A recent article published in April 2019 argued that the increasingly widespread belief that Latin American and Caribbean countries were governed to benefit “the few” rather than “the many” suggested that the legitimacy of institutions may be declining. Using data from the latest Latinobarómetro, the article put forward the idea that because people believed that rules were unfair, they will be more likely to not comply with them.  According to the article no legitimacy on norms, meant no compliance.   While some data may show correlation and support this conclusion, legitimacy is intertwined with the dynamics of accountability and democratic governance.  As such, legitimacy is not unidimensional.  On the contrary, the interplay of legitimacy, accountability, and governance is a multidimensional enterprise, that continues to evolve not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but across the globe. Legitimacy is but one ingredient of outcomes, procedures, and relations in a democratic socio-political space.   How can we analyze and measure legitimacy at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century?

The End of Democratic Authority and the Beginning of Leviathan?

In 2000, at the beginning of the new century, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Forum for the Future organized a series of conferences around the theme of “People, Nature and Technology: Sustainable Societies in the 21st Century.” The series considered four key areas of human activity: technology, economy, society, and government. The conferences explored possible evolutions of these elements and analyzed different potential scenarios and policy implications. A key prediction, which emerged as a cross-cutting theme across the conferences, was that in the 21st century many parts of the world will be expected to experience radical breaks with the institutional and behavioral patterns which underpin the governance traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries.  The argument established that family, business, social organizations, communities, and public institutions will all be touched by a degree of illegitimacy in the exercise of authority.

As they analyzed macro trends in governance, Wolfgang Michalski, Riel Miller and Barrie Stevens, members of the OECD Secretariat Advisory Unit, cautioned participants of the conferences about the counter-tendencies that would emerge in response to the new emerging governance order and dynamics, as an attempt to conserve the status quo of power relations in a more dynamic world being driven by technology, new economic patterns and aspirations, and new expectations for government and society. For example, at the macro level they predicted the exacerbating tensions between a global agenda for governance and the national agenda, and a growing defense of more conservative national values against the more liberal global values.  At the micro-level, they predicted a resistance to adopt local decentralized governance and support in defense of traditional “male-only privileges.”  They argued, these were some of the internal and external factors that would challenge legitimacy in the 21st Century.

In hindsight, the OECD analysis was on target. Indeed, almost two decades into the 21st century and the governance situation globally and nationally looks uncertain and in flux.  We see how confidence in most systems of governance has ebbed and has affected the necessary levels of legitimacy.  As we have seen in the likes of Brazil, the U.S., the Philippines, and the UK, to name but a few cases, the counter-tendencies enjoy relative support, particularly among those groups who feel that are losing from the new more liberal and diverse governance dynamics.  There are significant pockets of people that are willing to support the preservation of traditional forms of governance and authority structures, or even support bringing these structures back.  For Amartya Sen this would be equivalent to reducing the real freedoms that people enjoy, which were gained with great effort through the past decades.  The most paradoxical part is that democratic elections are creating a safety net to legitimate these counter-tendencies.  From this perspective, a pitch is made to supporters of the counter tendencies by those in power or seeking power that change is no good particularly if it comes from outside, and that influence from exogenous and foreign elements is damaging. In today’s political discourse fear has become a major obstacle to change and to the emergence of more innovative forms of governance that is needed to appropriately and effectively respond to new and dynamic circumstances in societies and communities. As such, a populist argument and rhetoric is used to justify strong and nationalistic rule, often promoting outsiders who traffic anti-system and anti-innovation reform messages.  At the same positioning and portraying themselves as “saviors.”

From that perspective the argument focuses on the ineffectiveness of the current system, defending against exogenous forces, and avoiding being “contaminated” by non-conservative or progressive ideas (inclusion, equality, justice, decentralized governance, transparency, and accountability).  Similarly, the political response is to preserve the old way and what they consider more traditional elements of life. Some data and evidence, however, point to the contrary showing a growing feeling of pessimism about the future, with only 1 in 3 respondents believing his or her family will be better off in the next five years; just 1 in 5 believe the system is working for them and 70% desire change.

Legitimacy, Trust, Accountability and Governance

Election results, Habermas would argue, are only the license to assume governmental power, and as such create a partial legitimacy. When interpreting the meaning of the people’s perceptions about the current state of democratic governance, one of the key variables that appear is the issue of legitimacy linked more to the issue of performance.  Legitimate political systems are those that can sustain compliance from citizens, businesses, and civil society. Just as one can speak of “democratic legitimacy,” as a solid block that makes democracy “the only game in town,” state legitimacy can also be important, since people have to perceive that there is no alternative set of structures or institutions able to make authoritative and binding societal decisions, as well as about the institutional responsibility to be accountable and to set an example for accountability.  David Beetham would argue that legitimacy “endows governmental decisions with moral authority.” It is the sense that rule-makers have the right to make laws, and that those laws ought to be obeyed.  More specifically, this sense comprises the belief that those in power have a right to make binding decisions because: (1) they are duly elected to that office by widely accepted procedures; (2) they exercise power in a widely accepted way; and (3) that the rules that govern the state reflect widely accepted values and norms, including accountability.

Legitimacy is what enables a state to obtain compliance for those decisions without having to resort to force. As Easton argued, legitimacy constitutes a form of “diffuse” support for a political system, a form of support that does not have to be earned but rather inheres in the institutions of the political system, rather than the person occupying those institutions.   Legitimacy acts as a buffer to cushion the system against shocks from short-term dissatisfaction with policy and performance.  Ideally, legitimacy should bring about more cooperative behavior on the part of its citizens, and they are more likely to obey the law and refrain from anti-system behavior if they view the sources of those laws as legitimate, enforceable, and with consequences if they are not complied.

Current evidence suggests that the low level of legitimacy is not necessarily the disease per se but a symptom of a much larger complex problem that involves other governance elements such as corruption, lack of trust, and impunity.  One can make the argument that a lack of trust in the governance system is nourished by high perceptions of corruption and impunity.  And, vice versa, a perception of corruption and impunity nourish a lack of trust.  In turn, this weakens legitimacy and a sense that government is for the many.  If we go back and look at the argument of the widespread belief that Latin American and Caribbean countries were governed to benefit “the few” rather than “the many” in the context of other indicators of institutional and personal trust, a correlation appears.  The belief that government is benefiting the few is nourished by low levels of trust in government, in the justice system, in the legislature/congress, and in interpersonal trust, as well as low satisfaction with democracy.   Similarly, one can make the argument that the low levels of institutional and personal trust and the low satisfaction with democracy feed the belief that the government is for the few and not the many (Figure 1).

Figure 1

When citizens perceive and feel their governments are unable to manage, sustain and expand economic opportunities, curb corruption, ensure justice and accountability, and provide security it is likely that support for the democratic governance system will suffer.  LAPOP data already shows this correlation.   Thus, while there are relatively high expectations for democratic governance institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean, legitimacy of the system to work for the majority is relatively low.  As I argued previously in one Working Paper, specific elements of legitimacy in Latin America, such as low trust in the judiciary system, high perceptions of corruption and impunity, high citizen insecurity, low inter-personal trust, high perceptions of economic injustices, and opaque decision-making processes, are all spilling to cast a less than optimal support to the overall democratic governance system.

According to the most recent report by Transparency International, with an average score of 44 over 100 for three consecutive years, Latin America and the Caribbean continue to fail in making any serious inroads against corruption. According to the report, some countries have made commendable progress in the fight against corruption, and much of that progress is attributed to inroads in the justice sector and in advancing investigations and prosecutions on corruption cases against high profile individuals, including some former presidents. However, all countries in the region show high perceptions in terms of impunity.  According to the 2017 Global Impunity Index (Índice Global de Impunidad – IGI) from the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice (Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia – CESIJ) and the University of the Americas Puebla (Universidad de las Américas Puebla – UDLAP) impunity is the norm throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.  The report calculated impunity index scores based on factors such as institutional strength and other structural conditions for 69 countries worldwide — 19 of them in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nearly half of the Latin American countries examined were among the nations with the worst impunity scores.

With constant high corruption perception levels, distrust grows, and the high levels of perceived impunity reinforce the notion of injustice and inequality, while lack of trust mines the potential of strengthening or building a community of trust. If there is no trust, it is more likely that collaboration will not take place. For example, that would justify the argument of not paying taxes. According to Tom Tyler, people respect the law because they believe that the justice system is fair and that they have been treated fairly. People are most likely to comply and obey the law if they believe that the law is enforced fairly, not necessarily because of the possibility of punishment. Personal experiences with the law shape the general belief that the legal authorities are legitimate. If people feel that they have been treated unfairly by the police or in the courts, they are less likely to have faith in the legal system. If to that formula, one adds the high perception of inequality issue, people are less likely to have faith in the governance system. Thus, from an individual perspective, the key to more legitimacy is to see less corruption and impunity, opportunities expanded, and increased voice in decisions.  If not, this can set in motion a vicious circle of distrust and a justification to disengage from the game of compliance and engage in the game of non-compliance or simply to turn away from that system (this partially explains the decision to immigrate).

New Political and Policy Communities and Legitimacy, Accountability and Governance

What can be done to break the vicious circle?  Part of the answer may lie in designing better systems that can host and manage the new emerging relationships and expectations between community, policy, and politics.  That involves improvements in governance capacity and positive technological, economic, and social change, as a means to re-form political and policy communities.  But most importantly the system and the actors, their interrelationships and the incentives would have to be somehow re-calibrated.  There has never been a period in history with so many new and old democracies, and we are learning from their experience about weaknesses in laws and institutions, and loopholes in the rule of law.  Legitimacy, accountability, and governance will be the outcome of deep improvements and innovations of multiple factors and actors and the effectiveness of their interactions, and how adaptable and resilient these interrelationships can be to accommodate shocks and respond to ever-changing circumstances.

The clear imperative is to find ways to turn the growing links of global, national, and local connection to mutual advantage rather than allowing what seems an all too evident drift toward heightened polarization. The level of political community a society achieves reflects the relationship between its political institutions and the social forces, which comprise it.  Governance involves, in large part, a capacity to manage the multiplication, diversification and strengthening of the social forces, in such a way that nourishes and strengthens the democratic community system.  It involves transforming individuals, through their participation in the decision-making process and forge a common vision.  A community of citizens would owe the character of its existence to what its constituent members have in common and therefore cannot be treated as a mere aggregation of individuals.  As Amartya Sen and Alain Touraine would argue, freedom and opportunity are, after all, real and very important moral goods, and although intrinsic, they are central to the whole meaning of democratic governance. Yet cultivated as ends in themselves, they remain underdevelop and incomplete qualities.  Their real value, collective as well as individual, depends upon their further integration with other capacities.  Only when they become integral parts of a larger political web of commitments and relationships can freedom and opportunity attain significance.

As was argued in an earlier article of this series, democratic governance in the 21st Century is a system, feeding from local, national, and global interactions. In the same way we think of our environment, democratic governance is an ecosystem that will be sustained as long as its resources, such as legitimacy and accountability, are not depleted and/or misused. While in democratic political systems elections provide a certain level of legitimacy, ultimately it is government performance and the use of power by far a better metric of legitimacy, accountability, and governance. There is no blueprint to break the vicious circle, but any strategy would have to be approached holistically, working at the individual level, community, organizational, and institutional levels.

The governance “engineers” in the 21st Century need to think systemically and propose systemic actions to adequately fix the current challenges.  Accommodating new community enclaves and designing governance management ecosystem with the capacity to handle uncertainty, requires careful attention to innovation elements that will help re-build legitimacy and accountability. Three goals could provide entry points to put in place a more adaptive approach: 1) bringing government closer to the people; 2) increase voice for people in decisions that affect their lives; and 3) improve coordination across levels of governance to assure that legitimacy carries through various scales of decision making.  Restructuring the current system to break the vicious circle is no small task. Changing from centralized and top-bottom decision-making models to more localized and horizontal models, while managing overlapping national and global demands and opportunities, will require flexibility in decision making while relying on active participation by citizens in their respective communities, and their input as a large source of accountability.

Legitimacy, accountability, and governance then require active and watchful monitoring by citizens of the design, implementation, and effects of decisions that affect them. The “demos” in a democracy needs to take center stage.  While governments can derive their legitimacy from multiple sources, such as the constitutional procedures by which they are elected or appointed, how well they can deliver services, upholding the rule of law, and/or acting transparently and with accountability, they cannot afford to not have legitimacy from citizens and political communities.  Leveraging that ingredient is key.  In short, the recognition of the complexity of the current governance systems, coupled with a growing realization that people must have a vested interest in the governance system and their communities, could be the way forward to a reform that allows society to respond to the new and complex challenge of managing human interaction with dynamic governance ecosystems.

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