Political Legitimacy as an Existential Predicament

Political Theory 50 (4):621-645 (2021)
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This essay contributes to developing a new approach to political legitimacy by asking what is involved in judging the legitimacy of a regime from a practical point of view. It is focused on one aspect of this question: the role of identity in such judgment. I examine three ways of understanding the significance of identity for political legitimacy: the foundational, associative, and agonistic picture. Neither view, I claim, persuasively captures the dilemmas of judgment in the face of disagreement and uncertainty about who “I” am and who “we” are. I then propose a composite, pragmatic picture. This view casts the question of political legitimacy as an existential predicament: it is fundamentally a question about who you are—both as a person and as a member of collectives. The pragmatic picture integrates rational, prudential, and ethical qualities of good judgment that were heretofore associated with mutually exclusive ways of theorizing legitimacy. It also implies that the question of legitimacy cannot be resolved philosophically.

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Thomas Fossen
Leiden University


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