Power, Authority & Legitimacy Theory


  • All politics is about power – achieving and maintaining it – Hobbes – basic human urge is to seek ‘power after power’. Programmed – Dawkins’ selfish gene. Conservative viewpoint.
  • The ability to get someone to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do – ‘power to’.
  • Distinguished with authority by power being the ability to do and authority right to do.
  • Distinction from influence – ability to affect outcome even if not having actual final power to decide – influence is a minor form of power by affecting their actions without inciting force/fear – e.g. manipulation.
  • Lukes sees power in three forms: decision-making, agenda setting and thought control.
  • Decision-making – associated with liberal and pluralist perceptions focussing on who actually makes the decisions. Boulding argues decision-making influenced in three ways: the stick (coercion), the deal (mutual benefit through negotiation), and the kiss (sense of loyalty and commitment to individual, thus he has power).
  • Dahl observed decision-making ‘Critique of the ruling elite model’ and found no single elite in charge, pluralist approach, everyone has a say. Different groups have a say on different aspects. Reality was an “example of a democratic system warts and all”.
  • Elitist critiques argue this fails to understand unequal influence of key elites – real decisions made by a fixed elite – real power belongs to banks and military C.Wright Mills.
  • Hobbes – physical or mechanical power whereby power  is used against an individual’s will – individual is subservient to it, otherwise life would be nasty, brutish and short. Advocates strong, monarchical government.
  • Agenda setting – Bachrach Baratz –idea of non-decision making. Schattschneider “some issues are organised into politics and others are organised out”.
  • Links to influential parties who collectively agree or just block discussion – slight elitist theory.
  • B and B and ‘mobilisation of bias’ yet individuals and pressure groups can change agendas, yet more likely to do so on issues represented by well informed and articulate. Elite tend to dominate flow of information and media and so use this to their advantage. Look at the way demonstrations are portrayed in the media.
  • Marxists would argue agenda setting is a facade for bourgeois dominance with parliamentary systems of government being “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie” (Marx).
  • Thought control – previous two assume that people and groups are rational and capable of knowing their own mind. The ability to manipulate human behaviour can be shaped – some argue this is where the real power lies.
  • Marxist ideas based on favouritism of state towards bourgeoisie and their power through economy and politics – Gramsci and bourgeois hegemony – bourgeoisie literally control popular culture and so control the way we think. Therefore we think life is only better with material goods so bourgeoisie benefit even more.
  • Vance Packard – consumer based society and only think we’re happy when we have material goods.
  • New Left ideas and Marcuse – link to totalitarianism but with media, TUs, adverts, culture replacing brutal coercion manipulating needs.
  • Difference between ‘real’ and ‘felt’ interests – Engels and false consciousness. Don’t know what is in our real interest – no longer rational.
  • Liberals reject this – individuals are rational.


  • Generally distinguished from power through the means by which compliance and obedience are achieved – Heywood “authority is power cloaked in legitimacy”. Authority a form of rightful power.
  • Authority based on a perceived ‘right to rule’ (Weber) with a moral aspect.
  • Weber linked authority to legitimacy – different approach from others stating that legitimacy gave power authority.
  • Weber – authority is important irrespective of how it’s achieved. As long as there is the perception that authority is legitimate it’s fine.
  • Authority seldom exercised in absence of power.
  • Weber – traditional (respect for elders), charismatic (value opinions and words through their responsibility), legal-rational (respect for right of state – parliament’s legal rights to pass new laws).
  • Traditional – sanctified by history and based upon ‘immemorial custom’. Hierarchy – Burke – ‘wisdom of the ancients’. Patriarchalism – links to hereditary systems. Less relevant today, although evident in one form in theocratic states – the resurgence of this type of authority can be seen as a response to the failure of other types in degenerative Western capitalism.
  • Charismatic – based entirely upon the power of an individual’s personality. Owes nothing to status, social position or office, yet can be used to promote the interests of society (Rousseau and Law Giver).
  • Charismatic has an almost messianic quality – treated with suspicion – Talmon and criticism of Rousseau.
  • Legal-rational – situation for most liberal democratic Western capitalist societies. Operates through a body of clearly defined rules – linked to formal powers of office not office holder. Less likely to be abused than other 2 as the limit of authority is defined.
  • Arises out of a respect for the rule of law and is evident in the constitutional framework of long-established states. Can be seen as de-personalising as there can be a relentless spread of bureaucracy e.g. civil service.
  • De jure authority – authority in law. Authority from an office. Operates according to a set of rules. Closely linked to traditional/legal-rational. Related to being IN authority.
  • De facto – authority in practice. Closely linked to charismatic. Authority by virtue of who they are – being AN authority.

Relationship between power and authority

  • Authority is the legitimate exercise of power but debate as to whether this requires morality or PERCEPTION or rightfulness.
  • Ruling by power alone eventually lead to unsustainable use of coercive resources – Mao – “all power stems from the barrel of a gun” and is the antithesis of authority.
  • Can authority exist without power? Weberian sense of traditional and charismatic forms all exert influence without the need to persuade. Legal-rational based on office and power invested in the office thus need power. Also being ‘an authority’ doesn’t  need recourse to power but can have influence.

Different views of authority

  • Liberals – authority instrumental, coming from below through the consent of the governed – social contract.
  • Do not want too much state involvement therefore authority is limited, rational and purposeful leading to preference for legal-rational.
  • Conservatives – comes from above from those with experience and wisdom. Benefits other but there are few limits leading to authoritarianism through charismatic.
  • Authority – justified? Essential for maintenance of order. Enemy of freedom – Libertarian/Anarchist view. Marxists – authority manufactured to mask rule by the bourgeoisie. Expectation to give unquestioning obedience is wrong as it threatens reason – Mill – intellectual diversity.


  • To be in a position to exercise authority. Links to power and authority by transforming the former into the latter – turns naked power into authority.
  • Moral right to rule – Locke and consent – social contrast theory – we consent to be governed. If there is a formal constitutional basis, we can see legitimacy.
  • Hobbes – social contract – dictatorship could have legitimacy as it is meant to protect the individual – the Leviathan state – legitimacy comes about by preventing people getting harmed – implied consent.
  • For Rousseau the state is legitimate if it upholds the general will.
  • Likes of Weber see a belief in legitimacy as important no matter how it is achieved.

How do governments gain and maintain legitimacy?

  • Social contract – tacit and formal agreement whereby state’s legitimacy is based on protection of citizens (Hobbes) and promotion of rights and freedoms (Locke) and the common good (Rousseau).
  • Locke challenged Hobbes as he believed a man could not give away more power over himself than he himself has. Tacit consent is given to the government by anyone who has “possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government”.
  • Popular compliance – populace have a belief in the right to rule which in a democracy is based around the exercise of legal-rational authority.
  • Constitutionalism – Beetham – legitimacy operating under existing established principles thus power exercised through the existing constitutional process if this adheres to the widely held beliefs and values of a society.
  • Went against Weber’s view as it ignores how legitimacy came about. Leaves the matter largely in the hands of the powerful, who may be able to manufacture rightfulness by public relation campaigns. Power is legitimate if it fulfils 3 criteria:
    • 1. Power exercised according to certain rules.
    • 2. Rules justified in terms of ruler and ruled – marrying the shared belief between government and people (communitarianism).
    • 3. People must give consent – how much consent must people give to give something legitimacy?
  • Active consent – seen through ballot box with a mandate given to exercise legitimacy – elections/referendums and strengthened by universal suffrage – Mill.
  • Legitimation crisis – neo-Marxist Habermas – legitimacy of a political system could collapsed because of the pressures created by democracy and capitalism. Democracy – voting becomes a means of consumerism. Capitalism – increased desire leads to recession – can’t continually provide what people want – e.g. extensive welfare provision. Legitimation crisis created after government intervention and conflict of free-market.
  • Social contract – Giddens – communitarianism – Etzioni – taking social contract and trying to improve civic engagement through modern political systems.
  • Ideological Hegemony – Conventional image of liberal democracies is that they enjoy legitimacy because they respect individual liberty and are responsive to public opinion. Critics – democracy is little more than a facade concealing the domination of a “power elite”.
  • Ralph Milliband – liberal democracy is “capitalist democracy” – there are biases which serve interests of private property and ensure the long term stability of capitalism.
  • Marxists state that bourgeois ideology denotes sets of ideas which conceal the contradictions upon which class societies are based – ideology propagates falsehood, delusion and mystification. Ideology operates in interests of the ruling class.
  • Modern Marxists – political competition does exist but this competition is unequal. Gramsci drew attention to the degree to which the class system was upheld not simply by unequal power but also what he called bourgeois hegemony. 

Legitimacy in a dictatorship

  • Weber argues that traditional and charismatic authority can be legitimate if accepted by populace. Marx argued that a dictatorship of the proletariat would be legitimate as it was acting in the best interests of the masses; likewise dictators claim to uphold common good without popular approval.  Traditional monarchs also claimed to be adhering to divine right as the best form of determining the common good.
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