WAMC NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO JULY 2, 2009
Legitimacy – it’s a powerful term though Americans tend to associate it more often with birth than political authority. But it really is at the heart of the political process. After all, no government can long stand if its citizens reject its authority, its legitimacy. And that legitimacy does not have to flow from the democratic process. The idea that a community – directed by the vote of the majority- decides who leads them.
After all, many other governments have long survived with other versions of legitimacy. In Vietnam, the governing party has long managed its legitimacy through its role in the country’s liberation struggle. While China and Singapore have often claimed legitimacy from their ability to improve living standards.
No. The right to lead does not have to be democratic. But it does need to be seen as legitimate. Which is why, despite the Iranian government’s temporary success in imposing control after last’s month’s popular challenge to the obviously faked presidential election results. It is likely to find itself challenged for years to come.
After all those in the streets were initially at least hardly challenging the legitimacy of the government. In fact, one could argue they were patriotically defending the government. At least defending the hybrid nature of the Islamic republic- a curious hybrid that combined the theocratic leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor the Ayatollah Khamenei – with a limited but still relatively open democratic process which regularly voted into office leaders who often held a nuanced distance from aspects of the theocratic leadership.
And it was not just the elections of the relatively moderate president Khatami in the 90s that showed that. Even Achmadinejad’s own election four years ago seemed at first to represent a rejection of sorts of the ruling mullahs – elections that seemed to be relatively fair. At least until last month, when the leadership apparently faked the results, while the Iranian people, recognizing the obvious coup against their own mixed system came into the streets in protest. But of course then came the question of America’s role in all this.
After all, for America’s entire history we have seen ourselves as a model of democracy and occasionally considerably more than that. Often quite ready to loudly condemn assaults on the people’s vote. But our new President Obama, offering an example of the more sophisticated presidency, than we have seen operating recently, understood that given America’s long history of intervention in Iranian political life – too openly siding with the Iranian opposition would have only helped the anti-democratic forces.
And, interestingly Obama was willing to sacrifice a bit of his own popularity by initially remaining somewhat aloof – an impressive and nuanced position. But of course no one found it all that satisfying. After all America has always seen itself as a beacon of democracy. And if former President Bush’s impersonation of President Wilson with a gun has now been rightly put aside the question still remains? What can America do to highlight its international commitment to democracy?
Well, the best thing we can do now is to very publicly clean up our own democratic house -to finally fully embrace the democratic idea by getting rid of the obsolete Electoral College. I mean how can we possibly be the gold standard of democracy if we retain a system that promotes states over people simply because it was conceived before the idea of popular sovereignty, the core of the democratic idea, was fully in place. After all, too often in American history, the two thousand election merely the most recent the world has seen America raise someone to the presidency who literally lost the democratic vote of the American people.
Oh sure one can understand why President Bush could do nothing about this stain on American democracy. His trying to fix the system would obviously have underlined his own questionable legitimacy. But now it’s time to fix the system while showing the world how truly committed we are to the democratic idea of free peoples everywhere including Americans electing their leaders.