What Do We Mean By Political Authority


Political power or sovereign power is exercised through a man or an assembly of men. Commonly, we recognize that its mission is to ensure social cohesion and the development of the prosperity of the State. This is possible under the condition that its authority is established and maintained. If the State had no recognized authority, it would not have power and could not fulfil its mission; it would not rise above other forms of power. It would not exist.

If all political power supposes authority, it is however not very clear to determine what can ensure this authority and therefore how to establish the base of the political power itself. We see that a State has always many rivalries. And who says rivalries, says conflicts to resolve before a higher court. Isn’t the essence of power, to resolve conflicts? Does it only exist by the fact that it exercises a constraint? Our line of analysis will therefore be focusing on the consideration of power in its exercise. 

Power is a term with a meaning that exceeds politics. It designates a capacity which is superior and that could eventually turn into act. Political power has a particularly important place, because it is a symbol of power in this world, a kind of temporal power, because it is highly coveted due to its rarity, because it is how men can express a will of supremacy through the domination of other men, and an insatiable desire for recognition, that of the egocentric and the tyrant.

Political power is historically formed through a process by which it acquires an authority in the name of the people to whom it applies. However following the guarantee of authority that it receives, it has a different meaning. In other words one needs to understand how the power is legitimised. Let us therefore analyse the different factors of political power legitimisation.


Tradition was once, and still is in some remote areas of this world, the sufficient guarantee of the authority. In a traditional society or absolute monarchy, the social and political powers are blended. The Chief or the King embodies the main political powers be it legislative, executive or judicial.

This is not so much a question of person, but a sanctification of power that comes from the inertia of the habits and customs. It is the custom that requires that the chief passes its power to his son. It is the custom that requires that the heir becomes King, because it has always been done this way. It is the custom that says that it is just, so be it. A person who has a great respect for tradition does not alter the power of custom, but it perpetuates it. The strength of habits transforms in law what has always been practised until then.

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Traditional power is derived from customs. That is how a child is sacred King, by mere line of descent, without any other legitimisation of power than the one of the authority of the past, the seniority of the custom and traditions. The tradition has its own authority; it is a reference to the memory of men because it carries values worth of high respect. Tradition confers the force of continuity to time.


In the same sense, religion, far from opposing this conservation of the past; just adds its weight of authority to tradition. It gives the authority a sacred value: it teaches that all authority comes from God and not from men. Disturbing tradition, means to attempt to a sacred order, undermining the sovereign person is a blasphemy. The traditional sovereign is here endowed with political power by taking on an aura of cult prestige. In the eyes of individuals in society, he is much more than a man. He embodies a divine power and it is this aura of sacred power that makes him respectable, not only the constraint that he exerts.

The link between the subject and the sovereign is shadowed not only by a superstitious fear, but also by a respect for the sacred. We lend to the sovereign some magical powers, the same way we could lend them to religious prophets. Religion reassures people, it reinforces the established hierarchies, it does it so well that it tends to turn the established order into a sacred order, which cannot be changed without being considered a desecration of the established order.

Like in traditional societies, the distinction between spiritual and temporal powers does not occur; the sovereign has all of them imbedded in him. He is regarded as a leader and the representative of God on Earth. In this case again, tradition is the social factor that legitimizes power. However we shall note that tradition does not refer to a particular regime, but above all it refers to the trust and attachment of a people to a singular system.

Nowadays and in the West, this form of power no longer seems to be at the forefront, as it could be the case in other continents. Nevertheless the power of tradition is considerable. It is at the same time the preservation of the past and the force of continuity at the heart of evolution, while also having the character of maintaining a rigid straitjacket that endures practices sometimes morally controversial. The rigidity of traditions and their corruption calls for the need of revolutions.

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The decline of the tradition, the rise of individualism witnessed during modern times, has promoted another form of legitimization of power, namely the charisma. Originally however, charisma had a religious sense; it was the personal grace that God granted an elected, which gave him an extraordinary power. In the political sphere, the idea remains that some men are called to be heroes of history.

Charisma is the power that emanates from the radiation of a personality. The charismatic power comes from the recognition by the people’s collective consciousness, of a politician persona, and enforces the idea that the personal will of a man can be identified with the will of the State, as if he could embody the spirit of a nation. In people’s mind, the power of a man becomes legitimate when after a revolution; he is converted into a saviour, a chief, a supreme guide, a führer, a great leader, etc.

The people saw in him an actor who has the vocation to take in hand the reins of power in order to lead the nation towards a better future. The charismatic leader is meant to play a role on the stage of history. Through him, a nation feels like receiving a call from destiny. If power acquires then legitimacy, it is no longer due to habits and custom, or to the normal functioning of institutions, but it is for some psychological reasons, because it is perceived as symbolic through the figure of a charismatic leader. It is undeniable that this form of power has always existed. At all times, charismatic leaders such as Caesar, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao Tse Toug, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and even De Gaulle, have in common an incontestable charisma.

First and foremost a politician is muscled by the strength of his character. An elector often votes for the man more than for his ideas. If the charisma is the important psychological factor for the legitimisation of power, one can ask however to what extent such an assumption can support itself. The fact that many voters vote more for a person than for his ideas is totally absurd. In practice, charisma is irrational. Power excessively personalised may be abusive, precisely because it is customised, while in reality it only achieves an impersonal function of the State.


Legal authority is based on a legitimisation of power resulting from the authority of the laws. It is the only factor of legitimisation that can be accepted in a rational manner. Power in the modern sense of our democracies, is regulated by a process of recognition provided by our institutions. It is the only one that corresponds to the democratic State and its ideals, where the citizen can rationally accept a power which he himself has delegated. The citizen rationally submits himself to laws that he considers right and valid for all. The legality is based on established rules that have been discussed and agreed upon.

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It implicitly assumes a social contract that everyone is able to recognize. Habits and custom are not justified, they simply repeat themselves, charisma imposes a personal will, but it only contains dominance which is also a constraint, while laws are discussed, reasoned and voted. It does not compel the citizen; it binds it, which is different, the approach is not coercive. Since the State has to neutralize violence, it can only do it rationally by using the authority of the laws. If the State exerts some kind of violence, it will have to justify in the name of the respect of the laws. The citizen can recognize the authority of the law and as a result, the use of force on behalf of the law. Max Weber admits that the State has the monopoly of legitimate violence.

The political power that is at the base of the modern State is the power of the rule of law; its legitimisation comes from the collective consent of accepted laws. This means that the governing body when performing its leading duties is not the possessor but only the trustee of the laws. Rousseau said that politics are a Minister of the people. This distinction cannot be marked in the legitimisation of the habits and custom and charisma, where, on the other hand, the sovereign is felt as the owner of the power. In addition, founded on a legal basis, a sovereign cannot use power to accommodate freely his personal wishes.

However the existence of the traditional power and charisma shows us that we would be wrong to have an idea too rational of power. Political power is not a power, whose springs are fully rational nor is economical power. Legality is in principle a formal way that covers in reality the collective consciousness of a nation. What we can say is that the exercise of the power in our democracies is in the hands of institutions that are independent from the will, passions and interests of those who govern. Therefore, ideally, political power is in fact the expression of the general will of a nation. This power is legitimised by the authority of the establishment of rules and laws that have been voted by universal suffrage.

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