The Corner

Politics & Policy

Going Deep

I think Jonathan V. Last might have slightly misunderstood my point about legitimacy, writing:

My buddy Kevin Williamson had a line yesterday kind of poo-pooing the idea of legitimacy, saying “legitimacy” is magic.

Except that I think this is true. Legitimacy is magic.

. . . And the Magic is, like any other norm or tradition, so obvious that we can be fooled into thinking it doesn’t matter. Right up until the moment it’s broken, at which point we realize how important it was.[block]

Perhaps I failed to make myself clear. I do not pooh-pooh (I trust JVL meant to include the “h,” otherwise we simply are not talking about the same thing!) the idea of legitimacy; to the contrary, I argue in the piece that irresponsible claims about illegitimacy are corrosive to our democratic processes and institutions. Here is the full paragraph:

This requires some intellectual plasticity. For example, if 50 percent + 1 of U.S. voters choose Joe Biden in the imaginary national presidential election in November but Donald Trump wins the non-imaginary election in the Electoral College, then there will be riots predicated on the notion that Trump’s reelection under such circumstances was illegitimate because the imaginary process is legitimate and the actual process is illegitimate. How is that possible? Because “legitimacy” is magic. “Democracy” in this context is crudely construed to mean “the majority gets what it wants,” and partisans rely on such crudeness when it suits them. But such crude majoritarianism is only blessed when it produces the desired results. If the nation’s sodomy laws had been put up to a vote on the day Lawrence v. Texas was decided, a large majority of Americans would, if the polls of the time are to be believed, have voted to uphold those laws. They were bad laws, but they were neither undemocratically nor unconstitutionally enacted, and their survival was not incompatible with the legitimacy of the Supreme Court — in fact, the Court’s nullification of those laws was itself an illegitimate use of its power, however well-intended.

Legitimacy roulette is a dangerous game in which each side spins the cylinder in the political revolver and then points it at the collective head of the American people. Beyond the spelling question, I do not think Jonathan and I disagree here.

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