Of Coups And The Constitution
Glenn Harlan Reynolds
University of Tennessee College of Law
June 29, 2016
Military coups d’etat are a relatively common means of government turnover in many countries, but not in the United States. This paper looks at a number of factors in the United States’ Constitution and political culture that make military coups less likely, as well as at some changes in both that may reduce the degree of protection. It also offers some suggestions on how to ensure that Americas coup-resistance remains strong.
Of Coups And The Constitution – Introduction
Military coups are, for the most part, outside the American political tradition. Talk of military coups, however, tends to surface at times when politics are divided and the nation is under stress. Such talk has resurfaced during the recent election season, and a YouGov poll of Americans even found that support for a military coup, while not actually strong, was perhaps stronger than many might hope.
But although the prospect of such a change has inspired such thrillers as Seven Days In May and The Last Caesar, the actual risk of such a change has always been comparatively small. This is because a number of characteristics in the American constitutional framework, and in American political culture and traditions, make such an eventuality more difficult than it might otherwise be.
“More difficult” is not the same as “impossible,” however, and the absence of any military coup at the federal level,4 or even a significant threat of one, over the nation’s more-than-two-century lifetime does not mean that such a thing could never happen. In this Essay, I will briefly discuss the subject of military coups in general, review the features of the American polity that make them less likely here, and then suggest some danger spots to be avoided in the future, as well as some steps that might help to ward off trouble.
Coups d’Etat, A Short Guide
A coup d’etat, according to Edward Luttwak’s influential treatise, consists of “the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.”5 Or, in another formulation, “A coup d’etat, then, is simply a means of seizing power quickly and effectively within an existing framework so that, once established, one can either operate within that framework or start slowly to alter it. As such, the coup d’etat is favoured equally by the forces of both right and left.”
This is distinct from civil war, in which large segments of society are mobilized against one another. In the classic coup d’etat the nation wakes up one morning to hear that the political leadership has been arrested or coopted, while the radio and television stations are under the control of the new regime. The civil servants go to work as usual, just following orders from a new batch of superiors. In the face of such a fait accompli, few are inclined to resist, particularly if, as is usually the case, the old regime wasn’t overly popular anyway.
The appeal of a coup is thus that it is comparatively inexpensive and bloodless, compared to a civil war:
Coups d’etat are the most effective device for regime change in modern history. But why should that be the case? What makes a coup a coup is the concept of political action by a small group using force of arms.
A coup is effective because it is fast and cheap compared to a civil war. Rather than seizing the entire nation, the plotters merely seize the levers of power. As Luttwak writes:
It can be conducted from the “outside” and it operates in that area outside the government but within the state, which is formed by the permanent and professional civil service, the armed forces and police. The aim is to detach the permanent employees of the state from the political leadership. . . . The apparatus of the state is therefore to some extent a “machine” which will normally behave in a fairly predictable and automatic matter. A coup operates by taking advantage of this machine-like behavior: during the coup because it uses parts of the state apparatus to seize the controlling levers; afterwards because the value of the “levers” depends on the fact that the state is a machine.
Or as Gregor Ferguson observes:
A coup d’etat is not a revolution, nor is it a guerrilla campaign, nor yet a simple mutiny in the armed forces. A revolution implies a mass uprising against a particular ruling class; the introduction of a new order, a catastrophic event in the nation’s history. While a coup d’etat may herald the start of a revolution, there is nothing ‘popular’ about it. It is (or should be) a swift, precise operation aimed at displacing the current rulers and replacing them with oneself or one’s own nominees. One reason why the coup d’etat is popular is because it is so quick: A revolutionary war could take a long time. . . . Besides, even a successful revolutionary war will inevitably alienate at least part of the population. . . and may result in serious long term damage to an economy upon which one soon may have to rely.
Given the appeal of seizing power quickly and comparatively easily through a relatively modest application of force, the real question isn’t why coups happen, but rather, why they don’t happen all the time: “Instead of asking why the military engage in politics, we ought surely to ask why they ever do otherwise. For at first sight the political advantages of the military vis-a-vis other and civilian groupings are overwhelming. The military possess vastly superior organization. And they possess arms.”
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