Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 06/2014

A crisis of democratic legitimacy? It's about legitimation, stupid!

Alexander Mattelaer, Eline Severs

March 2014

EGMONT – The Royal Institute for International Relations


Are we witnessing a crisis of democratic legitimacy? While citizens may lose trust in political authorities, democratic principles and ideals continue to exercise considerable appeal. This Policy Brief argues that this paradox must be understood as a crisis of legitimation. Research suggests that legitimacy is inherently subjective and must be constantly re-earned. Low levels of political trust can be explained as the result of the complexity of globalised yet fragmented societies. The present feeling of malaise calls for a redefinition of the relationship between citizens and the authorities by which they are ruled. If popular sovereignty is to mean anything in today’s age, it requires a new legitimising narrative.