My Worst Opinion: Are Coups Really That Bad?

There is a contradiction between the subterranean and surface-level contours of my political philosophy. On the surface, I am deeply committed to the ethos of liberal democracy. Liberal in the sense of cosmopolitanism and an abstract belief that ‘free markets’ are both inescapable and can be channeled and regulated to offset their distortions and externalities. And democratic in my firm belief in free and fair elections, the need to frequently replace political leadership, developing and protecting institutions and a just rule of law, political pluralism, and an ever-widening scope of citizenship such that the public _believes_ their government, is “for the people, by the people, and of the people.” 

This does not mean I subscribe to ideas like the ‘End of History,’ as I am open to the idea that something better than liberal democracy might one day be discovered and seen in practice. I also know that the legacies of poverty, colonialism, and authoritarian rule mean that not every polity can be fully liberal democratic at any given moment – yet it should be an ideal to be strived for. I also question whether pre-Trump America was a liberal-democratic high water point, or whether the pre-Duterte Philippines qualifies even as a low water point.

But I am also a scholar of _systems_: civil society and donor networks, bureaucracies, and the sort of legal and ‘norm’ frameworks that form the foundations of systems (see: the US Constitution). I have read widely enough of history and comparative politics to know that there is no single legalistic governance framework that guarantees continuous progress towards democratization or, conversely, indefinitely protects against de-democratization trends. We must keep experimenting, examining, and comparing to find the right frameworks for the right polities at the right time.

Against this conscious and surface-level commitment to liberal democracy, I have a soft spot for military coups. Certainly not all of them. The type that brought Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein to power are unambiguously atrocious in both act and long-term harm to their societies. Nor do I think it healthy to have an attitude that endorses either a military separated from civilian control or an active role for any military in a polity’s politics. 

But sometimes they play a role, and sometimes the role seems to be a net positive. Sometimes governance systems are badly broken or exploited by authoritarians beyond recognition. Sometimes systems are insufficiently democratic for there to be any other means of changing a bad regime from within. Without good systems, there are no means for what I call a ‘soft reboot’: kick the bastards out with the vote, then let new actors hold elections and invent a more resilient system of governance.

I look at the recent Zimbabwe coup and have trouble imagining any other way to force Mugabe to exit stage. I would shed no tears if Muduro were to find himself under house arrest and the Venezuelan military playing a temporary role as a transition authority that restores a more democratic governance system after delivering much-needed macro-economic sanity to a growing crisis. And until I saw photos of an attack helicopter firing down into crowds of protesters, I was quite hoping the Turkish military would succeed in removing Erdogan. Would it have been so bad had the PLA turned their guns on Zhongnanhai rather than the students in Tiananmen in 1989?

There are also coups that I am more ambiguous about. Sometimes the problem is not the systems, but societies and political styles. I am hesitant to endorse the 2007 Thai coup that booted Thaksin from office. And yet there seemed no other way to mitigate the impunity and corruption of a tyrannous majority. But the coup didn’t solve the problem, and it festered until spilled out into the streets of Bangkok in what ominously looked like the first shots of a red/yellow civil war. 

Partisanship is a hell of drug, right?

The Thai example begs a question I have no easy answer to: can societies and politics be so fundamentally broken that a referee (e.g., the military) sometimes needs to step in and say “OK, no more ‘politics’ for a few years. Everyone go do other things, and we’ll come back and discuss this and elect a new government once tempers have cooled.” Perhaps. But the junta that made this decision is only ‘better’ than the political elite they kicked out in that the political violence has been paused. One sees in those generals the same taste for power that might become the thirst of Chavez or Gaddafi. 

There are also times when society is functioning as expected, but partisan actors exploit the system to protect themselves and allies by preventing or stalling the proper functioning of the system. I have in mind the EDSA II ‘Revolution,’ a very curious incident that might soon have implications for how the Trump Saga ends. Here we have a populist movie star elected President, Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada,’ who is beloved by the poor but within months of taking office scandalizes the urban middle class as credible allegations of rampant corruption surface. 

Condescending a complicated story, Erap allies in the Senate had single vote majority sufficient to derail impeachment hearings. Opposition members of the impeachment hearing resigned in protest as the Manila middle class began to gather at the EDSA Shrine. The shrine was a monument to narrative of the ‘People Power’ movement that ousted Marcos from power in 1987. Tens of thousands of people gathered to demand the removal of Erap, and within three days he was gone.
And yet both with EDSA I and what would become EDSA II, it is not entirely clear that ‘People Power’ was the cause rather than a symptom of deeper political dynamics. Both Marcos and Erap left office only when the Philippine military (AFP) switched sides and joined the opposition. It is notable that Erap neither resigned or was impeached; instead, the AFP reported for duty to Vice President Arroyo, and she was sworn into office while the Estrada was still legally President. And so we have a coup, almost invisible, with no tanks in the streets and the military actively encouraging the ‘People Power’ narrative. The Supreme Court would later endorse this assessment on dubious legal grounds. Erap’s supporters seemed to be the only ones giving voice to the fact that a coup d’etat had taken place; their democratically elected President merely sidelined by the ruling elite only because they shout their demand for it.

Ignoring the corruption that defined the Arroyo regime that replaced Erap, it is worthwhile to ask whether or not this coup was a good thing. Is it OK to illegally ‘cheat’ to remove criminal cheater from office? Must an entire polity accept partisan-motivated impunity as legitimate? What would have been the appropriate response to Watergate if, after the tapes came out, a handful of Republicans prevented an impeachment vote from reaching the floors of Congress?

 These are not abstract questions for me. It is not inconceivable that Mueller brings to Congress irrefutable evidence of a criminal conspiracy, with President Trump at the center, to coordinate with Russian hackers in exchange for sanctions relief. Nor do I have optimism that Republican members of Congress would act on this information to hold their President to account. It is even more foolish to assume a ‘Democratic Wave’ in 2018 will render this problem mute. 

A candid appraisal of current events, actors, and trajectories makes an EDSA II-like legitimacy crisis look like a distinct possibility. I would expect a social movement to emerge roughly at the same scale as the Women’s March – but far angrier – to show up in Washington and cities around America demanding Trump’s ouster. Would we see the kind of political violence witnessed in Bangkok a few years ago at this juncture? If so, is there any person or institution that could restore order and ‘make right’ the unfolding governance failure? 

How many Americans would truly be upset if, say, Jim Mattis declared a ‘break’ from politics for a year or two? Perhaps more noble politicians will run for office during the next election – in 2020. And if there were no violence but instead total policy gridlock with an illegitimate President still sitting in the White House, would Resistors cheer if Mattis told Trump he answered to Pence now – who, by the way, will be sworn into office tomorrow at noon. With or without your resignation.

In either case, we would be looking at a military coup in the United States. It might be led by heavy-handed autocrats or a reformist junta deeply committed to civil, political, and human rights. They might hold elections soon or they might not. Any coup is a throw of the dice, leaving the outcomes to the gods of chance. It is the most desperate tactic to preserve liberal democracy through a ‘hard reboot’ with infinite possible outcomes on the other side; some possible outcomes across that rubicon are good, but the distribution surely leans heavily towards bad outcomes. It is a political genie almost always best left in the bottle.

Almost, but not always. Sometimes the question is whether the most likely bad ‘hard reboot’ outcomes are better or worse than the current reality and a seemingly inevitable trajectory.

Perhaps the resolution to the contradiction at the top of this essay is that there surely must be space in the ideaspace-framework we call ‘liberal democracy’ that demands martial protection of liberal democracy itself. Might the same martial overtone of documents like the Declaration of Independence by repurposed into a martial Declaration Against Democratic Deconsolidation, or a Declaration of Democratic Progress? Might we appropriate the far-right Second Amendment ideology that presumes the need for latent revolutionary violence through the hands of individual gun owners and place that responsibility instead with that most armed of American government institutions?

Partisan criminal impunity, creeping authoritarianism, and political violence are cancers of the democratic body politic. Massive opposition social movements to these cancers are a hand in search of a scalpel. Sometimes members of the political elite rise to the occasion and use the tools of the system itself when the people’s hands rise up. But sometimes they don’t. And here we must interrogate the core concepts of civilian control of the military. In the kinds of scenarios I have described, civilian control over the military translates to the military protecting illegitimate, criminal, and self-dealing regimes debasing and defrauding the polity as a whole. Where is the higher calling to ‘protect and defend the Constitution’ when it is being perverted and abused? Might we say that the AFP was protecting and serving the spirit of the Philippine democracy born in 1987 by ignoring the Constitution that established it?

I will leave the reader with two thought experiments:

1) Consider an alternate history wherein sometime in the 1840’s or 1850’s a cabal of generals and political leaders gathered and gamed out all the likely scenarios of how the slavery debate would conclude. In these scenarios, they all saw that a bloody and protracted civil war was by far most likely outcome. Not yet, but soon. Moreover, this future conflict was almost assured unless the forces of slavery were decisively defeated. It was, as we now know, an irreconcilable debate and compromises were fast reaching diminishing marginal returns. With this knowledge, would they be right – if not compelled – to seize both federal and state governments and enforce the emancipation of slaves by force of arms before the Confederacy could be formed and prepare to fight back? Would this unconstitutional usurpation of power be preferable to fighting the Civil War in our historical timeline?

2) Now consider the hypothetical year 2024 on Earth 2. Fredo Trump is entering office, having lost the popular by ten million but landing a two or three vote victory in the Electoral College. The “D wave” never comes, in no small part because of extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, and purges of voter lists that have been upheld by what is now a 6-2 ‘Originalist’ Supreme Court that would make Scalia blush. The largest Republican caucus is self-identified white nationalist and are pushing hard for a ‘real’ Muslim ban and using the Army to speed up mass deportation of all them ‘Illegals.’ They’re a few votes shy of making it an imprisonable offense not to report a suspected ‘Illegal,’ even if they’re family.

Mueller was fired long ago, and his notes and draft reports were classified Top Secret. Several journalists and whistleblowers have gone to jail for leaking fragments. Fox News plays in malls and public squares almost 24/7, and the FCC ruling that revoked CNN’s broadcast license on an obscure technicality has had a noticeable chilling effect. The Mercer’s bought the Washington Post from Jeff Bezos at half the market value in what everyone knows was a quid pro quo to get Attorney General Giuliani to drop Trump’s anti-trust case against Amazon. They’ve installed Steve Bannon as editor. 

You are a moderate Democratic governor in a Red State. DNC pollsters all say that the ‘base’ – now cut by about a third because of voter suppression – feels so defeated that they now show up on election day two-thirds Clinton’s 2016 turnout. The triumphalism of the 2018 Mirage Wave Election was as disorienting and humiliating as the 2016 general election. Democrats might win the Presidency, but it will be a decade or two before Democrats ever win another majority in either the House or the Senate. Even if all the stars line up in the late 2030s, there likely be -at most – a two year window with Dems in control of the White House and Congress, and SCOTUS will throw out half of your legislation.

In a very secret meeting, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff informs you that the top Army and Navy brass have decided you would be the best candidate to lead what they’ve already named the Transitional Authority. You will also lead the first Congress Convention since 1798, and your primary task will be amending the Constitution in a way that prevents future partisan gridlock and authoritarian creep. If you fail to ratify a new Constitution, they’ll write and impose their own New Constitution (which has already been drafted as a precaution). They will be forcibly disarming right-wing militias while you work.

The recent election would be nullified, elections will held at a time of your choosing, and SCOTUS will be replaced by a temporary military tribunal until a new Congress – the first ever elected by the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ will fill the New Supreme Court. The Chairman also informs you that they have made a list of the most polarizing figures in American politics who will be banned from holding any office for ten years, and the most prominent proponents of the disastrous Three Day War with North Korea will be banned for life. The Trump Family will be and relocated to a comfortable Mar-a-Lago By The Wall resort built just for them in Gitmo. Kushner even helped design the compound.

You are also informed that public assembly will only be tolerated during this transition period if they do not disturb ‘public order’ or advocate overthrowing the Transitional Authority. While not insisting on the point, all of the generals would like to see a five-year ban on organized political parties sponsoring, endorsing, or financing elected officials. Do you accept their offer? If you decline, they will go forward with their plan but substitute your role with a Transitional Joint Junta that equally represents each branch. They prefer a civilian, but they’re not too picky. They’re also talking to Clint Eastwood, but he seems a little too interested in the job.

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