Academic journal article Nebula

A Brief History of Political Legitimacy: Demotic Ideology and the Spread of Democracy

Academic journal article Nebula

A Brief History of Political Legitimacy: Demotic Ideology and the Spread of Democracy

Article excerpt

To establish democratic government in a previously undemocratic state requires its inhabitants to possess certain popular attitudes toward political legitimacy. Democracy, like any other form of government' can only function properly if the people it seeks to govern understand and accept its implicit assumptions. The rise of democracy thus has a cultural history. A long-term perspective on political legitimacy, considering change over centuries rather than year-to-year, suggests that democratic ideas are spreading more rapidly than democracy itself. In the long term, therefore, optimism about the future prospects for stable democratic government seems warranted.

The history of political legitimacy enables scholars to track how cultural attitudes toward state power have changed over time. The earliest historical records suggest that in the ancient world, ruling elites routinely proclaimed themselves gods, or to have descended from gods. The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt posed as divine (see Ions 1982: 120). Ptolemy V, best remembered for the Rosetta stone, on which he claimed divine descent and ordered priests to pay regular homage to him (Bevan, Mahaffy 1927:236). Augustus Caesar proclaimed himself a god, and ordered prayers said to him (Beard et al, 1998:128). Sassanid emperor Shapur I claimed that his "seed is from gods" (Soudavar 2003:43). Further examples could easily be given.

Ancient claims to divinity may have catered to popular expectations rather than genuine religious belief. Plutarch's biography of Alexander the Great (1994:7:307, 309), for example, notes that while Alexander posed as a god when demanding tribute of conquered peoples, but did not expect his fellow soldiers to believe such claims: "Alexander himself was not foolishly affected or puffed up by the belief in his divinity, but used it for the subjugation of others." Alexander publically professed himself a god because he lived in an age in which rulers derived their legitimacy from claims to divinity.

Assertions of divinity fell from favour during the Middle Ages, since the idea of a single jealous God spread with monotheistic Christianity and Islam. Medieval and early modern rulers instead proclaimed themselves to be God's chosen representative. Christian monarchs, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, claimed to rule by grace of God. (Canning 1996:17; Zenkovsky 2003:1:36; Dabbs 1971). Roy Rappaport (1999: 315) rightly described Christian kingship as "not sacred but merely sanctified, albeit highly so." Islamic rulers similarly claimed to rule as God's deputy, lieutenant, or favourite (see Crone 2003; Black 2001:206; Safran 2000:47-49). The first Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiya exemplified the cosmological claims to political legitimacy common throughout the medieval and early modern Christian and Muslim worlds by claiming that "the earth belongs to God and I am the deputy of God" (Crone 2003:6). Once again, further examples could easily be given.

Several rulers who posed as God's chosen representative were simply catering to popular expectations. Henry IV of France, to give one particularly famous example, converted to Catholicism for secular reasons: "Paris is worth a mass" (see L indberg 2009:280). Several monarchs claiming to rule through divine sanction flouted the basic tenants of the religion that ostensibly legitimized their rule. Ottoman Sultan Selim II drank so much alcohol that history remembers him as "Selim the Drunkard" (see Kohen 2007: 73). Russian emperor Peter the Great repeatedly mocked Orthodoxy with his "most drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters" (Zguta 1973; Shubin 2004: 238). Nevertheless, no monarchs sought to abolish the church as a means of social control over the population at large. For "the common people," as Nietzsche (2002:55) observed, "religion ... glorifies their obedience." Just as Alexander the Great cynically proclaimed his own divinity, free-thinking monarchs publically professed to derive their authority from God because they lived in an age in which rulers derived legitimacy from claims to divine sanction. …

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