citizens.
This weakness is particularly apparent in the successor states of the collapsed modern empires. Unfortunately, the only shared sentiments felt by the majority of their citizens is that of hostility to their former rulers. Perhaps if, as in Switzerland, there was any real threat that the imperialists would return, shared fears would generate a sense of patriotic loyalty to the state. Such fears are no longer important because, when the modern empires collapsed, they truly did collapse. In none of them, today, can we find the enthusiasm for imperial conquest that developed during the nineteenth and early 20th century. Indicative of this new environment is the Somalia intervention by the UN in 1992 -- the great powers cooperated to try to create order in a disintegrated quasi-state without any sign that they might want to annex it as, for example, they had partitioned and annexed Poland in the late 18th century, or sought to partition China after the Manchu empire collapsed in 1911.
When more charismatic and able persons have been elected to the office of president in the successor states, however, they sometimes feel so frustrated by a congress unwilling to accept their leadership that they take steps to weaken or dominate it and reduce the country to de facto autocracy. The recent history of Peru and the Philippines provides apt examples, as does Peron's rule in Argentina. More often, however, a military group seizes power during a time of crisis and imposes an authoritarian dictatorship based on fear rather than the acceptance of legitimate authority. No doubt all these mishaps could occur in any constitutional democracy but, I think, the failure of presidential regimes to develop a viable focus of legitimacy in government, a symbolic head of state who can truly represent the sense of sovereignty and identity of a people, is a serious weakness in all presidentialist regimes in the new states. 14
Parliamentarism. Having thus characterized presidentialism, can it be that parliamentary regimes do better because they enjoy the benefits of a full-time head of state? I'm afraid not there are parliamentary regimes which have experienced catastrophic collapses (for examples, see Riggs 1993). Nevertheless, there are reasons, I think, why parliamentarism is more likely than presidentialism to provide a viable focus for the cultivation of citizen loyalty to a state, for legitimizing its existence, whether or not it enjoys the charisma of a constitutional monarchy.
In some countries, where independence from an empire was negotiated without revolutionary violence, these agreements paved the way for successor states in which the legitimacy of the regime continued to hinge on respect for the imperial throne. This has been true, I would guess, in the anglophone dominions of the British Commonwealth. Admittedly no Governor-General can perform the functions of a head of state, but is it possible for this office to become a valid surrogate for the monarchy, especially if the king or queen makes frequent ceremonial tours to reinforce the sense of legitimacy and confidence the throne inspires. Canada might provide a good test case. Even in the United States, a residual feeling about the British monarchy generates a strong sentiment of solidarity or identity, at least for those who celebrate their descent from English colonists and, perhaps, for others who have somehow accepted the monarchic mystique.
However, it is significant that India, upon gaining its independence, decided to become a republic and promptly elected a president -- as did Ireland after its bitter struggle for independence. In both countries, the British crown had come to be viewed with hostility rather reverence. It might be useful to compare between the roles of president in countries like Austria, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Italy, Israel and, of course, France. In all these cases, the powers of the presidency have been controversial and have varied considerably. Does parliamentarism work better with stronger or weaker presidents? Should the president in a parliamentary regime be popularly elected (which typically makes the role stronger) or be chosen by parliament or a special assembly of some kind, like the electoral college in America or, indeed, India: such a procedure may make the position weaker politically but can it assure the selection of a more prestigious person?.
Actually, the question is probably misplaced. It presupposes that the legitimacy of a state hinges on the authority of its head.15 After all, that was a monarchist concept and is it still useful in a republic? If the "people" are to be the source of sovereignty, then should not the legitimacy of any government rest on the people's elected assembly, not on an elected president? Presidentialism is a transitional expedient created at a time when kings ruled and, as sovereigns, also legitimized their governments. As parliamentarism evolved, the right to govern passed to parliament -- in parliamentary republics does not true sovereignty rest in the "people" as represented in Parliament.
Actually, in parliamentary regimes, the head of state has become a ceremonial office used for symbolic functions but never, I think, as a valid source of sovereignty, as a basis for legitimizing governance. Constitutional monarchs are permitted to perform the ceremonies so long as their conduct is exemplary. If they bring shame on themselves and their country, then they become expendable. The real center of legitimacy in parliamentary regimes resides in parliament as the true expression of popular sovereignty. Moreover, governance in such regimes is not vested in any office outside of parliament: it is easy for Americans to forget that the government, in parliamentary systems, is a part of the Parliament: it is a parliamentary committee known as the Cabinet. It's presiding officer, known as prime minister, is only the first among equals and not a substitute for the king. It is an error to equate a parliament with a legislature -- parliament contains the government and its assembly can hold the government accountable.
Because a parliamentary majority may often be possible only when several parties are represented in the cabinet, parliamentary government can also be more truly representative of the "people" than can governance in a presidential regime where one person rules, where the "winner takes all" -- to quote Juan Linz again (citation). Under parliamentary rules, proportional representation becomes meaningful in a way that it cannot under presidentialism. Although coalition cabinets may rotate rapidly, the regime continues and more citizens can feel, at least symbolically, that they are well represented in parliament (including the government).
By contrast, all those who vote against a President (or boycott the elections because they think they cannot win) in a separation-of-powers system see the government as an oligarchy representing only a dominant minority. In this sense the terms presidential and parliamentary correctly represent, not so much the seat of power as the locus of sovereignty. Under presidentialism, sovereignty is conferred by the "people" on their president, but in parliamentary regimes, it is the parliament that assumes that honor. The government can always be discharged (at least in principle) by a no-confidence vote in parliament, but a president's right to rule is vested in his (her) own office and cannot be taken away except by impeachment for criminal conduct). Significantly, impeachment does not represent different views about public policy -- rather, it syumbolizes a violatnion of the public trust a people must have in the chief symbol of their state if its legitimacy is to endure.
The State Apparatus. The state bureaucracy needs to be seen, in this context, not only as an instrument of public administration but as a potential source of legitimacy for the state. The ancient Chinese mandarinate should be remembered in this connection. Under imperial rule, a powerful and prestigious apparatus of government was created composed of superior men (in the Confucian tradition) who had competed with each other by taking highly competitive examinations which tested their literary, philosophical and historical knowledge and, presumably, enabled rulers to pick persons best qualified to administer their governments and bring honor and prestige to the state.
Parliamentary regimes have adopted the mandarin principle (with variations) and installed career officials who, through rotation among posts in different locations and public agencies, become experienced managers of public policies and trusted advisers of the cabinet. Thus, in fact, they not only have the ability to conduct public business effectively but also to help the cabinet shape public policy. (Campbell & Szablowski, Superbureaucrats;, Aberbach et al; Dogan )
An entrenched mandarinate is not only powerful but its members often represent and legitimize the government in the minds of citizens. In fact, when Europeans speak of the state, my impression is that they often have in mind the whole body of state officials, persons who not only carry out official duties but, in doing so, speak with authority and maintain a mystique that sets them above and apart from ordinary citizens. Though cabinets rise and fall, the officials remain in office. The legitimacy of the state rests not only on Parliament but, perhaps even more dependably, on the solid rock of government as expressed in its state apparatus.
Much of what mandarins do is carried out in secret -- indeed, it is even difficult for scholars doing research on public administration to ask them probing questions. The Weberian image of modern bureaucracy as steeped in secrecy is fully justified for all mandarinates, traditional as well as modern (citation). Such secrecy protects mandarins from the kind of public scrutiny and embarrassing disclosures that often humiliate both politicians and bureaucrats in the United States. My conclusion is that not only does Parliament (including the Government) manifest the legitimacy of the state in parliamentary regimes, but the honored officials who represent the state in its daily contacts with citizens reinforces and upholds that sense of unquestioned authority. In most parliamentary regimes, the government exists outside the "state" as its temporary pilot, but the solid ship of state is its official apparatus. Citizens in a presidentialist regime are wary about the "state" because it lacks such an apparatus -- for them, "state" and "government" are synonyms and may equally be blamed for their misfortunes.
Perhaps this statement exaggerates the reality: it is easy enough to find fault with mandarins and to question their ability to manage government efficiently, especially in an increasingly complex late-industrial age. Nevertheless, when one compares the record of mandarin officials with the non-mandarins who hold office, as career functionaries, retainers or transients in presidentialist regimes, the contrast is striking.
This contrast is not accidental -- no presidentialist regime could survive, I believe, if it created a mandarinate to conduct the public administration. A true mandarinate in the United States or any other separation-of-powers regime would, before long, gain the effective power to rule the country. Its members in the office of the President would soon control presidential decisions and, as staff for members of congress, would soon control legislative decision-making also. To prevent this from happening, every president and congress must insist on the right of patronage, to name their own followers, friends and relatives to high offices:for them, personal loyalty is more important, politically, than expertise and experience. Only in parliamentary regimes is it possible for a government, because of its fusion of powers in the cabinet, to maintain effective control over an intrinsically powerful mandarinate.
Perhaps I am overstating the contrast. One of the reasons why the U.S. presidential regime has, exceptionally, lasted so long can be traced to the historical events that led to the Pendleton Act in 1883 and the formation of career civil services staffed by specialists recruited to fill posts on the basis of a merit system. The guidelines for establishing these services expressly prevent the formation of a mandarinate and even the recently established Senior Executive Service falls far short of creating a mandarinate (Riggs 1994b).
By contrast with the U.S., in other presidentialist regimes -- at least those established in the nineteenth century -- retainers occupy most posts in the government. These are patronage appointees who, despite their lack of special training or expertise, become virtually permanent incumbents in the bureaucracy. Career officials in the U.S. have given this regime the ability to manage public administration more effectively than their counterparts in other presidential regimes and, because transients hold top posts in the U.S. system, they cannot effectively conspire to seize power by means of a coup d'etat.
Nevertheless, the United States has increasingly come to be seen as illegitimate, and its sovereign authority is questioned. The hybrid structure of its bureaucracy enhances the administrative capabilities of the state and destroys the possibility that bureaucrats (military and civil) could ever seize power. Nevertheless, the compromise is unhappy, I think, because it fails to contribute to the legitimacy of the state even though it prevents power from falling into the hands of appointed officials.
The American system stumbles on and cannot acquire the legitimacy needed to inspire citizens to feel confidence and loyalty to the regime. Instead they glamorize the Constitution and the Flag as inanimate sources of legitimacy and support a climate of public opinion in which every malicious charge against both the elected and appointed officials of government become credible. Ironically, they almost deify the constitution yet reject the government created according to its rules. Instead of viewing the state with reverence and awe as a legitimate expression of popular sovereignty, Americans increasingly celebrate themselves in a kind of narcistic self-adulation as "the greatest nation," but simultaneously attack the state that embodies it. If these difficulties confront the United States despite its great history of achievements, how much more must the same set of constitutional rules undermine the viability of other democracies created on the basis of similar rules?
See linked pages:
 introduction || industrialism || nationalism || democracy (1) representativeness) || conclusion || endnotes || bibliography