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Democracy: Does it Guarantee Legitimate Power?

South Africa has just been through a very exciting election cycle. We have been witnessing democracy at work. There have been promising signs that the South African electorate is starting to hold government accountable in the election booth. There is a sense that South Africa’s democracy is becoming a more competitive and less predictable affair than it has been post apartheid. Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly acknowledged that the election results demand an introspection on behalf of the ANC.

This is a promising development and gives a spark of hope in the future. Regardless of the hope that this election has garnered within myself, and seemingly within the country, I still feel a distinct frustration with the inertia I have witnessed in the democratic process as it has played itself out in South Africa. Speaking broadly, it appears that Democracy has not been an exceptionally effective means of ensuring effective and responsible leadership.

This is not just the case in South Africa, it is a global phenomenon. This is perhaps nowhere illustrated better than with the rise of Donald Trump. I find it to be a slightly bizarre cosmic joke that democracy, the system that formed the ideological justification for so much of America’s warmongering of the past century or so, might shackle them with a leader like Donald Trump.

I think the central issue with democracy is the disconnect between the qualities that win an election and the qualities that make a good leader. I do think that democracy is probably one of the safer political systems in the world as it introduces some sort of mechanism by which leadership can be held accountable. But democracy works only if fully informed people make a fully informed decision. The reality of the matter however is that this is never the case. The electorate is never fully informed about the candidates. There is always this disconnect between what wins an election and how power is actually exercised by a democratically elected government.




The development of events over the past two decades or so in this country, and the world, makes it manifestly clear that the thought that democracy is synonymous with legitimate power is dangerously misleading. We have to be very deliberate about making the distinction between a system of succession and legitimate power. Democracy is one system of succession among others but it, just like other systems of succession, does not guarantee the legitimacy of the power wielded by those elected within a democratic system. In fact, within a democracy, the legitimacy of power, when it does occur, seems to me to occur as a happy accident rather than by design.

Power is legitimate only when those who govern exercise their power for the sake of and in the interest of those governed. This is illustrated clearly by the first manifestation of power in any human life. The first manifestation of power is the relationship between a parent and a child. This is our first experience of power and in it we see the hallmark of what makes power legitimate. A parent is only fulfilling their role as the “big” one in the relationship if they are in the relationship to do the best for the child. This is the job of the parent insofar as the parent is the powerful one in the relationship. There is something evidently perverse if the parent does not act in the best interest of the child and instead pursues their own interests at the expense of the child. We would say that this parent has failed in their parental role and hence that the parent does not possess legitimate power over the child. The parent actually doesn’t have the right to tell the child what to do. The parent will of course have power (they will have the ability to tell the child what to do), but it won’t be legitimate because the parent is not exercising the power appropriately.

If this is the hallmark of legitimate power, that the big one pursues the interests of the little one, it is clear that democracy is not synonymous with legitimate power. History has illustrated time and time again in very many contexts that democratically elected officials tend very often to pursue their own interests at the expense of the interests of those they govern. Democracy is a system of succession, i.e. it is a set of rules prescribing how individuals are to be chosen to occupy positions of power. The issue of the legitimacy of power however is not determined by how individuals come to occupy positions of power. Rather the legitimacy of power is determined by how they exercise their power once they have it. We see then that these are two very distinct issues. The question of how individuals have come to occupy their positions of power is not relevant to the question of whether or not the power they exercise is legitimate. Rather a monarch that cares for his/her people than a democratically elected incumbent who uses the electorate as a means for personal enrichment.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.

4 Responses to “Democracy: Does it Guarantee Legitimate Power?”

By Bengt Savén - 12 August 2016 Reply

Wisely stated Assad!

By Assad Schuitema - 15 August 2016 Reply

Thank you Bengt!

By Bengt - 19 August 2016 Reply

However, I think we must be careful not to legitimate the evil monarchs. (Surely they would use it in their favor.) Most recent dictators seem to be more evil than good. Thus we need to discuss both the legitimate succession of power AND the legitimate use of power.

By Assad Schuitema - 19 August 2016 Reply

Thank you for your comment Bengt. I am not entirely sure what you mean by legitimate succession. Do you mean something like: “succession is legitimate when the leader is elected in accordance with a system that ensures he is suitable for the job and will wield power legitimately”? The question then I suppose is what system would do this for us and perhaps this is your concern with legitimate succession? Nevertheless here are some other points that occurred to me when reading your comment. I hope I am not talking past your comment with these points.

Yes we must be careful not to provide a line of thought that helps legitimate evil monarchs. I am however convinced that evil monarchs wield illegitimate power, not because of how they came to get power, but because they fail to use the power they possess correctly. The failing still seems to be completely around the issue of power and not succession. If an evil monarch complains that he should not be judged because to do so is to treat democracy as the Gospel one should point out to him that he is not judged because he was not democratically elected (i.e. it is not an issue of succession), he is judged because he is a tyrant, and then learn to enjoy one’s life in a 2 by 4 cell.

I think the issue of legitimate succession is a question of how to ensure legitimate power, i.e. what system of succession is best suited to ensuring that those who come to possess power wield it benevolently.Though I think you are right, that we should not be dismissive of the issue of succession, I think we must keep it in its place. We should not deny the legitimacy of a benevolent monarch simply because he came to power within a monarchy and was not democratically elected. To do so would be to illegitimately treat democracy (or whatever system)as an end it itself, which it certainly is not, it is one means of trying to ensure that power remains legitimate.

As a system of succession, monarchy does seem to me to be particularly unstable. There does not seem to be a reliable process by which we can control the legitimacy of the power wielded within a monarchy, especially if the only surviving heir is a tyrannical madmen. Perhaps assassination. The advantage I suppose of democracy is that it tries to introduce some measure of control (though as we have seen from the course of recent history, it is not particularly reliable itself). In secular societies the courts also appear to function as a measure of control to prevent blatant malevolence on behalf of democratically elected leaders.

These measures of control do also have their drawbacks though. If we are lucky enough to get a very benevolent leader democratically elected, there is always a limit to what that leader can achieve in terms of making a meaningful contribution to the populace because they take power over a bureaucratically heavy system (that is often beset by institutional rot) and have a limited term of office. As a case in point I think we saw this with Barack Obama with his push for greener policy. As far as I am aware there was a court ruling that overturned the climate change reforms that Obama was proposing, though I need to be fact checked on this. It is also interesting to note that many people do not want Obama’s tenure to end (not surprising given the candidates) just like many people did not want Mandela’s tenure to end here in South Africa.

I must say I am skeptical of the possibility of producing a system of legitimate succession that ensures beyond doubt legitimate power.

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