American Decline

Is the United States Facing a Legitimacy Crisis?

The long-term decline of trust in government indicates that our political system has been struggling to meet the public’s expectations for over half a century.

Many people are saying that the United States is in the grip of a legitimacy crisis. In the social sciences, legitimacy is defined as “the normative justification of political authority.” By extension, legitimate political authorities are those that “live up to the normative standards of the citizens — the ultimate arbiters of legitimacy.” From this perspective, the first step to evaluating the claim that the US is facing a legitimacy crisis is to determine if the government’s performance is in line with the public’s expectations. But what are the public’s expectations?

In liberal democracies, there are thought to be two sets of criteria that citizens use to judge the government’s performance: one having to do with its “inputs” and another having to do with its “outputs.” Governments that are recognized as having come to power through free and fair elections are said to have input legitimacy. Once in power, governments that respect democratic principles, follow the law, and achieve desirable policy outcomes are said to have output legitimacy. Viewed through this lens, the US is clearly struggling on both fronts.

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