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Power, Legitimacy & Authority: Key Concepts in Understanding Politics

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Legitimacy
    State of nature
    Government formation
    Political issues
    Personal loyalty
    My changing perspective
  3. Conclusion
  4. Bibliography

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.

– Abraham Lincoln


Politicians crave power. I have always been fascinated by the ways and means that politicians use to attain power and what ultimately happens when they get that power. My political allegiances have been shaped by my roots, having grown up in deep in the countryside on a remote peninsula. My family’s political values, held close to the heart, were always on the republican side. During my early years, my views on politics were basic. A politician would show up at an event, shake a few hands or cut a ribbon and the crowd would smile. It seemed to me that politicians had a great job, a glorified celebrities to all. That’s why the main topic of my essay is politics.

With the passing years, my involvement and understanding of politics grew, as I was afforded the opportunity, alongside members of my family and neighbors, to play a part in getting our candidate elected to the local town council. At the age of 10, I was still clueless about the big picture, all I knew was that there was a job to be completed and a race to be won. Naively, I thought that I could win that race by beating my neighbors’ children and putting my manifesto sheets in the doors of the houses and apartments in the housing estates first.

When I reached second-level education, my involvement and understanding of politics deepened. I was allowed to attend local Cumann meetings with my family and observed politicians up close and personal as they interacted with party members. My thoughts about politics changed once again, as I could see that the job of a politician is a tiring one requiring long hours of activity and I became aware that different politicians had distinct motivations. While I did not at that time understand the influence of charisma on political success, I observed that some politicians articulated an ideology that was self-serving and showed little interest in policy, while others seemed genuinely interested in the common good.

Halfway through my second-level education, I was well-equipped with a basic knowledge of Irish politics, the workings of an Irish political party, and how a general election is run. My understanding of politics grew further when I was given the opportunity to work alongside the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad on a week of work experience. This gave me unfettered access to learn about the workings of the Dáil and the civil service. It was a pivotal week in Irish politics, when the then Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny, was trying to navigate a course that would provide him with a clean retirement from politics. Politicians huddled in corners, quietly sharing the latest gossip, as rumors of Mr. Kenny’s imminent retirement swept through the Oireachtas. This whole melodrama taught me two things about politics; one, in the game of politics there will be many hungry wolves waiting to take up your position in power from the minute you begin to let the reins down, and two, leaving a life of politics cleanly is easier said than done.

Through studying this module, I learned about political theories and perspectives and I was given the tools to critique politics in an objective way. Politics is about the organization of power and having control over decision-making. At the beginning of the module, the lectures focused on how power is used within a state. Power was traditionally used to get things done or to prevent things from being done. These is commonly known as the first two faces of power. Control over the agenda of politics is very important in maintaining power, as power can be exercised by confining the scope of decision-making.


Traditionally, political legitimacy is gained in three ways, one of which is charisma. Charisma is the personal magnetism and charm which gives a politician the ability to inspire enthusiasm, interest, or affection in others and thereby gain their support. While charisma often proves electorally successful, I believe that it does not always correlate with the good use of power. Charismatic authority is not based on formal rules or procedures, thus giving it no limits. By learning about legitimacy during this module, I now recognize that charismatic authority can create problems. This module has enabled me to reflect on the way past leaders gained legitimacy through their charisma and were then able to exert control, with detrimental results.

Many political thinkers have come to realize that without a society obeying its authority, a government will start to crumble. That is not to say that a government’s legitimacy will automatically be questioned, as no political establishment will automatically get overwhelming approval from the public.

In a paper written in 2010, entitled ‘Political Legitimacy’, political scientist and socialist, Mattie Dorgan, states that a regime is not necessarily challenged, except in the case of economic, military, or social disaster. In this reading, he points to the fact that many feel it is better to ‘have a mediocre parliament than no parliament at all’. This made me reflect on why the current Irish government is still intact, despite calls from various political opponents for it to step down and call a general election. Fear of no working parliament is a real apprehension that many citizens on the island of Ireland face at this current time, thus letting politicians choose to keep an underperforming government in power.


I was fascinated to learn about Steven Lukes’ theory of the third face of power. Power can be wielded through the use of coercion or by obtaining consent. Where a society recognizes the legitimacy of a government, there is less need for a government to use coercion to control its society by force.  Lukes advanced the theory that power is a relationship and can be exercised by making people think that a course of action is in their interest. On learning about Stevens Lukes’ theory, I was able to see that power is often used in this way in Irish politics and particularly in the local party branch where I am involved. In this third face, people give their consent to a certain course of action when they think that it is in their best interest. The loyalty of members and supporters to a particular political party and their desire to help that party attain power enables politicians to use the power of their position to influence party members to support them. Lukes explains that power can enable a person to influence another by shaping what he or she thinks, wants, or needs.

From learning about the third face of power, I am now able to see that many politicians use manipulation in a wider sense to make the public think that what they are doing will benefit them. We see this most clearly in the run-up to elections when political parties make general and sectoral promises. This usually involves commitments to provide increased funding or other benefits after the election, as long as people vote for them and they are returned to power. This is sometimes referred to as auction politics when opposing groups try to outdo each other with larger offers to the electorate.

State of nature

Later in the module, we came to study political philosophy and within that, a key concept, the state of nature, which is a hypothetical condition where there would be no central authority to govern. The 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbs, believed that in a state of nature there would be a ‘war of all against all’, as there would be a scarcity of goods and people would not have a concept of what is right or wrong. Hobbs argued that authority has always naturally existed among the human race, as a child is understandably weaker than its mother and is dependent on her to keep it safe, thus making the point that some are much stronger than others. Reinforcing his argument, Hobbs stated that a state of nature is a habitual environment one should avoid. He believed that individuals should engage in a social contract. In order to avoid the state of nature and live in a land of peace, they must both agree to live together under common laws and create an enforcement mechanism for the social contract and the laws that constitute it. David Miller notes that when we partake in elections by using our democratic vote and thus electing a government, “we agree to comply with them and abide by the laws that they enact”. We recognize the government as a legitimate authority and thereby form a social contract with it to control our nation. This whole theory caused me to think about how the Irish government is eager for the restoration of a working Assembly in Stormont in Northern Ireland to avoid the danger of a war against all.

Government formation

During my late teenage years, a revolution shook up the Irish political scene. After years of recovering from the Irish economic crash and having a right-wing party in government or leading the government, the general election of 2016 produced no majority consensus in Dáil Éireann. Thirty-four independents and candidates from small parties won seats as TDs. This new era of politics made it clear to me that politics and power are closely intertwined and, for things to happen, politicians need cool heads and calm temperaments to negotiate peacefully and work in the interest of the country in order to create a government.

Political issues

At local political party Cumann meetings, I learn about the issues affecting my community. Many members are concerned about the younger generation leaving our local community in search of new opportunities. Others worry that no new, fresh blood was engaging with the party. I perceive a sense of isolation and frustration with the status quo.

My local community is concerned about many national issues. The crises in housing and health are evident problems that worry many, as the lack of affordable housing in nearby cities continues to prevent their loved ones from buying a house, getting on the housing ladder, and thereby escaping the vicious cycle of rising rents. The problems that affect and concern my rural community cannot be easily resolved, as the drift of population, services, and employment towards large, urban centers are relentless. The broader national problems of an inadequate housing supply, deficient health service, and the need for rural broadband require a substantial investment of resources. A new way of thinking and a change in the political agenda are required in order to get things done. The government may still have legitimacy, but there is a deficit and defect with its legitimacy, as many citizens feel that this current government is not serving and addressing their needs.

Personal loyalty

Despite their evident dissatisfaction, the same cohort of people continues to attend party meetings and functions and it is an unquestioned fact that they will canvass for party candidates prior to elections. Many politicians in Ireland benefit from personal loyalty over a long period of time. We regularly see generational continuity when personal loyalty is transferred to the next generation, resulting in the election of a son/daughter to replace a retiring/deceased TD. This creates tradition and political dynasties. I believe that the small size of our country and the personal relationships many of us have with our political representatives promote such personal loyalty, However, surrounding oneself with die-hard loyalists breeds insularity. Over time, in my opinion, uncritical loyalty can lead to a stop-at-nothing view of politics and a higher chance of political corruption.

I hear frequent calls on local representatives to stand up and take action to lower hospital waiting lists. On numerous occasions at meetings, the older generation speaks passionately about how badly they were personally treated while waiting for emergency care after suffering accidents while working out on farms or slipping on the ice while collecting coal for the fire. Issues such as the high cost of insurance and the perceived failure of the likes of Minister Shane Ross to recognize how the new drink driving limit is discriminating against and isolating rural communities are quite prevalent at many meetings. I note with interest the ways that local representatives deal with criticism and defend themselves to their party members. These interactions have taught me that politicians need to master the art of diplomacy in order to face both internal party meetings and members of the public.

My changing perspective

This module has helped to reinforce my views on politics and power. Power can be a great changing-making tool, yet it has the ability to influence people toward a dark road. Politicians who climb the political ladder often find themselves at a crossroads. Some choose to disregard their values and ideological beliefs in order to stay in line with the successful elite. The higher one climbs, the farther one can fall. Through learning about the state of nature and the social contract theory, I gained a better insight into how nation-states began. The understanding of politics that I had as a young girl has progressed a long way through the years and has definitely been widened further by studying this module. Through discussions at my tutorials, I now feel more able, as a member of a political party and an observer of the political scene, to view political issues and situations in a more objective way. I have become more aware of the need to focus on issues rather than consistently supporting certain parties and politicians.


In conclusion, the key concepts of politics are analyzed in this essay, such as power, legitimacy, and authority. Success in getting elected to political office confers power and authority on individuals. Politics has a huge impact on our lives and everything we do. I believe that politicians need to realign their priorities and perspectives, become less concerned about maintaining their own positions and concentrate more on building a better society. Politicians need to have a clear vision of the future and take innovative measures to achieve that vision. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it”.


  1. Beethnam, D., 2001. Political Legitmacy. pp. 107-116.
  2. Farell, L. O., 2019. Thomas Hobbs on the State on Nature , s.l.: s.n.
  3. Fieser, J. & Dowden, B., 1995. Internet enclyopedia of philophy; a Peer academic resorce. [Online]
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  6. Jacob Weisberg , 2008. Loyalty; It’s the most overrated virtue in politics.. [Online]
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  8. Miller, D., 2003. Political Philosophy; A short intorduction. oxford : oxford press .
  9. Politics, 2002. Andrew heywood. 2nd ed. New York : Palgrave Macmillan.
  10. Robinson, N., 2019. Justifying power: the legitimation of authority, s.l.: s.n.

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