Felix Salmon wonders if we are entering a “global crisis of institutional legitimacy”:
Most fundamentally, what I’m seeing as I look around the world is a massive decrease of trust in the institutions of government. Where those institutions are oppressive and totalitarian, the ability of popular uprisings to bring them down is a joyous and welcome sight. But on the other side of the coin, when I look at rioters in England, I see a huge middle finger being waved at basic norms of lawfulness and civilized society, and an enthusiastic embrace of “going on the rob” as some kind of hugely enjoyable participation sport. The glue holding society together is dissolving, whether it’s made of fear or whether it’s made of enlightened self-interest.
Salmon is certainly correct that bad economies erode trust in government. And it’s true that bad economies do hurt incumbents:
Hegemonic party regimes are non-democratic regimes that (1) rule with the aid of a dominant political party and (2) hold multi-party elections. Elite coalitions organized under the aegis of a hegemonic party are most vulnerable in elections that coincide with poor economic performance. A declining economy provides elites with a platform around which they can mobilize support to challenge incumbents in elections. As a result, the likelihood of defections from hegemonic parties increases as income declines. This study’s original dataset, which includes 227 elections for the chief executive in hegemonic party dictatorships from 1946 to 2004, and its case studies of defections in Zimbabwe under ZANU-PF in 2008 and Turkey under the Democratic Party in 1955 provide evidence for this proposition.
That’s from a newly published paper (gated; ungated) by Ora John Reuter and Jennifer Gandhi. As an example of the thesis, here is one quote from a member of the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe who defected and challenged Mugabe in 2008:
I also share the widely-held view that these hardships are a result of failure of national leadership and that change at that level is a prerequisite for change at other levels of national endeavor.
This leads to two points I would raise in response to Salmon. First, Salmon seems to suggest that something irreversible is happening:
Unemployment, in much of Europe, has reached the point of no return — the point at which it becomes endemic, stubbornly immune to attempts to tackle it. In turn, that results in broad-based cynicism and disillusionment when it comes to politics and politicians generally.
I’m less comfortable betting that our economic difficulties will never subside. There’s an “end of history” flavor to Salmon’s argument, and those arguments always seem to underestimate the likelihood of the unexpected.
The example from Zimbabwe raises a second question: why is a loss of institutional legitimacy necessarily a crisis? Some institutions and regimes are illegitimate, and if takes a bad economy to make them fall, then that’s hardly a bad thing. I don’t think we can generalize about the inherent goodness or badness of legitimacy and illegitimacy or trust and distrust, without thinking about whether any particular institution deserves to be trusted.