Examine the claim that ‘state legitimacy is closely associated with democracy

State legitimacy refers to the popular acceptance of a governing body or bodies by citizens. Democracy is a greatly debated term broadly involving the selection of a competitor, candidate or party by the majority of citizens or ‘the people’ by way of election. In this essay, the claim of how and in what ways these two ideas or practices are associated, and how power underpins the relationship between state legitimacy and democracy will be explored.

The ‘State’ appears to depict a sense of permanence and presence, of distinct power, knowledge and force. The discussed minimalist and maximalist concepts of democracy (minimalist camp and the maximalist camp), and other theories, concepts, evidence and examples will consider whether and to what extent the state legitimises or monopolises power over or from the people.

On one hand, the minimalist camp claim that there is a sense that the people need a supreme authority or state that seeks to shape and regulate social life. According to Blakeley and Saward the state is defined as: ‘an idea based on shared expectations about the ordering of social life; a set of organisations; and a set of practices’ (cited in Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p. 355).

Hobbe’s influential ‘Leviathan State’ supports this view. He claims that citizens put their trust in a governing body or state, and this is analogous to children putting their trust in their parent (Hobbes’ Leviathan, Sparknotes study guide, 2007). He has explained this as there being a social contract between citizens and the state, which legitimises the state’s status as distinct and supreme.

David Beetham defines ‘state legitimacy’ as: ‘arising in political orders that are rule governed… the basic constitutional rules accord with the values of those who are governed, and the governed have opportunities to express how they are governed’ (Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.366). Blakeley and Saward suggest that 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’ (Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.369).

On the other hand, A.J.P. Taylor’s view is supportive of the maximalist concept of democracy. Whilst he suggests that democracy has changed over time (in England and the UK generally), he claims the reach of the state increased remarkably from the First and Second World Wars, and ‘people became, for the first time, active citizens… required to serve the state instead of pursuing exclusively their own affairs’ (cited in Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.355).

However, the minimalist ‘elite’ alternative is that most people tend to be ‘led’ as opposed to ‘participate’. Joseph Schumpeter’s view supports that the state takes power from the people, as the people are just as willing to submit to it. He accepts that people can grasp local or personally specific political issues, but he believes that they have no incentive to participate in national or international issues. His theory claims that the peoples’ lack of skill or capacity means that they are easily manipulated (Citizens and the state, 2009, track 2).

His vision could certainly help to provide an explanation for example, of the political affairs in Nazi Germany and the mass votes for the victorious National Socialist Party (his book was written during World War II). Though there is lively debate over whether the Third Reich rested on consent or coercion.

Additionally, Weber argues that ‘force’ is a key characteristic of the state. He claims that the state ‘claims a monopoly of force’ to maintain its status and position of power. Yet, John Hoffman’s view contradicts this in saying that a monopoly of force does not automatically exist. He explains it as ‘legitimate force’, which monopolises or dominates in the face of threat from competitors such as criminals and terrorists, etc. (Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.373).

It is debatable which of the two apply in the example of the Nationalist/Republic and Unionist/Ulster conflicts in the 1970s to the 1990s when UK state military made its deep presence felt in Northern Ireland. The Catholic community would argue that it was ‘force’, not of the legitimate kind. This view was reinforced by the great inequalities, as Catholics were shown to have minimal inclusion of 10 per cent in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Tonge cited in Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.377).

However, recently (and historically), some changes to state practices and ideologies have shown to be driven by the masses of the people. For example, the Arab Spring Risings of 2011 (Egypt, Libya, Syria, and historically – the French and Russian revolutions) broadly illustrate ‘the peoples’ dissatisfaction with state practices or regimes of the time and a need for a democratic practice. It is clear from both of these examples that the state has shown to be disconnected from ‘the people’, alongside a lack of political order (Dr Mark Almond, the BBC, 14 February 2011, accessed 22 September 2012).

According to Blakeley and Saward, for there to be social order there is a need for political order, which consist of two types: ‘the avoidance of chaos or disorder generally in society’; and ‘institutions that regulate social life’ (cited in Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.352).

Subsequently, obtaining the people’s confidence appears to be key in government and politics. In his speech following the politicians’ expenses claims scandal in 2009, Gordon Brown uses the words ‘democracy’ ‘trust’ and ‘legitimacy’ while wanting to uphold ‘public confidence’.

There is a promise of ‘devolution of power and increasing public engagement in politics’. Similarly, David Cameron’s speech places emphasis on taking ‘power away from the political elite and give it to the man and woman on the street’ (Citizens and the State, 2009, Track 2). This evidence conflicts with Schumpeter’s claim. The ideals of the speeches were especially relevant in light of the events of the UK Summer Riots of 2011. Superficially, the riots began in rebellion to the police shooting of Mark Duggan, mostly involving young adults. In their contempt against the ‘monopoly of force’ (the UK police), rioters later claimed it to be rooted in their deep lack of confidence in the state system.

There was a sense of feeling disconnected, uninvolved and as a result, excluded. Many explained the looting of shop goods was due to finding employment and further education inaccessible ‘taking what they’ve been unable to ever afford in place of shortcomings’ (Malcolm James, The Guardian, 5 September 2011, accessed 22 September 2012). Also, this potentially highlights that complete public confidence is unachievable as long as there are winners and losers in society (especially in a consumer society given Bauman’s theory of ‘the seduced and the repressed’ [Hetherington, 2009, p.25]).

In contrast, Blakeley and Saward highlight Gamble’s study showing people do experience active participation, and can show ‘expertise’ due to knowledge and access. For example, website Mumsnet, which enables mothers to share their ideas, experiences and advice (Gamble cited in Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p. 317). Blakeley and Saward explain that people rely on ‘availability heuristics’, which is a cognitive process by which people simplify a complex question into a simpler one.

This involves answering a general question by substituting it with a more specific and relevant one (Tversky and Kahneman cited in Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.315). In the summer riots example, the rioters may be explained as using ‘imagery’ from television, mobile phone and internet media when ‘assessing’ the fairness of Duggen’s shooting, and making this relevant to their personally bewildered and underrepresented situations that they behaved or reacted in a defensive and reptilian way.

On the other hand, Ulrich Becks ‘risk society’ suggests that people rely on expert or authoritative knowledge to make decisions (Beck cited in Carter and Jordan, 2009, p.80). The extent to which the country was affected, and how quickly it spread (mass media etc.) raises questions about how the levels at which the state has to consider penetrating, reaching and informing the knowledge of the people is constantly changing.

Furthermore, inequalities and differences result in pressure groups, existing and new - from the Friends of the Earth to ‘Dyfodol i’r laith’ (whose cause is to keep the Welsh language alive). This shows a zero sum game in the words of Dennis Wrong (Wrong cited in Allen, 2009, p.70). However, for Rodney Barker, this is the importance of everyday state practices and how these may be contested.

Change is a constant factor even in apparently stable states. Pressure groups always provide new challenges for democracy (historically, for any political regime) (Barker cited in Bromley et al, 2009, p.57). Giovanni Sartori claims that democracy is both: the ‘threshold’ of free and fair elections; and the ‘continuum’ of improving of peoples’ liberties over time and space (Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.369). This can be evident from the recent adoption of local referendums and participatory budgeting (‘Citizens of the state’, 2009, track 2).

In conclusion, the minimalist and maximalist concepts of democracy are both valid in Sartori’s view of democracy. In addition, Beck’s theory that people rely on knowledge, whilst the Summer Riots of 2011, Arab Spring Rising and historical Revolutions illustrate that the power of the state and the power of people are interconnected.

Also, Brown’s and Cameron’s speeches show evidence of the state (political parties) being in need of public confidence, as much as referendums and local budgeting convey how the people participate in the state and are empowered. However, Bauman’s seduced and repressed is a reminder that there are winners and losers in society. So pressure groups - for example, will always be testing of new liberties, as elected parties will continue to change, representing the greater good for the majority of the changing people.

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Carter, S. and Jordan, T. (2009) ‘Living with risk and risky living’, in Bromley, S., Clarke, J., Hinchcliff, S. and Taylor, S. (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

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Allen, J. (2009) ‘One stop shopping: the power of the supermarkets’, in Taylor, S., Hinchcliff, S., Clarke, J., and Bromley, S. (2009) Making Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Bromley, S., Jeffries, E., Meegan, J., Staples, M., (2009) Learning Companion 3, Introducing the social sciences Milton Keynes, The Open University.

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Almond, M., the BBC, 14 February 2011, Egypt unrest, accessed 22 September 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12431231

James, M., The Guardian, 5 September 2011, Behind the riots: What young people think about the unrest, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/sep/05/young-people-2011-summer-unrest, 18 September 2012