It would be easy to accept the popular notion that only representative democratic regimes can be legitimate, after all, that is what is familiar to citizens of the modern Western world and humans, being creatures of habit, will often accept the status quo as that which is right. However, it is necessary to examine on what grounds democratic regimes acquire their supposed legitimacy and whether other types of rule can be legitimate too. The notion of 'legitimacy' is too broad to be discussed as one concept, it covers input legitimacy, output legitimacy, legality, will of the people, democratic legitimacy as well as many more. As such this essay will discuss different subsets of legitimacy judging whether they are mutually exclusive or complementary whilst avoiding the conflation of 'more legitimacy' with 'better government'. It will also demonstrate that legitimacy is ultimately derived from the consent of the governed and therefore that both democratic and non-democratic regimes can be legitimate.
At first sight it would appear to us that the regime under which we live is a legitimate one. Citizens can choose between different baskets of policies every five years and maintain long-term control of their governance. Yet a key question to ask when discussing the title of this essay is in whose eyes is the ruling regime legitimate? If it is in the eyes of the subject or citizen of the regime then we must discuss whether only democratic regimes can seem to be legitimate to their citizens. In such a case a regime which socialises citizens into respect for and obedience to the state could be considered legitimate (such as North Korea), however, if we are questioning legitimacy through the eyes of the impartial observer then we must ask what it is that confers legitimacy on regimes normatively. Lipset's belief that legitimacy "involves the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society"1 may appear inadequate for the reason stated above regarding totalitarian states.