At the outset of the primary races for president in 2016, political analyst Scott Rasmussen makes an important distinction. Winning the presidency means winning power. Gaining legitimacy is a different matter altogether.
"American government — at all levels — is losing the legitimacy it needs to function," he wrote recently. "Or, perhaps, some segments of the government have already lost it."
New York Times columnist Charles Blow made the same point recently. He called for a "restoration — or a formation — of faith for all of America's citizens in the American justice system itself."
There are two big factors at work here. The first is the distrust minority communities have in the justice system. The second is the distrust others have in government itself.
"Regardless of the specifics involved in recent incidents from Ferguson to Baltimore, Blow is correct in his assertion that minority residents have little or no faith in the justice system," Rasmussen notes. "To be clear, the problem is not between minority communities and police; it's a lack of faith in the entire system of justice."
And likewise, "Tens of millions of Americans believe the IRS routinely abuses its authority to attack political opponents of the administration."
He points to other abuses, such as civil asset forfeitures and runaway regulatory agencies.
"Sometimes, the abuse of authority seems so absurd that you don't know whether to laugh or cry," he wrote. "Recent news stories told of a federal agency that decided the billboards and neon lights in Times Square are in violation of the Highway Beautification Act. The city must get rid of them or give up $90 million in federal funding."
The combined result of these abuses is a deep mistrust.
"People from all walks of life share the belief that the tools of official power are being used in an unfair and discriminatory manner," Rasmussen wrote. "The well-connected get to play by one set of rules with the aid of those in power, while the rest have to navigate a tougher road with government opposition. This lack of trust is a major problem for America's government."
"Faith in the system is the bedrock of the system," Blow contends. "Without it, the system is drained of its inviolable authority. This is the danger America now faces."
And here's where the primary races and the eventual general election come in. Candidates may well win power, while at the same time further eroding legitimacy.
That's not party-specific; both parties are fully capable of deepening voters' mistrust in government.
But Rasmussen's principle also applies to other government officials, both elected and unelected.
"For government in America to regain its legitimacy, government officials must change their behavior," he wrote. "People may gain power … but legitimate authority is something that has to be earned every day."
The first step is the most important — it's government officials recognizing the limits to their own authority.
"The legitimacy problem is not that Americans don't respect authority," he wrote. "It's that those with power don't respect its limits."