Esther Rhee


The belief that a regime has the right to govern and rule (Princeton). Although a narrow definition concerning the scope of legitimacy in formal and informal social controls, this definition is concerned with the belief and right to rule. Overall, this glossary will seek to understand the political power of legitimacy in practice and in theory.[1] 

Theoretical Legitimacy



The traditional theory of legitimacy stakes its claims and justifications for “the right to rule” through historical support of authority. Historical evidence of rule legitimizes the governing body itself. In other words, people believe that the government has the right to rule because that is how it has always been. By relying on “old” traditions and rules this type of legitimacy solidifies the social relationship as the dominant and subordinate groups (Johansen 438[2] ).

EX: Some examples of such legitimacy can include patriarchal systems like the Roman Catholic Church, the use of nepotism and “Royal Blood” enhances this traditional type of legitimacy by reinforcing the historical context with continuity (Johansen 438). Having a blood lineage dating back a myriad of successors worked successfully in legitimizing the right to rule for people over centuries and even now.


Traditional forms of legitimacy are ones of high controversy in our modern political climate. Change of policies and new reformations without revolutions have been the balancing act of the last few decades especially in accordance to black rights. The origin of protest in the fifties and sixties have been a result of combating unfair treatment and rights. It seems that in our current age traditionalist seems to fights against fairness, at least media’s portrayal of political drama. Gender neutral bathrooms is a large example of how our past traditions and policies clash with current generations morality and sense of fairness.



Charismatic legitimacy is often perceived as the most unstable type of legitimacy. It is traditionally defined as, “A revolutionary force, which promises to transform existing values, norms and practices,” by Webster. This type of legitimacy is foundationalized in a leader’s or regime’s revolutionary promise to change existing political norms and practices. However, this passionate sense of belief relies on an unstable sense of justice. Often leaders or regimes cannot meet the standards of the people creating a very dangerous opportunity for regimes to legitimize their authority other extreme ways, or allow a full revolution to ensue. In addition, a charismatic approach is most often utilized in time of crisis for a government justifying its dynamic approach. This legitimacy is founded in the trust for the new individual and desperation of the governing situation.


EX: One example that comes into mind is Hitler’s approach to power. After the first World War the situation in Germany was dire(Johansen 439). The Treaty of Versailles and economic depression that followed the end of the war restricted and pulverized Germany’s economy, government, and people. The poverty was inescapable, hence, comes in Hitler, a running chancellor who seeks a revolutionary sense of justice and government to garner charismatic legitimacy. [6] 

This typology is often coupled with manipulation to extend to legitimacy but limit equality. The foundation of the legitimacy itself is already skewed because of the reliance on one actor to change and undesirable environment. The total reliance and dire trust that accompany the guidelines of charismatic legitimacy puts the governed at the mercy of the ruler. Although legitimacy should be taken away because the lack ofbelief in the fairness and right to rule, autoclastic styles of governments thus retain these rights to continue their rule. [7] 


In a Rational-Legal approach to legitimacy, it justifies it legitimacy through systems and institutions with sound procedures and rules to, “produce sound policies and correct errors” (Johansen 439). In contrast to Charismatic legitimacy, it does not rely on one person but rather relies on a systematic approach to sanction, uphold, and keep order in the government and rely on the objective system to invoke legitimacy.[8] 

EX: An example of such can be the recent Presidential Election, although an extremely polarizing time for the U.S. and its people, the continuing legitimacy of the government can be seen as a rational-legal approach because although many distrust the Pres[9] ident we rely on a system to sanction and eventually replace the President every four years.

Progressing past autocratic governments and dictatorships our democratic government is founded on equality and justice. The sense of “fairness”is dignified in our court and social norms. That is why the Rational-Legal form of legitimacy is one of the closest typologies in our current day and age. This sense of fairness is employed through a larger body of government to keep checks and balances, and we value a sense of objectivity all to create fairness. However, fairness and objectivity do not always go hand in hand and incarceration statistics beg to differ in our governments claim for “sound policies.”How is our belief in the government’s right to rule changed when a government was not founded in “fairness”and does not currently reflect it as well. [10] 

Relevance to LSJ

The doctrine of discovery can be seen as the forming of legitimacy on U.S. soil. Our discovery and treaties legitimized our presences and all future endeavors on this soil. However, if the treaties themselves do not reflect a sense of fairness or equality and manipulation forms the foundation of this nation how can we legitimize ourselves as citizens[11] .Our foundation rests upon broken treaties from the sixteenth century till now, current issues like the Dakota Pipeline delegitimize the government which formed our rights. Current treaty associations like NATO supposedly legitimize the treaties we hold today.[12] Our belief in fairness can recognize this factor but our manipulation in using treaties to take the land but then reject it to take more land thus places legitimacy not on[13] the fairness of the governing body but on the rule itself. This gives no parameter to rule and subtly repeats an autocratic system.[14] 

            Currently legitimacy is concerned with two main factors, the trust of the people traditionally foundationalized in fairness (belief), and the employment of the government to maintain and uphold legitimacy (right to rule), often through policing and military governance.

This establishment of authority and legitimacy in the current day [15] and age has been criticized for systematic corruption concerning racial and socioeconomic factors.

            Our current U.S. government relies on several typologies of legitimacy, we continue democracy from traditionalist approached of democracy and a continuing form of legitimate government because that is how it has always been. We also rely on “charismatic approaches” with our President and our order with elections and debates to further legitimize “transforming” platforms to be elected. However, I believe our current government has the strongest reliance on Rational-Legal legitimacy to rule.

            Specifically, in our LSJ 200 class we have focused on policing and force in terms of legitimacy. In other words, how we are policed can with legitimize or delegitimize our current body of government and our belief in the fairness and right for the government to rule. In “Pulled Over” the author explains that, “Police stops convey powerful messages about citizenship and equality…. These experiences are translated into common stories about who is an equal member of a rule-governed society and who is subjected to arbitrary surveillance and inquiry” (Epp 2014).[16] 

            The people’s perception of fairness in government and foremost, policing, is a large factor in our current politically polarized state of viewing the government as legitimate or not. “The psychological theory of procedural justice, which teaches that people evaluate the legitimacy of official decisions on the bases of whether or the process seems fair, not whether they got the favorable outcome.” And “a procedure that consistently produced unfair outcomes will eventually be viewed as unfair itself” (Epp 2014).[17] 

            We can see an example of his in “U.S. vs Drayton” when two heavily clothes individuals caught the attention of officers surveilling the passengers of a Greyhound (Findlaw 2002). Also, being African American these two individuals were then targeted by the police “asked” for a search and then arrested and convicted for possessing methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia. However, Drayton argues that his “consent” to search was manipulated and coerced by the standing officers at the scene and probably cause was not sufficient therefore it was a violation of the 4th amendment. Rather than focusing on the possible fourth amendment violation, the legitimacy of the police in the specific moment of Drayton consenting to search by the overwhelming police presence by and at the exit of the vehicle. Like many African American Drayton felt he had no choice but to consent to search. [18] This lack of choice and police coercion and enforcement plays a larger role in the “fairness” and legitimacy of our current government. Why he had felt that he had no choice and no rights was a direct result in the unfairness of racial profiling and racially motivated violence that then controls and dominates the people rather than fair and legitimate policing. The statistics and numbers of police stops, arrests, and conviction of black males in America is one large tipping point in delegitimizing our current government with the focus on, “fairness.”[19] 

Work Cited

Charles Epp, Stephen Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel (2014) Chapter 1, 3 and 4 from 

Pulled Over : How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. University of Chicago Press.

“FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court case and opinions.” Findlaw. 10 Feb. 2019 


Johansen, Svein Tvedt. “Legitimacy, Forms of.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Political Behavior, edited 

by Fathali M. Moghaddam, vol. 1, SAGE Reference, 2017, pp. 438-440. Gale Virtual 

ReferenceLibrary,http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX7282300187/GVRL?u=wash_main&sid=GVRL&xid=2470be83. Accessed 1 Feb. 2019.

Schechter, Stephen. “Political Legitimacy.” American Governance, edited by Stephen Schechter, et 

al., vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2016, pp. 102-104. Gale Virtual Reference Library

http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3629100509/GVRL?u=wash_main&sid=GVRL&xid=7a990416. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.