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Political legitimacies in time of crisis

Légitimité(s) politique(s) en temps de crise

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Published on Friday, November 19, 2021


This workshop aims therefore to analyze the contemporary dynamics of legitimacy and illegitimacy, of legitimization and delegitimization of political power in the United States in the context of political polarization. It will contribute to the analysis of the causes, mechanisms and consequences of the questioning of public authority.


Panel 11 - AFEA Conference 2022


The concepts of legitimacy and authority are two sides of the same coin, central to the modern understanding of political events. At the beginning of the 20th century, the sociologist Max Weber subdivided legitimacy – understood as the belief of individuals in the socially acceptable character of the authority of rulers, of political institutions and the rules they prescribe – into three ideal types that combine in practice (traditional, charismatic and rational-legal legitimacy).

American politics offers perfect examples of the workings of these types of political legitimacy. References to the Constitution of the United States, appeals to the Founding Fathers (by both Republicans and Democrats), American exceptionalism and other founding myths are ubiquitous in American politics and illustrate the weight of traditional authority. The tendency to personalize political functions or the image of the “Commander in Chief”, for example, show the importance of charismatic authority. Also understood as a “certain quality or knowledge of an individual” that is “regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary”, charismatic legitimacy allows us to highlight a tension – particularly acute since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic – between expertise and “popular wisdom”.

In the United States, criticisms towards the institutions that carry rational-legal authority are constant. The Supreme Court is regularly criticized for the partisan character of its rulings or its political weight despite being composed of unelected members. At the same time, the low approval rating of Congress reveals public distrust of legislative procedures that are sometimes considered too slow, inefficient or confusing. Moreover, partisan quarrels distort the role of Congress. The debate over the separation of powers (dating as far back as the creation of the United States itself) between federal and State governments also reveals another dimension of this struggle for political legitimacy. The imbalance between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government theoretically prevented by the system of checks and balances has led critics to use the terms “imperial presidency” or “government of judges”. Finally, a similar struggle can be observed regarding the refusal to abide by international organizations mandates (in environmental or health matters, for example), which are opposed by national sovereignty discourses.

However, as the political gap created by polarization in the United States widens, criticisms and accusations of the illegitimacy of rulers, institutions, American democratic norms or discourses are exacerbated and create different irreconcilable understandings not only of the form of public authority, but also of reality itself. As opponents’ points of view are distorted (as shown by the tensions around gender issues, for example) “alternative facts” are called upon to support the positions and policies of the Trump administration. The press has become the “enemy of the people”. Election results are no longer strengthened by “losers’ consent”, and the opposition (whether Democrat or Republican, depending on where one stands) no longer seems to be a political partner with whom one can share fundamental principles and values and a minimum of “symbolic space”. Representatives are sometimes described as corrupt, cynical, “politically correct” or out of touch with reality.

Furthermore, this extreme loss of legitimacy justifies speeches, stances and actions that are more radical and challenges the foundations of American democracy. Electoral gerrymandering or voting reforms are motivated by partisan interests and justified by the idea that some voters are less legitimate than others to be part of the polity. Election results are challenged at the highest levels of government without evidence. The procedures of the rule of law – considered too cumbersome and slow – are abandoned in favor of the promise of efficiency and tangible results. All these efforts are – in turn – political elements deemed illegitimate by their opponents insofar as they seem to go against fundamental principles. As a result, the very idea of democratic opposition is completely shattered.

In this context, different forms of legitimacy compete on the political scene, the management of the covid-19 pandemic being a perfect illustration. Several realities and modes of action collide with one another when for instance the democratic legitimacy of an elected president representing the official position of the United States contradicts that of health experts whose recommendations are based on scientific analyses. This workshop aims therefore to analyze the contemporary dynamics of legitimacy and illegitimacy, of legitimization and delegitimization of political power in the United States in the context of political polarization. It will contribute to the analysis of the causes, mechanisms and consequences of the questioning of public authority.

Submission guidelines

500-word proposals with a list of references and a biographical statement should be sent to Olivier Richomme (Olivier.Richomme@univ-lyon2.fr) and Eric Rouby(eric.rouby@gmail.com)

no later than January 17th, 2022.


Anderson, C. et al. (2005). Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. Oxford University Press.

Berger, Peter L., & Luckmann, T. (1991). The Social Construction of Reality. Penguin.

Binder, L. & La Palombara, J. (1971). Crises and Sequences in Political Development, Princeton University Press.

Cain, Bruce. (2015) Democracy: More or Less. Cambridge University Press.

Fletcher, J., Russell, P., and Tetlock, P. (1996). The Clash of Rights: Liberty, Equality, and Legitimacy in Pluralist Democracy. Yale University Press.

Lepore, J. (2010). The White of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Princeton University Press.

Levitsky, S. & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about our Future. Viking.

March, J. G. & Olsen J. P. (1986). Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics. The Free Press.

Meyer, J. W., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340–363.

Pierson, P. & Skocpol T. (2007). The Transformation of American Politics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism. Princeton University Press.

Rioux, J-P. (2007), Les populismes, Tempus Perrin.

Rogowski, R. (1974). Rational Legitimacy: A theory of Political Support. Princeton University Press.

Weber M. (2003). Économie et société (nouvelle édition). 2 tomes. Agora.


  • Bordeaux, France (33)


  • Monday, January 17, 2022


  • États-Unis, légitimité, autorité, politique, institution, élection, société, covid-19, Trump


  • Eric Rouby
    courriel : eric [dot] rouby [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Eric Rouby
    courriel : eric [dot] rouby [at] gmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Political legitimacies in time of crisis », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, November 19, 2021, https://doi.org/10.58079/17oq

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