The Evolution of Political Legitimacy: Socioeconomic development and human needs

Andrew Klassen

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper presented at Conference (not in Proceedings)

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Political legitimacy is fundamentally important but inherently problematic. It is important because legitimate governing authorities usually resort to less repression and violence (to obtain compliance). It is problematic because there is broad agreement regarding the meaning of legitimacy, but extensive disagreement about how it is justified. A widely agreeable definition of political legitimacy would be the right or acceptability of governing authorities to govern (usually as determined by those governed), but justifications vary from traditions and customs to accountability and elections. This presents curious puzzles for understanding how legitimacy is obtained and maintained. On one hand, citizens in different political systems, such as democratic and authoritarian, may view their respective authorities as legitimate. On the other hand, particular groups within the same society may reach divergent conclusions about the legitimacy of their governing authorities. This paper argues that justifications for legitimacy evolve over time as societies develop and people’s needs change. The theoretical framework is based on a modified version of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The central hypothesis of the theory is that legitimacy judgements are motivated by (1) people’s individual needs and (2) how well they perceive governing authorities to be fulfilling those needs. A match or mismatch between people’s needs and authorities’ performance determines whether legitimacy judgments are positive or negative. Maintaining legitimacy therefore entails authorities being responsive to citizens’ needs and adjusting their actions accordingly. Authorities better suited to governing a particular society are expected to be considered more legitimate, and therefore have a better chance of surviving. A needs‐based perspective of legitimacy is notable for having considerable explanatory potential. First, it is applicable across different political systems and socioeconomic conditions because it is based on human needs. This helps us understand why citizens in democratic as well as authoritarian regimes may consider their authorities as legitimate. Second, the theory provides and explanation for how revolutions and democratic transitions may be grounded in unsatisfied needs. The brief explanation is that when a regime fails to advance needs satisfaction for a generation or longer, pressure starts building for progress among the younger generations. Third, the theory describes how different socioeconomic groups within a society may make divergent legitimacy judgements because of their different levels of deprivation. When it comes to making legitimacy judgements, poorer groups are expected to care about different things than richer groups. A needs‐based theory of legitimacy therefore provides a potentially powerful analytical tool for comparative political research.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes
EventAustralian Political Studies Association 2011 Conference - The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Duration: 26 Sep 201128 Sep 2011


ConferenceAustralian Political Studies Association 2011 Conference
Abbreviated titleAPSA 2011


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