6.3.6  Temporary Political Legitimacy Conferred by a Threat      

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/636.htm)

It is widely agreed that a prime duty of government is to protect people (2.1).  When a leader tells people that they are threatened by an invader their immediate reaction is to support that leader in repelling the threat.  A threat which is genuine and unavoidable gives the population an incentive to pull together and it can overshadow a government’s failings in other respects; it becomes difficult for other politicians to oppose the government, for fear of being seen as unpatriotic.  This is a temporary form of political legitimacy, which is not created by a government’s virtues but by a reaction to outside forces.  Several types of threat can have such an effect:

·      People rally to support their leaders in a country which is at war or is under the threat of war.  Winston Churchill, for example, was immensely popular as a wartime leader.

·      An apparently ‘just’ overseas war attracts popular support.  General Galtieri initially gained popularity in Argentina by recapturing the Falkland Islands from the British in 1982,[1] but that swiftly turned to condemnation when he lost the war.  Margaret Thatcher decided to recover the islands, claiming it as a war to protect the islanders, and she gained popularity by defeating him.[2]

·      Coercive behaviour by other countries can stimulate popular nationalism; Iran’s president, for example, gained popularity from his defiance of the West on the issue of his nuclear programme.[3]

·      Economic sanctions can be seen as a form of aggression; Robert Mugabe gained a form of political legitimacy from the sanctions against Zimbabwe for example,[4] despite his obvious failings as a political leader who had impoverished his country.

Such legitimacy is swiftly lost, though, if there is any public doubt about whether a threat is genuine or when the threat is removed:

·      Winston Churchill was immensely popular as a wartime leader, but lost the election after the Second World War when people wanted a different kind of government for the reconstruction.[5]

·      It is particularly difficult to maintain public support for an overseas war, particularly if it continues for longer than expected or if it appears to be going badly, as in the classic example of the eventual unpopularity of the Vietnam War.[6]

It is almost always the case that the legitimacy conferred by external threats is temporary.  Politicians may crave for the united support which they receive in wartime, but it is usually not in the people's interests to go to war – so it is a highly risky political strategy to lead a country into a war of choice.  As discussed later, military force is of limited utility (7.4.1).

An analogous phenomenon occurs when the leader of an ethnic or nationalist group is able to identify a defined enemy.  The solidarity of the group is strengthened by having such an enemy, and this is one reason why politicians choose to 'play the race card' to stir up ethnic divisions (

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[1] Leopoldo Galtieri’s government was very unpopular; as The Economist put it, “Argentina was going through one of its regular periods of high inflation and poor growth.”  His invasion of the Falklands was initially popular: “The protests were largely forgotten when he announced that Argentina was to seize the Falklands”, but he was dismissed when the invasion was defeated.  These quotations come from his obituary in The Economist, dated 16 January 2003; it was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/1534686.

[2] An article about the impact of the 1982 Falklands war in enabling Margaret Thatcher to win the subsequent 1983 election concluded that “Box-Jenkins analyses demonstrate that the Falklands strongly influenced Conservative support, net of the effects of macroeconomic conditions and personal economic expectations”.  This article, entitled Recapturing the Falklands: Models of Conservative Popularity, 1979-1983, was written by Harold D. Clarke, William Mishler and Paul Whiteley and was published in the British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1990), pp. 63-81.  The article was available on JSTOR in May 2014 at http://www.jstor.org/pss/193679.

[3] The think-tank Council on Foreign Relations published an article in Spring 2006, entitled A Profile in Defiance, which noted:

“Although it may be difficult for a Western audience to appreciate, Ahmadinejad’s message of economic populism and nationalistic self-assertion does enjoy a level of public support, particularly among the lower classes struggling with Iran’s inequalities.”

This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.cfr.org/iran/profile-defiance/p10324.

[4] Zimbabwe's Deputy Minister of Indigenisation and Empowerment, Tracy Mutinhiri, was reported as having made an election speech on 27 March 2008, which mentioned the role of sanctions:

“You have to understand that the war we are fighting is not among the Zimbabweans themselves, but it is between Zimbabwe and Britain and America.  They are responsible for all the suffering we are facing." 

"We know that our people are suffering as a result of the economic sanctions imposed against us by the Western countries at the instigation of the MDC [the main opposition party].”

Extracts were published on the Internet by The Herald (Harare), at http://allafrica.com/stories/200803280067.html under the title Zimbabwe: Unite, Vote for Zanu-PF – Mutinhiri.  In May 2014 this material was only available to allafrica.com subscribers.

[5] The BBC History website published an analysis by Dr Paul Addison of the reasons why Churchill, having been “probably the most popular British prime minister of all time” was defeated in the election at the end of the war.  The article was updated on 17 February 2011 and was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/election_01.shtml

[6] For example a BBC article on 20 October 1967, entitled Thousands join anti-war movement, reported the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam war:

“Recent polls suggest that American support for the war in Vietnam is declining steadily.

President Johnson is under attack from those who believe he is not being aggressive enough on Vietnam as well as those who think he should withdraw.

A Gallup poll published earlier this month showed his popularity rating plummeting to the point where if an election were held at this point in his term of office, he would lose by a landslide.”

This article was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/20/newsid_3153000/3153144.stm.

A report on the history of the Vietnam War demonstrations was available then at http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war-protests.