A “Global Crisis of Legitimacy”?

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.

2 Responses to A “Global Crisis of Legitimacy”?

  1. Scott Monje August 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    For what it’s worth, New York City experienced a similar “going on the rob,” as Salmon puts it, during the blackout of 1977, but not at all during the blackout of 2004. That suggests that the situation is not irreversible, given time and an improved economy.

    Of course, that concerns a local crisis of legitimacy as opposed to a global one, and it assumes that the crisis of legitimacy doesn’t provoke a bigger cataclysm in the interim.

  2. eric August 23, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    I would suggest something like this:

    It’s certainly easy to see a trend in the direction of a breakdown of some institutions when considering that “trust in government” measures seemed to collapse (in the US, at least) in the late 60s and early 70s. Whether or not this lack of trust erupts into localized points of violence isn’t likely predictive of just how much that trust pervades the populous, as mass events, such as widespread violence in a large city (or even several cities) are beholden to other, quite specific conditions.

    Massive distrust of governmental institutions pervades our mass media these days. There’s a general mistrust in the abilities of any governmental entity to do anything efficiently or well. Did this start because government is essentially broken and not likely to do things well? Or did this start because some specific people hold ideologies that do not allow for the values of government (big or small) to really be respected?

    Furthermore, does this mistrust in government help specific players from a specific ideological group achieve goals that they want in policy?