Gov: Political Power

There are five sources of power: persuasion, formal authority, expertise, coercion, and rewards. For persuasion, power flows from the power holder’s ability to persuade or influence others. In formal authority, power comes from the power holder’s position and duties within the organization. For expertise, power is derived from the power holder’s specific skills or expertise. Under coercion, power springs from the power holder’s ability to punish or penalize others. For rewards, power comes from the power holder’s ability to give something of value, such as money, responsibility, or praise. Political leaders often combine these sources of power to get citizens to act in a certain way.  For example, a political leader might speak to the nation, which combines formal authority and persuasion, about offering tax breaks (a reward) to people who buy fuel-efficient cars.

Leaders whose power and authority are accepted by the people they govern as valid are said to have legitimacy. Legitimacy rises and falls depending on the willingness of those being led to follow those doing the leading.

The mandate of heaven is a doctrine of legitimacy that would endure for more than 2,000 years. According to this doctrine, the ruler was the “son of heaven” and thus had authority over “all under heaven.” The ruler retained this right only so long as he ruled his subjects in a moral manner. If he failed to rule well, the mandate of heaven would pass to someone else.

In the 1500s, powerful European monarchs proclaimed a similar doctrine of legitimacy, known as the divine right of kings. This doctrine, like the mandate of heaven, held that monarchs represented God on Earth. Because their right to rule was divine, or God-given, monarchs did not have to answer to the people for their actions. God had granted them absolute power to govern as they saw fit.

English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke popularized what became known as the social-contract theory of government. According to this theory, the legitimacy of a government stems from an unwritten contract between the ruler and the ruled. Under the terms of this contract, the people agree to obey a ruler in exchange for the ruler’s promise to protect their rights. A ruler who breaks this contract by abusing power loses legitimacy and should be removed from power.





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