As we have been studying political communication theory from a primarily sociological perspective, I wanted to further explore Jeffrey Alexander’s civil sphere from the side of a sociologist. Max Weber, a primary voice in sociological theory, has written works on the legitimization of power, which is a topic that I think is absolutely applicable to campaigning.
A campaign is the way that a candidate’s potential power is legitimized by the public. Sam Donaldson, the renowned ABC White House correspondent, has said that he couldn’t think of a better way for a candidate to prove himself as capable for office than through a campaign. As the people can see a candidate more and more in the job that he or she is running for, his or her power is legitimized ultimately by being elected; it is the actual act of legitimization. Assuming this as a valid way of thinking, I turned to Weber’s three ideal types of legitimate power to get a perspective on how this power varies and is accepted by the public. He names three types of legitimate power: traditional, rational and charismatic. Traditional power refers to acceptance based on tradition and what’s been done before, rational power is an appeal to the power given to a person by laws and rules, and charismatic power refers to one person’s greatness and force of personality as drawing in public acceptance.
I began to think about how these types of power may or may not be relevant in thinking about how candidates gain power in elections, and by looking through Alexander’s binaries and boundaries, a distinct power structure becomes clearer, validating campaigns in Weber’s ideal types of legitimate power as well as in Alexander’s claims about the civil sphere’s interactions with society.
To begin I looked at traditional power as defined by Weber: that it is “resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them.” There is a way that things have been done, and candidates gain power if they follow them. This idea made me think of Charlie’s comment that to be successful in a party, there are certain beliefs that are not tolerated and some that can get you a party nomination, such as the Republican party never nominating a pro-life candidate out of a presidential primary. The values in the civil sphere that Alexander emphasizes are determined by each candidate based on what the party has traditionally portrayed, and without following in the basic beliefs, the public will not legitimize a candidate’s power. In other words, a candidate’s power will not be recognized if he or she is not in line with the traditional value system that the party supporters in society expect. This power structure emphasizes working the binaries, as the traditional established belief that Weber calls for in legitimization has to be polarized with the opponent’s. If it is not, the result is a failure for the public to legitimize his power, and he therefore loses the election.
Weber’s second legitimate power structure is rational power, defined as “resting on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issues commands.” Weber is saying that the people give power to authority figures because of the structure of the government and the laws that make it that way. The interaction of the civil sphere and society, as shown by Alexander, gives candidates a taste of that same power that is given to those in office, and this is done by walking the boundaries. Weber says that people accept power because it is how the system has declared it to be, and in this same line of thinking, I propose that people legitimize a candidate’s power if he shows that he is the best to continue in this system, specifically in the way that he walks the boundaries between the civil sphere and society. This example relies on the public’s devotedness and reliance on the legal system, and America is a prime example of this democratic ideal. As candidates walk the boundaries in hopes of showing themselves to best fit the system and therefore having their power legitimized, they are showing the public how electing them to office will best serve their interests in the larger system. The person who can make this argument the best to the public is who is ultimately elected and legitimized.
Weber’s third legitimate power structure is charismatic power: “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” In campaigns, according to Alexander, the performance is what matters. The race revolves around not only what the candidates are saying, but also how they are saying it. Likewise, it is the ability of a candidate to capture the minds of his or her constituents that legitimizes his power to the people; it is the devotion that Weber refers to that makes a candidate a leader, and the person who garners that devotion the best is who is awarded the legitimacy. It comes down to walking the binaries and working the boundaries the most effectively, and in doing so, putting on the best show to legitimize the candidate’s authority.
The structure for power and how people accept it is a complicated and dynamic equation. Elections and campaigning draw on these ideas and ways to legitimize power in the hopes of doing it the most effectively, thus bringing in the most votes and winning. The people look for a candidate who is following in the traditional ways of his party to appeal to their most basic belief systems, a candidate who fits into the mold of the government system and will be able to stay true to the boundaries he is walking, and a candidate who captures their devotion, attention and loyalty. Elections are a race to the top, and the prize is having their brand of power endorsed, accepted and legitimized by the people.
Donaldson, S. (1987). Hold On, Mr. President! New York: Random House.
Weber, M. (1968). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Bedminster Press.
Alexander, J.C. (2010). The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford University Press.