The real test of a social science is whether it helps us make sense of our
world in times of dramatic political and economic change. Sociology offers one
such concept: the "legitimation crisis." Briefly put, leaders of major institutions--economic,
political, social, religious, etc.--need the consent of those they manage. They
must show themselves morally fit to rule. When it becomes evident that these leaders
have betrayed fundamental values, broken laws or behaved incompetently, a legitimation
crisis is created.
The nation is now suffering through such a crisis.
High-level corporate managers have artificially inflated profits by keeping
funny books. As a result, some of their companies are failing. No one knows how
many more workers will lose their jobs, or how many more thousands of people will
watch their retirement funds shrink. Because the corporate world has lost credibility,
the stock market has been steadily declining; trillions of dollars in personal
wealth have vanished.
While the Democrats desperately want to blame Republicans for the crisis in
corporate governance, they share responsibility. Democracy 21, a group advocating
campaign finance reform, reports that over the last 10 years, corporations gave
$636 million to Republicans and $449 million to Democrats. That money helped buy
big business political protection from governmental regulation and undoubtedly
emboldened corporate executives into thinking that they could get away with just
The public has lost faith in other U.S. institutions as well.
Bureaucratic rivalry within the nation's intelligence apparatus may have prevented
the government from heading off the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon.
The military's war against terrorism in Afghanistan isn't going as well as
it first appeared.
The U.S. mode of warfare threatens both the precarious Afghan regime and the
legitimacy of the war. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in U.S. bombing
raids, and two members of Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's Cabinet have been
assassinated as old ethnic tensions and warlord rivalries have resurfaced.
When economic and political leaders fail, it's natural to look to civil society--churches,
schools, universities and foundations--for moral leadership. But that doesn't
offer much of an option either. The American Catholic Church has been disgraced
by revelations of priestly pedophilia. University presidents are too engaged in
boosterism and fund-raising to risk saying anything that might offend a potential
donor. The public school system, a key element of U.S. democracy and a source
of pride for the country, fails to educate too many of our children.
Legitimation crises are not new in America. The country went through one during
the 1972-74 Watergate scandal, when Nixon administration officials illegally raised
campaign money, drew up enemies lists and spied on the radical antiwar and civil
rights movements, and even mainstream Democrats. But two years of investigation
by the news media and a U.S. Senate select committee revealed the abuses, and
in August 1974 the House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against
President Richard M. Nixon, leading to his resignation. One part of the U.S. democratic
system stopped the corruption and abuse of power of another, and the crisis was
The current legitimation crisis is different because almost the entire institutional
order is affected. As odd as it sounds, the decline of feudalism in the 17th and
18th centuries offers a historical analogy. For centuries, the feudal elite, made
up of royal families interconnected with landowning nobility and the upper echelon
of the Catholic Church, controlled the lives of peasants in the countryside and
the merchant and artisan classes in the cities. But the intellectuals of the Enlightenment
and the rising middle and working classes in the cities saw themselves as the
vanguard of a new society. They criticized traditional feudal authority and advocated
the separation of church and state, democracy, rights of free speech and assembly,
and a market economy. Over time, these thinkers and doers undermined the legitimacy
of feudalism. The American and French revolutions finished the job.
This sketch of the decline of feudal legitimacy brings into focus what the
present legitimation crisis lacks--an organized opposition. Reporters interview
workers and managers who've lost their jobs or lost their retirement funds, but,
so far, their individual anger hasn't been channeled into a collective demand
for dramatic change.
Feudalism's legitimation crisis was in part sparked by alternative visions
of the good society. Even in colonial America, which did not suffer the worst
of feudal abuses, critics such as Thomas Paine commanded attention as the public
pondered what kind of society it wanted to be. His "Rights of Man" sold more than
250,000 copies in its first year.
Today, a serious political treatise becoming a bestseller and the talk of the
country seems almost impossible, in part because the advocacy of major social
and political change is risky. Twenty years of conservative critiques have taken
their toll. Concern about the common good, as opposed to the sanctity of the private
market, has been nearly discredited. To be called a liberal is to be deemed mushy,
naive and ignorant; to be called a radical is even worse. Nevertheless, the only
long-term solution to the legitimation crisis is radical--an organized opposition
movement to make elites more accountable, and a renewed discussion of the public
Right now, such business reforms as increasing the prison terms of criminally
convicted executives seems the most likely outcome. But the reforms signed by
President Bush last week don't go far enough. For example, legislation requiring
corporations to treat stock options as a business expense didn't pass. Nor has
anything been done to help the victims of corporate fraud recover their losses.
Such shady business practices as reincorporating headquarters overseas to avoid
taxes remain legal.
Over time, the political system's failure to go beyond halfway measures may
make the legitimation crisis worse. It's not hard to imagine the widespread withdrawal
of people's loyalties to society's mainstream institutions. Our voting rates,
already the lowest among the advanced capitalist countries, will continue to decline,
so elites will feel even less pressure from below.
And as governments form that are voted into power by an ever-smaller fraction
of the populace, fewer people will feel those administrations and the policies
they pursue to be legitimate. It's a grim scenario. Under such circumstances,
no democracy can endure.
J. William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and
author of "Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times