Opinion: The question of democratic legitimacy

Recent events across our region — a local disagreement in Wichita, a statewide argument in Missouri, a veto override in Topeka with national implications — push me to reflect upon a seemingly straightforward but actually complicated idea: “democratic legitimacy.”

This is one of those terms that those of us who study politics professionally can argue about endlessly. The core concept, however, is one that probably most can grasp quickly. It is that any time any government exercises power — whether it be requiring that taxes be paid, or that programs be supported, or that speed limits be obeyed or anything else — it should be able to legitimately claim that its actions are based on some kind of “democratic” support.

Note the small “d” there. This is not a reference to the Democratic party, but rather to the “demos,” the people. Even if one insists that the American system is a “republic” and not a “democracy,” the fact there are elections in the United States — as well as ballot initiatives, recall votes and so much more — shows that our system is designed around the idea of people showing their support, or their opposition, to whatever different levels of government propose to do.

How does all this apply to the events I referenced before? Well, consider the following:

In Wichita, Kansas’ largest city, there is a popular drive to require the city government to hold a vote whenever it proposes tearing down a historic building — and yet members of the city government have protested to the state, insisting that it would be “undemocratic” to oblige them to appeal to voters whenever they make an unpopular decision. In Missouri, a majority of voters supported an initiative mandating that the state government embrace Medicaid expansion — and yet Republicans in the state Legislature, whom voters also gave a strong majority, insist that it is their “democratic” responsibility to reject a popular initiative that they consider flawed.

Finally, the Kansas Legislature recently passed — and then passed again, overriding Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto — a tax bill that will almost certainly require large cuts in the funding of key state programs. Yet American Rescue Plan — the widely popular legislation designed to help states, cities and citizens recover from the grave economic harm done by the COVID-19 pandemic — specifically directs the billions of dollars being provided be delivered to the American people and the programs their representatives have built to help them, not used to cover tax cuts (which mostly benefit those who already have sufficient incomes, not those in desperate need of such).

So who can claim democratic legitimacy there? A federal law with 70% support across party lines, or a Republican super-majority just as committed to cutting taxes as they were when they were still led by Gov. Sam Brownback? The complicated answer, unfortunately, is probably both.

Our governing system has multiple levels, and voters organize their interests in response to different concerns on each of those levels, sometimes in contradictory ways. Those who hope for a straightforward rule — that city governments will always obey popular referendums, that state governments will always treat state initiatives as binding, or that laws passed by the national government will always be fully supported — are bound to be disappointed.

Which leaves voters with the same old responsibility: to hold their representatives accountable by pressuring them, protesting them or voting them out of office. It’s wearying, but to give up on the idea of democratically demanding legitimacy from those elected to wield power would mean that we really are the tyranny that conspiracy theorists say we already are. Let’s not prove them right.

— Russell Arben Fox runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.


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