My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a taste:
In any civic society, the stability and success of the government requires that the vast majority of the people consider the government to be legitimate, but legitimacy is an elusive concept that is largely in the mind of each citizen. Some argue that democratic governments are inherently legitimate because democracies are designed to enact the will of the majority of the people. Democracy, however, is a method of making decisions. It is not, in and of itself, a basis of legitimacy.
Thomas Jefferson got to the root of it in the Declaration of Independence when he echoed John Locke’s contention that governments are instituted, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The word “consent” is the basis of legitimacy and can be just as easily given or withdrawn in a democracy as in an autocracy. A relatively free society like ours relies on almost everyone agreeing to abide by the laws enacted by government of their own free will — even when they disagree with the law or the means by which it was enacted. Unlike a totalitarian government, democratic societies purposefully lack the police power to enforce widespread disobedience and face stiff resistance when they try. For order and stability to prevail, almost everyone must generally consent to the laws. They will only do so when they think that the government is legitimate and that there is a general sense that we are all in this together.
There are many things that can rend the sense of legitimacy in a democracy. Marxists rely on dividing people by class and race to delegitimize the government by convincing people that the government is not working for them. Democracies can devolve into mob rule where a substantial minority is subjugated to the majority. Technocracies can develop in democracies where the public will is subverted by unelected experts. Human history is replete with the rise and fall of governments. They always fall when the people no longer think they are legitimate and, therefore, no longer feel a need to obey them.