All governments need legitimacy to survive. But how do governments attain authority? What makes citizens obey or feel loyal toward their governments? Scholars have answered these questions by concluding that political legitimacy comes from several sources:

  • Tradition: The government has authority because its citizens have a long tradition of giving it authority and respect. This source mostly comes into play with governments that have been around for a long time.
  • Habit: Most people are raised to obey the laws, and they thereby acquire the habit of obeying. Citizens give their government legitimacy and authority because that is what they have always done.
  • History: People remember great deeds and events in the country’s history, and they obey the government out of a sense of historical pride.
  • Religion: In some places, obedience to the government is seen as a religious obligation.

Example: Iran is a constitutional Islamic republic. Some of its governing bodies are elected, whereas others are put into place for religious reasons.

  • Ethnic identity: Countries composed of exclusively one ethnic group or whose regime is strongly connected to one ethnic group can inspire obedience through ethnic identity. Members of that ethnic group respect the government because of its link to their ethnicity.

Example: Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime in Iraq once inspired a great deal of loyalty in Sunni Arabs.

  • Results: If a government succeeds in some way—for instance, through a military victory or a thriving economy—citizens may feel loyalty because of that success.
  • Elections: A government that holds elections gains legitimacy because citizens believe that the government, composed of elected officials, represents them.
  • International recognition: A government gains legitimacy when other governments recognize it and welcome it to the international community.

Example: The United States and many European countries moved quickly to publicly recognize the controversial new nation-state of Israel when it was created in 1948. Although most countries formally recognize Israel and the Israeli government today, Iran and many Arab countries still do not, which is one reason why the Middle East remains such a hot spot in global politics.

Taiwan, an island that was under Chinese control up until the end of World War II, still has not received formal recognition as a nation-state to this day. Not even the United States has formally recognized Taiwan, fearing that doing so would sour American relations with China, which still claims the island. As a result, the people and government of Taiwan have lived in fear that no other country would help them if China tried to retake control of the island by force.

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