There has never been any shortage of disagreement in this world, and some of these disagreements have always had the tendency to go awry. A brother is jealous that God accepts the sacrifice of the other brother and not his own and murders the brother who made him lose face with God. A king decides to humiliate the ambassadors of a neighboring king and then seeks help to defend his kingdom from the inevitable repercussions of that behavior. A kinglet sets aside his dynastic bride from a neighboring kinglet and then finds himself losing in battle to his former father-in-law afterward. And so on and so forth, we find that conflict itself between people can have much larger repercussions than the original issues that drive them apart. But these are not necessarily crises of legitimacy, as irritating as these conflicts may be. Our age seems to be specializing in such crises and encouraging their growth and spread, and that is something that I find rather worrisome and would like to talk about in at least some length.
As I am wont to do, I was looking on my twitter feed this morning, which is usually filled with plenty of soon-to-be forgotten aspects of the decline of the legitimacy of the American political system that would already be old news by the time anyone else read these words. In addition to all that, though, I found a thread about India removing a Turkish company from a lucrative contract worth about $3 billion because of some negative comments that Turkey had made about India’s rule in the disputed Kashmir province. And what I found in the thread was a large number of memes and comments expressing a rather bumptious Indian Jai Hind pride that urged India to act in a similarly brusque manner with any other nation (like Malaysia) that sought to gain political capital with its Muslim populations by insulting or denigrating India. This was seen as a new India and a more swaggering India and the sort of India that wouldn’t tolerate disrespect from others for its own behavior as a would-be superpower. As an American, and a somewhat bumptious one at that it must be admitted, this is a feeling I am well familiar with. It is somewhat alien, I must admit, to see this sort of behavior spreading to other nations, but it is certainly a mood I have been a part of frequently when diplomatic tiffs reveal a genuine sense of hostility towards those who would question the legitimacy of one’s actions, and it signifies that such ferocity has spread far beyond American borders, which is likely to make the world a less gracious place when it comes to putting up with negativity from others.
What is it that makes such things crises of legitimacy? Well, for one, when a country finds that its companies are losing very big contracts because of political contretemps, that either encourages more blandly diplomatic but less honest communication about areas of disagreement between nations or we will only do business with those who support our country and what it does and how it behaves. Nor does this exhaust the sorts of crises of legitimacy that we face. It is no great crisis of legitimacy to have deep partisan divides that are dealt with through ongoing political rhetoric along with periodic honest elections where the results are respected and those who disagree with the results use the usual constitutional means of the loyal opposition to hinder unwanted agendas by ruling parties. What is a crisis is when the elections themselves and their results are viewed as illegitimate and when loyal opposition becomes more or less permanent treason, with the usual projection on one’s political opposition for doing what they themselves support and do because human beings cannot help but justify themselves by attacking others hypocritically.
What is it that crises of legitimacy share? What they all share is a lack of trust. The refusal to work with companies from nations that disapprove of one’s behavior is a lack of trust that companies will do good work for the money that they are paid but need to also represent people who support the places they work in. We see this lack of trust when states like California try to ban official business in Iowa or other states for political reasons. When we try to enact Thai democracy in a nation by actively working for the overthrow of elected governments we dislike, we lack trust that the people will vote correctly, and so their bad decisions need to be voided throughout some sort of coup. What military governments regularly do in Thailand is what contemporary Democrats wish to do in the United States, even if they lack the requisite self-awareness to realize the threat that this poses to a respect for free and fair elections at all. It is no threat to legitimacy to disagree with political decisions and to work to revise them by winning elections and nominating better judges and enacting better policies, but it is a threat to try to delegitimize a political process simply because one does not like the outcome, especially since the well-functioning of institutions requires that processes be respected whether or not one likes the outcomes.
And it is not like this is only a problem for national governments. Around a decade ago or so I remember a kerfuffle that developed over a church deciding to reverse a decision to move their headquarters from Ohio to Texas, a decision that greatly riled those who had promoted such a decision and not realized that it would awaken a great deal of hostility to those who had been elites in the church culture for the past few decades. Instead of accepting that in a close and contentious sort of decision that one may not have the mandate to make the sort of decision that one would wish, the response was to delegitimize the process of reversing a mistaken decision that had not received widespread consensus. Such examples could be multiplied. It is a difficult thing to trust in processes that lead to our own wishes and desires being thwarted, but our love of consent has to trump our desire that people would consent to what we want. If this is no longer the case, then we have become a very dangerous sort of people who are not worthy of trust, the sort of people no one should trust in authority or to represent institutions, which only makes our situation all the more grave.