Throughout the year, the class time travels to societies in crisis over legitimacy: From the England of Henry II to its long revolution of 1640 to 1688 to the American Revolution in 1776, the French and Russian Revolutions of 1789 and 1917, and Weimar Germany as Hitler comes to power in 1933.In each instance, a government has forfeited its claim to obedience and loyalty—at least in the view of a significant portion of its subjects—and has broken down. The questions are: Why? And what comes next? At the extreme, a polity’s condition reaches the state described by a Russian revolutionary leader when he said that the Bolsheviks did not seize power; they found it lying in the gutter and picked it up.Legitimacy is probably the single most important concept in political analysis, and Beer’s class could have continued indefinitely. The fall of the Soviet Union would be a fine topic, and China’s 20th-century evolutions could occupy a whole year, especially its latest effort to shift from Maoism as a basis of legitimacy to successful economic development. This is the political equivalent of a triple flip without a net.The time-traveling class should also drop in on the United States in 2012, which is slipping into a crisis of legitimacy relatively unnoticed. . .
Gallup and Rasmussen are telling us that the Founders were right to posit that a breakdown of the limits of government would cause a breakdown of consent. In response to the question of whether the current government has the consent of the governed, only 22 percent of likely voters say “yes.” The partisan divide is marked; Democrats split evenly, but only 8 percent of Republicans say yes. These are scary numbers, particularly when one considers that many of the “no consent” Democrats are probably on the left, denying the legitimacy of a government that does not do more for them. Also scary is that the political establishments of both parties seem oblivious.So Beer’s time-traveling students would have little trouble deciding that the United States has a legitimacy crisis. They could produce competent term papers on how it arose. The big question, of course, is what happens next. That is indeterminable. Unstable political arrangements often continue for a long time, until some crisis pushes them over the edge. France faced severe fiscal problems in 1789, and Russia’s tsars might still be with us if they had avoided the strains of World War I. So the United States might be pushed into full-blown chaos only by serious fiscal dysfunction or some national security disaster. Unfortunately, neither of these possibilities appears remote.The urgent question is how to find a road back to stability and consent without going through a crisis and consequent upheaval. This is a mystery, since the set of societies that have faced and surmounted legitimacy crises without turmoil is a limited one. In later years, Beer added to his syllabus the topic of the great reform acts in England during the 19th century, but that example seems almost unique. Most societies must endure considerable pain.