Memo to Obama: Tyranny is never legitimacy

(CCU Faculty) Law professor Ann Althouse recently posed a good question on her blog: “Obama says: ‘Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power … You’ve seen with great clarity that he has lost legitimacy with his people.’ Note the implicit statement that the dictator once had legitimacy. Why would Obama think that?”

This question is one that I recently asked students in my Comparative Government class. What determines a regime’s legitimacy? Much of the field of comparative government equates legitimacy with survival. David Easton, one of the leading authorities in the field of comparative government, developed a model for comparing and contrasting different forms of government. Easton’s model suggests that the key to a regimes survival is the manipulation and balancing of the citizens’ support for their government as well as adequately satisfying the demands made against it. How a government does this is not as important as its ability to do so. Maintaining this balance ensures survival, which in turn confers legitimacy according to Easton and apparently according to President Obama.

Take the case of North Korea: Kim Jong Il assumed office in 1993. Since that time he has indeed successfully manipulated and balanced the supports and demands of his citizenry. He has of course done this by brutal force, by suppressing the legitimate demands of his people, while at the same time brainwashing and indoctrinating them into a fanatical religious–like support for him. If we study North Korea using Easton’s model, Kim Jong Il is indeed legitimate in that he has successfully stayed in power for 18 years.

Colonel Qaddafi has stayed in power, as well, governing through brute force and terror for 42 years. But is his rule legitimate?

In 1776, the American Revolution was centered on the question of what constitutes legitimate government. Jefferson famously penned: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The legitimacy of the revolution, the separation from England, and the assumption of their God–given self governing powers, was contrasted by the illegitimacy of the rule by the King. The concluding paragraph of the Declaration states: “We, therefore … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states …” The Declaration claimed for the American people their legitimate authority to govern themselves.

Can a people ruled by tyranny truly be said to be ruled by a legitimate form of government? President Obama seems to think so. This puts him at odds with the Declaration of Independence, the American Founders, and the central theme that unites all Americans: devotion to the principle of human equality and legitimate self government.

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