Preliminary considerations for revolutionary change

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What will happen to our country? Some people see a break-up coming, unimaginable as it might seem. Others would not find reasons to doubt stability of the current order. Yet others would would say the word order no longer applies, in that the framework that used to structure our legal relationships has collapsed. A fourth group, fatalistic or otherwise preoccupied, does not like to think about these things. Change does force itself on us, however, as the last few decades remind us.

Let me frame the question a little more specifically, then. What would happen to our country if we changed its government? That form of the question assumes, first, that country and government remain distinct, both conceptually, and in practical political conflicts. Second, it suggests we can productively propose a hypothetical question like that. These two conditions help us examine some possibilities. To frame the investigation, we can focus on relationship among politically active groups, non-political groups, and government agencies that exercise power.

Even as we try to anticipate what might happen, radical, disruptive conflicts crowd into the same political arena with incremental, evolutionary changes. This confluence of passions and goals makes prediction of political outcomes hard. If we cannot predict presidential elections, we certainly cannot predict processes of change more complicated than electoral results. Therefore we have to calculate chances of success as we go, as a navigator in an unfamiliar place picks the next landmark because no map exists.

We know our government has reached a point of sufficient moral weakness and disunity that critical change is likely. Government depleted its authority, dignity, good will, and trust some time ago. It acts out of fear. Its leadership is self-absorbed and touchy. Financially, it carries too much debt. It dissipates its energy in failing enterprises. Most telling, it cannot accomplish even what it sets out to accomplish, let alone what it ought to accomplish.

Generally, doubtful outcomes make us want to stay with familiar institutions. If we do not embark now, though, we will have to wait a long time for another chance. We will not be able to reestablish democratic forms of governance if we linger and wait for a better time, nor will we be able to protect democratic norms if we do not act resolutely to do so. Hayek’s well known book title warns us that our current path is a road to serfdom. If we turn back, we may still restore liberty under constitutional forms of government. If we continue our current progress, ghastly, invisible chains will hobble our dreams and our thoughts, and we will bear miseries no free people ought to suffer.

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Citizens in the United States who think seriously about revolutionary reform return to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson for guidance. Their insights about governmental authority guided our nation’s founding. Their philosophies of democratic politics guide our nation still. If we want to explain to ourselves why we need a revolution to replace our government, we’ll find reasons in their arguments about what justifies governmental authority and what dissolves it.

The first thing to keep in mind is that changing a government is not easy. It’s harder than changing a tire on your car, a task that looks hard but is actually not so difficult if you have the right tools. For a revolution, a lot of people have to want it to happen, and you have to make your own tools as you go. Most delicate is that governments don’t normally relinquish their power without a hard fight. They have a lot to lose. If the government did not have so much power to lose, it would not require replacement. So here are some cautions before you read further in this book.

First: don’t try to replace a government that most people think is legitimate. It makes people angry, even angrier than you are. Even if most people think the government is illegitimate, you know you’ll provoke power holders and others who benefit from the way things are. No government folds up its tent and moves on voluntarily. Any government willing to do that would be too good to replace.

Second: nihilists, radical anarchists, soldiers of fortune and others with a reputation for trigger happiness and destruction should stop here. Most people like to have a government. They do not like violence. They want security for their families. The object is to replace an illegitimate government without a war or other kinds of wanton violence. Governments founded by revolutionaries who rely on armed force have a thin claim to allegiance. Governments with a sound legal foundation have a more enduring claim, and therefore more opportunities to fulfill government’s proper roles.

Third: to alter or abolish your government is not to overthrow it. Change for the good is a process governed by reason. Overthrow suggests throwing over a sofa with people sitting in it. You have unhappy people with no place to sit. What you want is a new sofa that serves people’s needs, while you remove the old one in a truck. That process of replacement requires some planning. Change of any kind can be unsettling, so our preferences tend to gradual, incremental change. When change is required, we have a right to demand it. More than that: when government dissolves its authority, we must replace it. Our citizenship obliges us to act.

A preference for orderly change means we anticipate a familiar future. We want change to occur according to predictable processes. Unpredictable change causes confusion, and confusion only aids opportunists. If revolutionary change does come, it can happen in several ways – including violent ones. We should be ready. We should be ready to direct this explosion of energy toward constructive ends. If the explosion is only destructive, we’ll have missed an irretrievable chance to build better institutions that are young, resilient, responsive and durable.

With these thoughts in place, we’re ready to examine problems of revolutionary reform and organized, civil resistance to restore democratic self-government.

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Citizens who want to replace their government can elect new representatives and a new president. For a long time we assumed that electorally driven processes work, but we have discovered they do not. Government behaves the same way no matter who we elect. Rather, it gradually becomes more obnoxious, because people we elect are not the people who exercise power. In light of that, some people advocate extraordinary action to force removal of the permanent, unelected government. That implies a traditional revolution, often violent, seldom orderly. Few want to follow that course: it’s difficult, it is easily branded illegal, and it would not work in this country.

Another, more pragmatic path would use constitutional means to shift responsibility from institutions that function poorly to responsive institutions that function well, from institutions that degrade liberty to institutions that preserve it. This path of change would ensure that an irresponsible national government cannot operate with its former reach. The problem with this path is that change resistant institutions can resume their old ways after citizens go home. Another difficulty is that constitutional changes take a long time to take root – time that partisans of existing institutions can use to protect and strengthen the national government.

That brings us to a last option that complements evolutionary means outlined above: ignore national agencies and replace them with alternate, regionally based institutions of governance. Return governance to the vision of democracy in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where citizens almost universally participate in their local institutions. Strip power from Washington, which means don’t send money there. Problems with this vision are twofold: (1) tax reform, or more radically, tax revolts are hard to execute, and (2) ignoring Washington might lead to separate, autonomous regions. Some would favor a breakup of this sort; many others would not.

These essays consider problems and prospects associated with radical but evolutionary processes of political change. These processes may lead to constitutional conventions and civil resistance. Possibilities and plans outlined here are the most practicable means among those available. Lastly, these essays explain why incremental, non-violent methods, despite their difficulties, are superior to more forceful methods of correction.

Too often, when citizens like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning act to expose government wrongdoing, traditionalists and other opponents are too quick to call them traitors. Yet loyalty belongs to countries, not to governments. Governments are simply administrative tools that citizens use to manage their public affairs. In that way, citizens of a democratic republic are responsible for their governing institutions and the quality of their leadership. Only in a democratic republic do citizens have an obligation to protect themselves from corrupt rulers.

Yet no individual, acting alone, can undertake such an action. As a Marine who stands guard during the midnight watch cannot be responsible for illegal orders, mistreatment of prisoners, or other violations by their military leaders, busy citizens betrayed by their political leaders are not to blame when superintendents corrupt or undermine administrative structures, commit crimes, and generally destroy respect for democratic institutions. In that case, citizens can only resist. They must resist, and remember who betrayed whom. To rescue their country, citizens must alter their government, or replace it.