In this modern age, legitimacy faces two major threats. Political authority overreach and cyber attacks are the modern threats to legitimacy. A threat to the integrity of institutions is a threat to democracy itself.
A good government is one that enhances its legitimacy, by adhering to the moral principles of democracy. More recently, populism, respect for institutions, fake news and hacking have degraded the foundation of democratic values, and pose threats to political legitimacy.
Acceptability validates legitimacy. What supports acceptability is the nature of ‘social contract’. In recent history, we have experienced an erosion to the nature of the democratic social contract. Social contract is an abstract of sociopolitical arrangement thought to be objectionable in its role. A democratic social contract is based on shared value. If acceptability is delineated by a majority’s choice to participate in the process of being governed, the constitution becomes the instrument in defending the rights of the minority. The rule of law and respect for institutions are instrumentally valuable framework in the name of freedom and justice.
In an era of technological and information revolution, the internet and other advancements in technology became instrumentally valuable in the way we communicate, access and store information. Cyber security has become crucial in preserving the legitimacy of a government. Social media, hacking, fake news are used to influence legitimacy. These are examples of modern maneuvers to manipulate the nature of social contract. On the other hand, cyber security presents a new challenge in our quest for preserving the integrity of institutions.
In October 2018, Bruce Schneier published an academic paper on a Harvard University website called Berkman Klein Center for the Internet & Society. The academic paper was written by Henry Farrell, a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. In his paper, Professor Farrell raises concerns related to this new threat to the legitimacy of governments and democracy. These are the fragilities, as information becomes more digitalized. We have witnessed this growing threat as bureaucracies transition into more and more digitalized forms. Professor Farrell noted that in 2014, presumed Russian hackers sought to compromise key aspects of Ukraine’s elections. In 2016, the Internet Research Agency, a company based in St. Petersburg, began to post false content on US social media that seemed intended to stir up controversy, division, and disagreement on the facts among its readers, to the point of trying to create both protests and counter-protests over the same issues. In his own word, Professor Henry Farrell stated, “Both these attacks are attacks on common political knowledge: the consensus beliefs that hold political systems.”
In June 2019, I found the televised second night of primary debate proved to be a good civic engagement exercise. Democratic presidential hopefuls promised to sanction Russia for its hacking and interference during the 2016 presidential election. But the real intended target was President Donald Trump, who the candidates insinuated to be the beneficiary of such cyber attacks. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), a presidential candidate at the time, called the current president of the United States the greatest threat to the U.S. national security. Sen Kamala Harris supported her claim by stating that “the president takes the words of the Russian president over the words of the American Intelligence community when it comes to a threat to our democracy and our elections”. If her claims are correct, there can be serious damages to the integrity of the U.S. governmental institutions, with possible implications to the government’s legitimacy.
Cyber attacks can pose a real threat to institutions. The danger of having election results altered by hackers is a new threat to a government’s legitimacy. This can become a real possibility, if we are not careful in making current and future decisions on what should remain traditional and what to be digitalized in the election process.
In recent history, we have witnessed a rising threat to the nature of the democratic social contract. We have experienced a shift in the interpretation of moral obligations and political legitimacy. Political power coercion has increasingly become a motive for authority justification. Populism on the rise has been gradually politicizing political authority, posing a danger to the functionality of institution and political order.
According to Rousseau, the increase of coercive political power creates a problem of legitimacy. Rousseau’s theory creates a path that connects legitimacy to moral obligations, from the democratic justification of the civil state. Political moralism is instrumentally valuable, when a government takes justice as a reference in its process of governing. Rousseau expresses concerns in relation to coercive power. Which suggests that legitimacy of any government can also be enhanced in the basis of its moral obligations. Essential moral obligations that promotes respect for institutions and welfare of every citizen it represents.
A good government rules based on the majority’s choice, but also respects the rights of the minority. A good government promotes universal human rights and freedom, equal opportunity, happiness and justice for all. A good government is one that enhances its legitimacy by defending the integrity of institutions. A good government respects ‘social contract’ as the foundation for legitimacy. And legitimacy is the key element for the justification of political authority. Thomas Hobbes calls this concept “sovereign institution”. A fundamental aspect that makes a government legitimate. It is also legitimate to say that political authority also gives rise to political obligations. A just government enhances its legitimacy by being morally acceptable.
Overall, most political philosophers agree that legitimacy is a virtue in the political process. It defines governments, political systems, laws, policies and allows institutions to exist. And a good government in one that advocates and protect the integrity of institutions. It is also morally important for a good government to preserve that integrity, not for its own benefit, but as an operative that validates legitimacy. The fundamental ideals of a good and legitimate government, is to advocate for trust and justice, protect institutions, and project prosperity and happiness of all.