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Not to be confused with Legitimacy (law).

In political science, legitimacy is the popular acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime. Whereas “authority” denotes a specific position in an established government, the term “legitimacy” denotes a system of government — wherein “government” denotes “sphere of influence”. Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite. In Chinese political philosophy, since the historical period of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the political legitimacy of a ruler and government was derived from the Mandate of Heaven, and that unjust rulers who lose said mandate, therefore lose the right to rule the people.

In moral philosophy, the term “legitimacy” often is positively interpreted as the normative status conferred by a governed people upon their governors’ institutions, offices, and actions, based upon the belief that their government's actions are appropriate uses of power by a legally constituted government. In law, “legitimacy” is distinguished from “legality” (see colour of law), to establish that a government action can be legal whilst not being legitimate, e.g. the Southeast Asia Resolution, Public Law 88-408 (The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), which allowed the U.S. to war against Vietnam, without a formal declaration of war; a government action can be legitimate without being legal, e.g. a pre-emptive war, a military junta. An example of such matters arises when legitimate institutions clash in a constitutional crisis.

The Enlightenment-era British social theoretician John Locke (1632–1704) said that political legitimacy derives from popular explicit and implicit consent of the governed: “The argument of the [Second] Treatise is that the government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed.” The German political philosopher Dolf Sternberger said, “Legitimacy is the foundation of such governmental power as is exercised, both with a consciousness on the government’s part that it has a right to govern, and with some recognition by the governed of that right.” The American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset said that legitimacy also “involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society.” The American political theorist Robert A. Dahl explained legitimacy as a reservoir; so long as the water is at a given level, political stability is maintained, if it falls below the required level, political legitimacy is endangered.


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