I’ve had some miscellaneous thoughts about political legitimacy rattling around in my head lately. Nothing coherent enough to set down here, apart from a vague bleg to my readers to point me in the right direction.

At the most basic level, my question is why Stalin ever bothered with show trials. Why even bother with the pretense that this person is confessing, if no one is fooled into thinking that he did it of his own free will? If everyone is aware that his confession was elicited under torture, what’s the point?

Am I misunderstanding the point of the torture, or of the confession? It seems like modern democratic (small-d) society has created a need for at least the appearance of formal legitimacy — the appearance of the rule of law without the actual rule of law. But why? Why can’t totalitarian states just ‘disappear’ their enemies?

Oddly, the nomination of Merrick Garland to take the late Justice Scalia’s seat is reminding me of this. Everyone, I think, acknowledges that “we can’t confirm a nominee in the last year of a presidency” is a garbage reason. It’s fake legitimacy. But why even bother with the simulacrum? Why not just come out and say the truth? The truth is that they hope the next president is a Republican, and they’re willing to wait for Obama to leave.

Of course that question, such as it was, answers itself: no one could be this nakedly cynical in modern democratic America. We need to go through the kabuki theatre of legitimacy.

When Soviet political prisoners confessed under torture, hours before their execution, were there earnest quasi-debates about the honesty of the confession? That is, were there in fact some people who were fooled? Or is this all a grand, depressing, society-wide exercise in motivated reasoning, where the answer (Yuri will be hanged after a fair trial) comes first and the reasoning (he was a traitor to the state who confessed his sins) is enlisted to justify it?

So that’s my first question: is there a term for this fake legitimacy? Is there a term for the change in a political system that requires fake legitimacy?

My second question comes from having just listened to the English Civil War season of the Revolutions podcast (which I’d recommend in the strongest terms). At one point Charles I was compelled to summon 12 lords of the realm (maybe this was the Great Council) to pay for his army. My question is just: what compels him to summon it? What compels a king to do anything, basically? Why can’t the king just act arbitrarily?

The obvious answer is: because Parliament (or the landed aristocracy, or whoever) has its own independent source of strength. The king can’t force them to do anything, because they have guns as well.

My question is: how stable is this equilibrium? The short, simple answer would seem to be: “So long as the Parliament has its own independent source of power, the equilibrium is stable.” How, then, do you build institutions such that it’s a stable equilibrium? How do you guarantee that Parliament remains on roughly equal footing with the king?

The answer might be entirely boring and straightforward: Parliament remains on roughly equal footing with the king so long as people believe it’s so. When legitimacy goes away, it goes away quickly. The only thing, perhaps, keeping the U.S. military from turning its guns on Congress is legitimacy that’s baked very deeply into our society, but there’s no reason that legitimacy has to last forever.

No real conclusions from this. I think I just want to read more about legitimacy in democratic states, as a starting point.