The Long View in Politics— It’s Time to Start Thinking Legitimation

First some relevant early history . . .

In the year 1525, the court of King John III of Portugal was treated to a dramatic presentation. It has come down to us labelled “The Beira Judge” (the word “Beira” designating an inland swath of Portugal and also suggesting cultural backwardness). The little play’s author was Gil Vicente, considered, by some who make such designations, to have been the West’s first “modern” playwright. The play’s title character is one Pero Marques. His name too suggests backwardness — “Pero” being a “rustic” rendering of “Pedro.”

If we were attending the play and had been following Vicente’s already-long career (he wrote his first piece for the court in 1502), we would have prior knowledge about Pero, for this is the character’s second appearance in a Vicente play. We would know that Pero is an earnest but obtuse young man, in effect a mental and social incompetent.

The plot of “Beira Judge” has it that this known simpleton has somehow been made magistrate over in Beira and, being Pero Marques after all, has begun delivering nonsensical or outrageous opinions and imposing inappropriate sentences. As a consequence, he is brought up before the king, who is, of course, present at the play, thus becoming a semi-character as well as an audience member. That overlay handily compresses into a single social event a comic court entertainment on the one hand and, on the other, a scene suggesting the working of royal oversight. The various possible spins combine to make this an all-but-unique situation — and one put to all-but-unique use.

Presented at the seat of one of the early-modern West’s most centralized state-mercantile operations, the dramatic set-up involves or invokes a significant cross section of contemporary society: in the audience, personages from the aristocracy and, as characters, personages from the commons (a highly stereotyped “commons,” as is ever the case); and it is written, directed — and probably acted in — by a member of the tiny secular intelligentsia.

In plot terms, the fictitious Pero, expectably, reprises his crackpot antics, demonstrating the gulf in him between playing the role of judge and having much of a notion of being a judge content-wise. And the victims of his “judgments,” being rustics like himself (though played by court personnel), behave in stereotyped bumpkinish ways. All in all, a way to produce hilarity in the upper-crust audience.

For present purposes, it is the symbolic dimension of Vicente’s whole presentation that is key. The space in which the play takes place in effect functions as a symbolic arena in which what the German theoretician Jürgen Habermas has called political “legitimation” — to be sure, a fledgling version thereof — is being actively worked on. In the play, some of the expectations of the king are being laid out by the set-up itself: first and foremost, that a king, this present king, is responsible for seeing that the state apparatus works as advertised.

Similar expectations attend the (present) aristocracy and bureaucracy (i.e, the aforementioned “secular intelligentsia”) as well. As for the (suggested/represented) populace, it is simply expected that it will acknowledge the legitimacy of the state apparatus because of the observed (and presumed) correctness of that apparatus’ working in cases like this one with this particular inept judge. (One should not, of course, assume that, in terms of actual history, all these considerations have really always — if ever — just been politely accepted by the various social groups involved.)

Habermas’s key publication in this regard is not called “Legitimation,” however; it is instead Legitimation Crisis(1973). For him, in continuation from such early thinking as Vicente’s and that of Vicente’s contemporary, Machiavelli, on through such as Rousseau and Weber, a modern society functions on the basis of a set of shared norms and values in relation to which state legitimacy is judged. Legitimation crisis occurs when the state does not establish or maintain structures sufficiently reflective of those norms and values to command assent. Habermas’s project, seen broadly (and I extrapolate more than a bit too), is to examine how instances of institutional legitimation can fall into crisis and what can happen then. It is thus not unfair to say that the current situation in the United States must interest him greatly. Let’s use him as a rhetorical touchstone . . .

The nub of Habermas’s interest would likely not be President Trump’s behavior in and of itself, despite the obvious lying, corruption, self-dealing, and so on. His interest would likely focus on such areas as fomenting and cultivation of division in the populace; blatant use of government functions for personal gain; appointment to positions of power of unqualified but compliant people; use of federal law-enforcement personnel as shock troops to attack citizens; and the insistent, multipronged effort to delegitimize the coming election and/or to load it in his favor. All topped off with ongoing ineptitude in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and politicization of the post office — which, in the public mind, seem to have become the twin bell-weather issues summing up all of the above and the much more that could be added.

Examined in that focus, the Trump administration can be seen to have scrambled the socio-functional order set out in Vicente’s play: Donald Trump is not young King John III, the provident executive that Vicente hopes to construct. He is instead . . . Pero Marques, someone playing the role of such an executive without getting the expected content right. (Trump, of course, to incompetence à la Pero adds the compounding feature of corruption.)

But Habermas’s exact focus would likely fall upon the flip side of even that picture: namely, on the damage being done to the credibility of bedrock norms and expectations that are supposed to be there to guard against and interrupt such behavior. By bullying, ignoring, contesting, delaying, etc, Trump has managed to move on leaving behind him not only a pile of damaged institutions but profound doubt, or disorientation, regarding the legitimacy of our overall institutional functioning, present and future. Many of us can, I suspect, attest to the repeated presence, on our lips and those of our acquaintances, of questions such as “Isn’t there any way to stop him from doing that? How did we get into this situation?”

The very form of such questions is revealing. We have long been assured culturally that while this sort of thing happens elsewhere, it “can’t happen here”; “our three interlocking branches of government . . . “ “checks and balances . . .” For legitimacy theorists, this aspect of political legitimation is sometimes called “moral legitimation.” It involves a form of legitimacy that manifests itself as an ongoing general trust in the operations of the state, a trust that is solid enough that it becomes cultural presumption rather than something that, say, requires regular monitoring. I.e, we may not agree with things — even, to our minds, major things — happening within a given administration, but we have an unspoken, likely unanalyzed, conviction that the state apparatus contains within it the resources necessary to keep that administration’s actions within the expectable bounds.

As regards that form of legitimation, with the Trump administration the old automatic presumption no longer applies. “It” now is happening here; at this point in time there really can be no doubt of that. Our legitimation norms and their institutionalization as process — the set constituted by the Constitution, statutes, protocols, precedents, accumulated practice, consensual expectations and so on — have not only been challenged but have proven themselves insufficient to prevent what can only be called incipient legitimation crisis à la Habermas. The result: right now, an institutional chaos and apparent abuse of power that are clearly unsustainable for any prolonged length of time. How can a country continue to function when the populace cannot believe that officials know the area to which they have been appointed, the relevant laws, etc? when we cannot believe that decisions are made and actions taken with thought to the common good — or even to actual problem-solving? when I cannot understand what the value of my vote is, given that my neighbor has been denied the vote though her qualifications for voting are the same as mine? when government officials repeatedly contradict each other — or themselves — in public and then just move on? It is not so much that such things happen as it is that they happen regularly, and unchecked.

Given this situation, new questions must be asked. Are we headed to a future where we will we be able to look back and say that the past three-plus years (and whatever is yet to come) have represented a simple interregnum, over and done with? Or are we forever changed? The answers are unclear, and “no” is a really possible answer to the first of those questions, as is “yes” to the second. Yet this seems to be where our current thinking ends.

But, at very minimum, more needs to be thought through.

If, as current polling suggests, the coming election produces a President Biden, he will not be stepping into office with a clear path anywhere in sight. He will, on the one hand, inherit a divided country further divided by the actions of his predecessor — and an election outcome that, we are already all but directly told by that incumbent, will be challenged if it doesn’t go his way. So, a likely-divisive institutional process will probably be immediately ongoing in that area.

On the other hand, Biden will also, in order to govern in line with established expectations, have to point to the inherited institutional wreckage and say how his administration will deal with it — all the while attempting to address an uncontrolled pandemic and a severe economic downturn. All in all, a huge set of tasks, each seemingly dependent on prior completion of one or more of the others.

There will thus be many areas in which he will have to choose courses of action from options that set the longer-term considerations about legitimation in direct opposition to the immediate social and political concerns. There will be an understandable temptation simply to postpone the former for the latter. To do so, however, may turn out to be riskier than might first seem to be the case. In this arena, likely outcomes are unclear, and genies do not often go willingly back into their bottles — especially if they are not assured that it is a bottle in working order.

To be sure, there are a number of potential strategies and starting places. Because of the specifics of the situation, however, all come with negatives attached. Biden can’t just count on our “going back” institutionally, for in doing that he would be occupying a legitimation structure that has just, indelibly, in front of us all, proved itself insufficient to stave off legitimation crisis. Not exactly a way to claim legitimacy. Going forward boldly — to, say, a plan of initiatives to recast some areas of administrative process in ways less susceptible to abuse (and perhaps eventually more fitted to the times) — will simultaneously be imperative and run the risk of being interpretable as itself an “illegitimate” power grab. One could go on laying out the internally-contradictory aspects within the set of tasks that await.

We are, then, in an extraordinary moment. Presuming that a “normal” election will effect a simple re-set seems fanciful — and also, were it to come to pass, likely prove inadequate to deal with the wreckage and its inevitable aftermath anyhow. It would seem that forward is the only possible direction and that it should be committed to up front as a gesture toward a future “normalization” on the domestic front. (In some respects, governmental legitimacy is even more immediately crucial for international relations, but that issue lies beyond the scope of this essay.) Then some sort of multi-front initiative coupling immediate action with legitimation concerns. Two bare-bones examples out of many possible: stricter limitations on “acting” appointments in the executive branch, clearly presented as, in part, directed to the institutional failings experienced in that area; measures designed to accelerate judicial proceedings in intra-governmental matters, presented as a way to prevent the delaying tactics we have seen.

The stakes are high — and the direction unclear. But measures like these, overtly presented as addressing matters of moral legitimation, would serve as departure points for this dimension of the work to be done.

On the subject of what can happen when stakes are this high and directions this unclear, we can again refer back to where we came from, both in this present communication and also historically: namely, to our early-modern touchstone, Gil Vicente. (I don’t mean this to be a prediction. Just a real-life example of how matters sometimes take a course we don’t even identify at the time as being possible.)

We really don’t know much about Vicente — no reliable birth date, death date, social standing, education, what he looked like, anything of the sort. He was, simply, a member of the court — presumably, one of the tutors of the aristocracy. That positioning makes sense overall, though, since some of his works — “Beira Judge” among them — come off like, among other things, subtle lessons in practical ethics slyly aimed to his audience.

But we do know his works and their subsequent history. It is the history that tells a story about uncertain situations and the outcomes that can ensue.

First of all, his work — which looks fairly serene on its surface — clearly got “mixed reviews” even in the day. It seems clear that portions of the clergy, and of the religious establishment in general, constituted a major source of opposition — undoubtedly because of Vicente’s open defense of Portuguese Jews and converts and likely also because, as in “Beira Judge,” he tends to keep concrete issues within the world of the concrete. He also sometimes satirizes clerical figures — albeit lightly.

The upshot is that, after his death, two of his children, overcoming considerable opposition (or so the story goes), managed, in the 1560’s, to get their father’s complete works published. In 1586, however, a version was released that was substantially expurgated by the increasingly-powerful Inquisition. And, unfortunately to tell, that newly-empowered branch of the administration was acceded to by John III, who in many ways was a provident king, but on this front seems to have been . . . Pero Marques.

The altered version of Vicente’s work was the only way “Beira Judge” could be read — for the next . . . 250 years.

Washington, D.C.

Aug. 2020

Ronald W. Sousa has authored a number of books and periodical articles in the areas of social and cultural criticism (he is “googleable” in this regard).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store