Lost Legitimacy

Why Governing Is Harder Than Ever

Courtesy Reuters

One of the most important issues facing the world is the growing vulnerability of political elites. This problem makes effective public and private leadership much more difficult, which is why the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk has selected it as a focus for 2014. 

As the dust of the global financial crisis finally settles, it might appear that things have begun to normalize. The United States is finding its economic footing with a return to modest growth. The eurozone has put existential threats behind it. Emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India, Turkey and others continue to rise, although at a slower pace.

At the same time, however, political elites face formidable new challenges as citizens use new tools to make new demands, coordinate protest, and pool their collective power. Governments of all kinds are scrambling for short-term solutions to help them through to the next business cycle, the next election, the next political transition. The result is a global crisis of legitimacy.

In the United States, gerrymandered congressional districts and interest groups with an increasingly narrow set of economic and ideological interests have driven intense partisanship. A growing number of Americans tell pollsters that too many of their elected leaders do not represent their interests or their values. In Europe, many citizens complain that crucial policy decisions are made by unaccountable officials who govern from beyond national borders. In emerging-market democracies such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey, leaders face expanding and restive middle classes even as slowing growth constrains their ability to spend their way out of political trouble. In authoritarian states such as China and Russia, demonstrations over economic and environmental issues, or the corruption and incompetence of local officials, risk spilling over into broader outpourings of dissatisfaction.

The leaders of all these states suffer from a “deficit of legitimacy.” Those who would pull their countries toward recovery or through the next delicate stages of development find themselves with a shortage of good

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