US Government

Questions of Legitimacy

June 1, 2017

Among many new realities, the 2016 presidential election exposed something about US culture today: legitimacy—the ability to lead various factions of society toward a common goal, begin a public examination of an idea, or make a statement of fact—has all but disappeared.

The Aspen Insitute’s programs confront this challenge across many issues. Debates rage over addressing climate change, the effectiveness of vaccines, the safety of genetically modified crops, and more. At the Institute, we seek to be an outpost of truth and civil dialogue in a sea of opinion and incivility. “Although we value discourse from a variety of viewpoints,” says Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, “we have to be clear what our bedrock values are.” If we are committed to the examination of ideas and values-based leadership at the Institute, then we must also engage with the erosion of legitimacy that weakens the authority of experts, leaders, and the institutions they represent.

Americans have always had questions when experts state something as a fact or leaders declare they must take a certain action. It is in our cultural heritage to doubt authority. Is the speaker trustworthy? Does he or she have expert knowledge of the question at hand?

In a world where the motivations of institutions are constantly questioned, the value of integrity is priceless.

In the liberal West, legitimacy is the keystone of government. It comes from trust. From credibility. It does not derive from God or from inherited status or wealth, at least not in democracies. It derives from the consent of the governed and their belief in the system of government itself. Liberal democratic governments, the theory goes, should deliver good outcomes for the societies they govern. An agreement on objective facts, a reliance on expert analysis, and reasonable discussion and argument will lead to logical policy outcomes. Even when a necessary action is unpopular, if a leader is legitimate, he or she can use that credibility to move forward. The public may disagree with the policy. If the public believes the leader is credible, it may consent to be governed by decisions it does not strongly support. But leaders can’t lead if their own legitimacy is questioned at every turn.

A rejection of widely established expertise is the clearest signal of a big-league problem with legitimacy. And that is what seemed to change after the election, or perhaps before. When hundreds of climate scientists agree that climate change is a result of human activity, the reaction of much of the public has not been to question their methodology. It has been to question the scientists’ very legitimacy. People point to ways in which the scientists may be corrupted or compromised. If everyone is assumed to have an agenda, there can be no experts—just as there can be no true leaders.

So how did we get to this point? Information overload. More information is available to all, thanks to social media, cable news, and the democratization of media platforms. It’s easy to create a digital publication that appears to be trustworthy. We are overwhelmed with so much information that picking facts from lies is getting harder with every tweet. Consumers can pick their own reality from a deluge of facts, lies, and opinions.
As the 2016 campaign made clear, Americans are susceptible to propaganda that supports their own beliefs and, in fact, prefer it to factual evidence that challenges their personal narratives. The success of Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow demonstrates this preference.

How did we get to this point? Information overload.

The way information is generated and shared creates short-term thinking and rapid-fire, personalized responses. People seem less concerned with the results of President Trump’s actions, or any kind of thoughtful examination of what they will imply for society, than simply wanting to know what he will do next.

Things are bleak for legitimacy, but all is not lost. The answer is not to stifle social media or try to slow down the democratization of information. The problem of legitimacy boils down to a loss of faith in institutions and an “otherization” of people we disagree with. The solutions to these new problems lie in the Aspen Institute’s original mission: values-based leadership and dialogue.

Values-based leadership, the core of the Institute’s purpose, is a challenging concept. What are “good” values? History is littered with leaders who deeply believed in principles that created injustice, division, and even violence within the societies they governed. Good values are not just strongly held principles. The Institute’s original programming, the seminar, is dedicated to probing what values lead to a good society.

In a world where the motivations of institutions are constantly questioned, the value of integrity and the belief that an institution is an honest broker is priceless. It is only through values-based leadership that institutions can preserve their own legitimacy. It is easy to make lies about an individual’s or a group’s motivations appear real when the people being lied to never interact with the people spreading the lies. If a popular cable-news host says that all Trump supporters are racists, viewers who don’t know any Trump supporters have no experience that would necessarily make them disagree. But viewers who have a neighbor or a friend who voted for Donald Trump can simply ask them why. The answer might be illuminating. At the very least, a civil dialogue between two people helps bridge the gap that generalizations and otherization create.

Though the challenge to legitimacy threatens our ability to have a cohesive and successful society, it is comforting to know that at the Institute our mission is still clear and our goals are still just. Dedication to values-based leadership and dialogue can cure the problem of legitimacy—values-based leadership creates better institutions and dialogue breaks down the walls between Americans.