Types of Legitimacy in Government

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  • 00:00 What Is Legitimacy?
  • 00:42 Traditional Legitimacy
  • 1:22 Charismatic Legitimacy
  • 2:45 Rational-Legal Legitimacy
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Think you can just start ordering people around and take over the government? Chances are that if anyone's going to listen to you, you'll need some claim of legitimacy first. This lesson explains just what that means.

What Is Legitimacy?

When you walk into a classroom, what makes you listen to the instructor and do whatever they request of you? Or when you're out with a group of friends and someone suggests going to certain movie, why do you follow them? Or why in the world would you listen to your parents? All of these are questions of legitimacy of rule. Legitimacy is the term given to the right to rule.

With legitimacy, even unpopular decisions can be carried through over the objections of the ruled. Without legitimacy, even the most popular movements can be hampered and, ultimately, defeated. Three basic forms of legitimacy have been identified and, while societies tend to move along them as if they are levels of a building, sometimes they fall back into other forms of legitimacy.


The most basic form of legitimacy is traditional legitimacy. Largely, this states that we do something or follow someone simply because that's what we've always done. Throughout your childhood years, you probably never thought to challenge your parents on anything. It just made sense to listen to them. After all, they were your parents. In those rare times when you did dissent, you very likely got at least one 'Because I said so!' In fact, that's probably the best way to think of traditional forms of legitimacy; it is the ultimate 'because I said so' type of legitimacy. Outside of your parents, traditional legitimacy is most often seen in societies with limited political rights.


By the time you got to middle school, however, chances are that you made some friends that did things your parents may not have approved of. Staying up to play video games until 3 A.M. immediately comes to mind. However, you did so because your friends were charismatic.

A charismatic form of legitimacy comes from one person simply convincing others of the worthiness of his or her power. The ultimate examples of charismatic legitimacy come from the cults of personality that were so popular in European politics in the 20th century. Hitler would not have been able to accomplish his work if not for his immense popularity. Still, many other leaders rely upon charismatic legitimacy. Chairman Mao of China relied heavily on the fact that the students who made up a core of the Chinese Communist Party were more loyal to him than any other institution. To this end, he used them as a disruptive force whenever he needed to accomplish something.

In short, charismatic legitimacy can be seductive to a society but, ultimately, it is only successful if the charming figure is particularly able. Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, was able to use his charisma as an aid for establishing today's Turkey. However, he had to go to great lengths to defer power to the Turkish state and not just keep it for himself.

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