If you want to know what a legitimation crisis is, look no further than the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. At night, you will see buildings burning. This in response to the police shooting of a young man named Jason Blake.
Jason is black.
The officer who shot him is white.
The fires are red hot, as is some of the blood that was spilled after the shooting.
Just how is it that strangers work together to create communities, to exchange goods and services, to live together in some semblance of order? If you stop to think about it, social cohesion and cooperation are really miracles. Just how is it that officials I have never met acquire the right to tell me what to do?
Consider the following: You are standing on a street corner when a man draws a handgun and points it at you. “Give me your wallet,” he commands. Odds are you will give it to him out of a sense of fear. The gun reflects a power to end your life. The man is a stranger. You comply so as not to die.
Change this hypothetical in small, but significant ways: The man is now dressed in a police uniform. On his shoulder is a badge bearing the name of the town you are in. “Give me your wallet,” he says. Odds are you will give him the wallet. Some fear will accompany the giving, but so will something else: perhaps outrage. He’s a police officer. He ought not to do that. Or perhaps a sense of respect: He’s a police officer, he must have a reason for asking in this manner.
The difference between complying out of a sense of raw fear and complying out of a sense of duty, even if that is accompanied by a sense of outrage, is a sense of legitimacy. Legitimacy transforms naked power into authority.
These ideas aren’t mine. I’ve cribbed them from Max Weber, who offered them in a lecture he gave in January 1919 entitled “Politics as a Vocation.” It remains one of the classic statements about legitimacy in all of social and political thought.
There are three ideal types, or forms, of legitimacy, Weber wrote: traditional, rational and charismatic. Tradition simply means the way things are done, customs passed from generation to generation from time immemorial. Charismatic authority is derived from the magnificent personality, the force seemingly larger than life, who attracts followers because of who he or she is – charisma is a mystery, a gift from God.
Rational authority defines our time. It is the rule of law. There are procedures to follow to make a stranger into the possessor of legitimate authority. We vote for elected officials. Civil servants are selected by transparent means. Public officials act within the limits of laws enacted in public fora.
Societies are healthy when those living within them share a sense of legitimacy, of what makes power into authority. The state, Weber wrote, is nothing other than the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Kenosha and the reaction to it illustrate the fact that we live in something rapidly approaching a failed state. We no longer have a common sense of legitimacy. Many folks claim to be unable to distinguish a cop from a gang-banging thug.
Thus, the Jacob Blake shooting.
When it was first reported, white police officers shot a young black man in the back as the man tried to get into a car. The man’s children were in the car.
No sooner did word of the shooting go public than protests, then looting, then arson begin. Politicians were quick to condemn the shooting as yet another example of “systemic racism.”
But reality is more complex than the simplistic report that sparked outrage.
Police had been called to the scene of a domestic complaint. Mr. Blake was at the home of a woman who had a court order to prohibit him from being there. He had taken keys from a woman. Officer’s checked records and learned there were open warrants for Mr. Blake for serious felonies. He had a felony record. Videos show a police struggle with him. He resists and breaks free. Officers draw guns and follow him to his car. He appears to lean into the car.
Then he is shot.
The second narrative, incomplete as it is, is consistent with a justified shooting. The law gives officers the right to use force to obtain compliance with a resisting subject. They can shoot to kill if they reasonably believe their lives are in danger.
Just what was Mr. Blake doing when he reached into the car?
An investigation of the shooting began immediately, as such investigations routinely do whenever there is a police involved shooting. Among the questions: Were the officers justified in using deadly force based on what they knew at the scene and at the time of the shooting?
But many in our society didn’t need answers. They leapt to condemnation. A white cop shot a black man. Screw context. Forget the law.
That, my friends, is a legitimation crisis.
And, of course, it got worse.
Politicians are paralyzed. They can’t tell, or don’t dare, distinguish peaceful protest from looting and rioting. Not surprisingly, some folks resort to self-help to resist the chaos all around them. An armed teenager appears on the streets of Kenosha, some self-styled patriot. A band of protestors confront him. Confusion attends. Shots are fired. Two are dead, another is wounded.
A confusing confrontation is now a white supremacist firing at peaceful protestors. Others see it as a citizen protecting against anarchy.
Screw the facts.
Leap to a conclusion.
Pick a side.
We need a common narrative, a set of standards to determine how to resolve these disputes. At times we have had them. But not now. Now we’re armed to teeth and teetering close to something like open warfare on the streets.
How’d we come to this point?
Where do we look when politicians fail to foster a common sense of decency and a common commitment to norms universally held?