In this long but interesting piece, the author, a former General Secretary of the Campaign for Democracy, (CD) in Nigeria in the 1990s and a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University, (LASU), also in Nigeria defends the title of the text. It is as provocative as they come and it would not be surprising if it attracts a rejoinder.
By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
Sometime in 2003 at Highfield Court, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, United Kingdom, the spate of coup d’état in Africa popped up in our informal conversation at our communal kitchen between me and my apartment mate, Frank Krifka. Somewhere in our conversation, I told him that a coup could happen in America. An expensive joke you might say. He was firm on the point that it would never happen. But January 6, 2020, happened, and my mate could recall that conversation. The idea that a coup could happen in America is orphaned. It is not something that features in debates among political scientists, not even with our obsession to extol the claim to value of liberal democracy. On the margins, and perhaps a hindsight reflection of sorts, some of my interlocutors have suggested that the assassination of sitting presidents in the United States, namely, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, was a form of coup d’état. It is not my intention to pursue that line of argument here. In passing, I can state that a coup is not the business of a lone ranger without accomplices and fundamental change to the norms and policy direction of the state, in other words, a regime change.
Another interlocutor prodded me in a different direction: Is it possible for a coup to happen in a society with huge reservists and a liberal gun policy without a backlash? The Burkinabe experience easily defeats this line of argument given the fact that Thomas Sankara had armed the populace to defend the revolution; it did not stop the bloody business of October 15, 1987, by Blaise Compaore. Viewed differently, their participation with the goal of a regime change could qualify such a dynamic as a coup. In what follows, I offer a somewhat Manichean viewpoint on the coup question in the US.
A coup is a commonplace event in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and investigations and analyses of them have spawned several books and made many professors in the academia in the US. In Africa, there has been a resurgence of coups in the last three years with corresponding denunciations and sanctions on the affected countries. However, the November 14, 2017 coup against President Robert Mugabe illustrates the finesse of coup-making. The Commander-in-Chief was being relieved of his power, yet he was being given respect due to a C-in-C. Ostensibly, criminals around Mr. President were being rooted out. Elsewhere in Latin America, it would be justified by the National Security Doctrine (NSD), a baby of the US, which according to the Colombian Scholar, Miguel Angel Herrera Zgaib, substitutes the law with force as means of control of the population and national defence as a recipe for public order.
The resolution of political conflicts or transition strictures through a coup d’état may happen in America. The invasion of Capitol Hill by the Trump mob indicates a future path. The January 6 event has been variously described as an “attempted coup”. As Rebecca Solnit, a Guardian US columnist has rightly noted, “On Wednesday (January 6), a coup attempt was led by the president of the United States. A rightwing mob attempted the coup in the form of a violent riot that stormed the Capitol building. They disrupted the proceedings that would have completed the recognition of the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Those proceedings had been disrupted earlier by elected officials bringing forth bad-faith claims that the election was not legitimate and should instead produce a continuation of Trump’s presidency. This too was a coup attempt, an effort to violate the constitution and override the will of the voters in this election.” The nature of the attempted coup is further corroborated by Mr. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader of the US Senate, who in a January 6 anniversary speech in the Senate observed that: “But 1 year ago today, on January 6, 2021, mob violence descended upon this Chamber and upon this Capitol. Thousands of rioters, possessed by equal measures of rage, conspiracy, and spurred into action by the sitting President of the United States, attacked the U.S. Capitol in an armed, violent, and deadly effort to halt the peaceful transfer of power.”
In the wake of the invasion of the Capitol Hill, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff comprising Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley; Vice-Chairman Air Force Gen. John Hyten; Army Chief of Staff James McConville; Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown; Space Force Chief of Operations Gen. John Raymond; and National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson. In the statement, they demonstrably sided the path of Constitutionalism. Indeed, they stated inter alia that: “As service members, we must embody the values and ideals of the nation…We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.” Robert Burns noted that “the memo was unusual in that the military leadership, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, felt compelled to remind service members that it is wrong to disrupt the constitutional process.”
The beaten track of coup is a familiar one in the developing world, and in America, it could have taken on the form of the wording of the memo by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If you reverse the logic of the memo, we will have a coup in the making. This may sound counterintuitive. No, it is commonsensical. The rationale will be to maintain the constitutional order and restore normalcy. The same commitment and consensus will sustain an intervention. This time the consensus will be ramifying to include the guys in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). You hear rhetoric such that was ascribed to General Mark Milley by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in I Alone Can Fix This that: “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with guns.” This capacity of the men on the horseback is the motive force of coup-making.
Beyond the above scenario casting, there are sundry reasons why a coup can happen in America. They centre on inequality, racial tension, increasing loss of faith in the democratic state, and the rally of the foundational principle of the American state.
Andre Beiteille, the editor of Social Inequality, has rightly noted in an abstract to Part One of the 1969 Volume that: “Inequality is not merely a matter of individual abilities and aptitudes; it is above all a social fact. The opportunities an individual has and even his ability are in part governed by his position in society.” It perhaps will be more apt to say of a capitalist society like America that inequality is shaped by production relations, the ultimate decider of class. Precisely in a capitalist social formation, it is dichotomised between the owner of the means of production and the working class. The development of capitalism in America is through the sweat and blood of the enslaved Africans and other subaltern classes who still bear the scar of that historic dehumanisation and subjugation.
Today, however, advanced productive forces have now spawned what may be called a generalised immiserised working class working to pay bills and eke a bare existence. A 2019 report by Lawrence Mishel and Julia Wolfe published by the Washington-Based Economic Policy Institute offered a great deal of insight into the state of inequality in the American economy. The summary of the reports noted that: “The increased focus on growing inequality has led to an increased focus on CEO pay. Corporate boards running America’s largest public firms are giving top executives outsize compensation packages. Average pay of CEOs at the top 350 firms in 2018 was $17.2 million—or $14.0 million using a more conservative measure. (Stock options make up a big part of CEO pay packages, and the conservative measure values the options when granted, versus when cashed in, or “realized.”) CEO compensation is very high relative to typical worker compensation (by a ratio of 278-to-1 or 221-to-1). In contrast, the CEO-to-typical-worker compensation ratio (options realized) was 20-to-1 in 1965 and 58-to-1 in 1989. CEOs are even making a lot more—about five times as much—as other earners in the top 0.1%. From 1978 to 2018, CEO compensation grew by 1,007.5% (940.3% under the options-realized measure), far outstripping S&P stock market growth (706.7%) and the wage growth of very high earners (339.2%). In contrast, wages for the typical worker grew by just 11.9%.”
Similarly, a 2020 Pew Research Centre report by Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, and Rakesh Kochhar also stressed the point that “The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019. This downsizing has proceeded slowly but surely since 1971, with each decade thereafter typically ending with a smaller share of adults living in middle-income households than at the beginning of the decade.”
The above figures complement the reality of wealth breach that shows that the wealthiest 10% of Americans own more than 50% of the nation’s household income for several decades on. Radical politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren did make this unjust economic system the butt of their campaign in the run-up to the last general elections in the US. Their views were subsequently reinforced even after the elections. In an opinion in The London based The Guardian Sanders noted that: “Today, half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, 500,000 of the very poorest among us are homeless, millions are worried about evictions, 92 million are uninsured or underinsured, and families all across the country are worried about how they are going to feed their kids. Today, an entire generation of young people carry an outrageous level of student debt and face the reality that their standard of living will be lower than their parents’. And, most obscenely, low-income Americans now have a life expectancy that is about 15 years lower than the wealthy. Poverty in America has become a death sentence.” For Sanders, it has to be fixed for the progress of American democracy. In his words: “The United States cannot prosper and remain a vigorous democracy when so few have so much and so many have so little. While many of my congressional colleagues choose to ignore it, the issue of income and wealth inequality is one of the great moral, economic and political crises that we face – and it must be dealt with.”
Warren takes inequality as given. Her solution lies in pre-distribution that differs from redistribution but entails regulatory reforms that cover labour regulation, financial regulation in ways that ensure justice in returns, and antitrust. Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act that togs at roots of inequality in wealth and power in America is a statement of commitment.
President Dwight Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address to Americans prayed that “ peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.” The logic of the capitalist system, that is, profit maximization, has undermined Eisenhower’s pious intent on equality.
The race question is a sociological reality of American society. The theoretical reification of racism, as well as the difference between race and racism, is not my present pre-occupation. I merely acknowledge here its social discontent. Systemic racism rules American society. Racism which Richard J. Perry defined as “…the grouping of people on the basis of physical appearance for the purpose of social discrimination” is a social reality in the USA being a social construct sired by specific historical occurrences. As John Rex has noted in his entry in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, “In the United States the descendants of slaves have had to compete with free immigrants workers in a newly created capitalist metropolis and have had to struggle for a place within a political order based upon those free immigrant workers.” The social consequences are what we see in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and the resistance Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. It is what we see in the inequality among different groups and classes in America. It is the reason for the serial murder of blacks by the American police without any qualm of conscience and the activities of those that Schumer qualified as “…nasty, racist bigoted insurrectionists” who yelled, “There’s the big Jew. Let’s get him.”
Perry has noted in the preface to his 2007 book, “Race” and Racism being referenced here that, “Even casual attention to the mass media in the United States is enough to demonstrate that ‘race’ remains a compelling issue in the public domain. In the late 1990s, President Clinton called for a ‘national dialogue on race.’ The lengthy series of discussions that ensued satisfied very few.” Rex is right in his observation to the effect that “…the exploitation of clearly marked groups in a variety of different ways is integral to capitalism and that ethnic groups unite and act together because they have been subjected to distinct and differentiated types of exploitation.” While there is a noticeable effort by liberal and progressive American elite to stamp out what is now systemic racism, it is so concrete a matter that if not properly handled can lead to implosion warranting the intervention of the men on the horseback, and in the worst-case scenario, a civil war. The need to prevent the latter could equally be a trigger.
Discernable from the public sphere in the US is a decline in the trust in government. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has stated that: “Trust is the foundation for the legitimacy of public institutions and a functioning democratic system. It is crucial for maintaining political participation and social cohesion.” The absence of trust in government or public institutions amounts to the de-legitimation of the state. In the US this has not been forward-looking.
In “A quarter-century of declining confidence” published in the Journal of Democracy of April 2000, Susan J. Pharr, Robert D. Putnam, and Russell J. Dalton referencing Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider remarked about the US to the extent that “three quarters of the American public once trusted the government to do what is right, only 39 percent felt this way in 1998 in 1964, only 29 percent of the American electorate agreed that “is pretty much run by a few big interest looking out for themselves. By 1984, the figure has risen to 55 percent, and by 1998, fully[sic] 63 percent of voters concurred in the 1960s, two-thirds of Americans rejected the statement ‘most elected officials don’t care what people like me think’; in 1998, nearly two-thirds of Americans agreed with it. This negative assessment applies to virtually all parts of government. Those people expressing ‘a great deal’ of confidence in the executive branch fell from 42 percent in 1966 to only 12 percent in 1997, and equivalent trust in Congress fell from 42 in 1996 to 11 percent in 1997.”
The Pew Research Centre has also noted that the National Election Study started asking questions about trust in government way back in 1958 when about three-quarters of Americans had faith in government doing the right thing. The trust began plummeting in the 1960s in an up-and-down swing sometimes tainted by partisan inclinations. As the Centre noted, “Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30%.” The division caused by the 2019 elections by calling into question the integrity of the American electoral process has landed the country in the obverse of David Runciman’s “confidence trap”, namely, disillusion trap. At present, the confidence-building presidential debate is being threatened by a possible pull-out by the Republican Party in future processes. The Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Ronna McDaniel accused the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), “stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor…the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity (to debate) elsewhere.” Today, the view is weightily pessimistic.
Whatever the logic offered in rationalization or vitiation of the January 6, 2021 coup attempt, the fact remains that it peels off the bark of state legitimacy. The ‘big lie’ which engendered the coup attempt underlies a confidence gap in the American democratic process that should not be covered by rhetoric. As noted by Heritage Foundation, cases of voter fraud are historical in America and local elections have been reversed due to fraud in New Jersey, Indiana among others. Mr. Schumer acknowledged the deficit in confidence in the electoral process in his anniversary speech in the Senate by indicating a way forward through effective legislation. As he put it: “It means we must pass legislation, effective legislation, to defend our democracy, to protect the right to vote. We must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act so that our country’s destiny is determined by the voice of the people and not by the violent whims of lies and even mob rule. We must also guard against the false hopes of solutions that don’t deal with the problem, that try to cover it up or push it away because people don’t want to deal with it”. This, itself, is a coup trap.
The philosophical foundation of the US is a very important factor never to be ignored. Inspired by John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is a call to arms whenever citizens become subjects of low intensity, apologies to Guillermo O’Donnell. The philosophy inheres in America’s declaration of independence. For this argument, it bears repeating. In Congress, July 4, 1776, the thirteen United States of America unanimously declared that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The above is an affirmation of the Rousseauan and Lockean postulations on the indomitability of the liberty of man and the latter as the repository of popular sovereignty. It is indeed constitutional if the removal of government provides “new Guards for their future security.” In the remaining part of this brief essay, I advance reasons against a coup ever happening in America. There are many mitigating factors, namely, illusions of social policy, soft power, nature of civil-military relations, and operationalisation of the rule of law. I shall address these points seriatim.
The first mitigating factor against a coup happening in the US is social policy. Social policy is a desideratum in any given human community. It is important for social cohesion, and indeed it is part of the ‘reason of state’ and ensures the continuance of the state. Indeed of all causes of rebellion, intoned Francis Bacon, the rebellion of the stomach is the worst. A Nigerian politician, Ayo Fayose, qualifies this dynamic as “stomach infrastructure”. So every responsible state strives to cushion the well-being of its citizens. While the welfare states of the Nordic make it a justiciable directive principle of the state, the capitalist state of America despite a lingering wish that every citizen should be able to cater and fend for him/herself; it has had to intervene to provide welfare for its citizens. It is inevitable to the health of the state in a class society. The state must save itself. Its provenance lies in the protection of lives and property. Sometimes it does this in a way that passes the bulk to the citizens themselves. Take for example the students loan which many would have to pay through their lifetime. We saw the COVID-19 inspired stimulus packages that put a smile on the face of Americans. Amidst the ravages of coronavirus and unemployment surge, President Donald Trump signed into law a stimulus package of about $2 trillion in March of 2020. It sought to deliver $1,200 to every American earning less than $75,000 per year and $500 per child. Following his ascent to power, President Biden signed The American Rescue Plan (ARP), an economic recovery plan that provides additional financial relief to eligible persons and entities, into law to ameliorate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the US economy. Within the framework, and in six months, the Treasury Department responsible for managing the over $1 trillion ARP fund disbursed about $450 billion “directly to families, helping them put food on the table, care for their children, and stay in their homes” (see U.S. Department of the Treasury American Rescue Plan: Treasury’s Progress And Impact After Six Months, September 2021 for details). Much earlier, President Obama expanded and extended emergency unemployment benefits significantly to the benefit of a total of 21million Americans. Equally, it expanded access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps that saw over 500,000 households saved from food insecurity. Efforts are made to create more jobs for Americans, a means by which some governments sometimes measure their performance. The point is that welfare provisioning in America provides the illusion of a working and caring society, thereby legitimising the state.
The second is soft power. In his 1990 book, Bound to Lead, Joseph Nye coined the word ‘soft power’ that challenged the then conventional view of the decline of American power. For Nye, power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes you want. But soft power is more about getting others to want the outcomes you want not through coercion but by cooptation. Importantly, Soft power rests on three assets, namely, culture and immanent essentiality to attract others; faithful and exemplary political values and foreign policies that exude legitimacy and moral authority (see his 2011 book, The Future of Power). The cultural element has enormous potential for polity stabilisation. When Americans watch the super bowl, feelings of alienation are temporally suspended. The wrestling championship contests produce the same effect. Musical concerts with global appeal—“Jazz under the Sun” and the August 2021 New York City post-covid lockdown concert create a huge nationalist passion for being an American.
The third is the nature of civil-military relations. As I have noted in my preface to Col Gabriel Ajayi’s book titled, End of the Road: The Travails of an Infantry General (2010), “Civil-military relations refer to those patterns of relations between the military and the civil society. It involves perception as well as physical interactions between the uniformed men and women and the civil society in the transformation of society”. Civil society is conceived here in Fergusonian terms, meaning the society as a whole. The military itself is grounded in social relations of production and is of the society. Scholarly and heuristically, it makes sense to attempt a bifurcation between subjective and objective civilian control of the military. The subjective captures the institutional wedlock of the military and the society in ways that undermine professionalism while the objective allows the military a separate sphere to manage violence and defend the society as a whole. So in Huntingtonian terms, the professional soldier does only protect society, professional pre-occupation becomes an inherent antidote to incursions into the realm of politics in a democracy.
In America, the military is somewhat part of the dominant class. By the logic of the military industrial complex (MIC) that is “the shared interests between the military, military industry, top-level government bureaucrats, and legislators and the influence they exercise on society as a whole (see Anna Stavrianakis notes in Militarism as Excessive Influence an entry in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences [Second Edition] in 2015). In this connexion, the military becomes the quintessential C. Wright Mills’ power elite. As Mills has rightly noted the economic, military, and political structures are intertwined. He further notes that: “At the pinnacle of each of the three enlarged and centralized domains, there have arisen those higher circles which make up the economic, the political, and the military elites. At the top of the economy, among the corporate rich, there are the chief executives; at the top of the political order, the members of the political directorate; at the top of the military establishment, the elite of soldier-statesmen clustered in and around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelon. As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, the leading men in each of the three domains of power—the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate—tend to come together, to form the power elite of America.” Thus it is the responsibility of the military to protect that class that rules America.
The history of the American Revolution evinces an intriguing vision. For example, it was Congress that set up the continental army under the command of Colonel Washington to defend the colonies against the British colonial army. And he Washington was responsible to the Congress despite strictures borne of tardiness placed on the way of the soldier in the prosecution of the revolutionary war (see Charles Kendal Adams, “Aspects of the Revolutionary War” in The American Revolution edited by Edmund Morgan, 1965). Another example is the Korean War. In the stalemate that ensured the Generals waited for the political class to indicate the way forward. This much was revealed in the interview Lieutenant-Colonel Melvin B. Voorhees had with General James Van Fleet. The former had sought from the general the goal of the war and the general’s response was quite revealing of the subordination of the US military to political authority. “‘Reporter: “General, what is our goal?” Van Fleet: “I don’t know. The answer must come from higher authority.” Reporter: “How may we know, General, when and if we achieve victory?” Van Fleet: “I don’t know, except that somebody higher up will have to tell us” (quoted in the Power Elite, 1956). In sum, the dynamics of civil-military relations in America are quite complex and protective of American society.
The fourth is the operationalisation of the rule of law. Generally speaking, the rule of law means equality before the law and that the Law is no respecter of anybody. According to Hilaire Barnett, “The rule of law insists that every person—irrespective of rank and status in society—be subject to the law”. Its operationalisation, therefore, prevents resort to self-help and guarantees the social order of the republic. Some would argue that law is nothing other than the means of control of the subalterns by the ruling class. However, despite the contradictions of the criminal justice system in America, the rule of law is in progress. The two impeachment processes concerning President Donald Trump affirmed the guts of the Congress and the abiding faith in the state-system of liberal democracy. Its salubrious effect is that it ensures the continuance of the republic. The hope of justice is legitimising for constituted authority.
Arundhati Roy, the award-winning novelist in his invited essay in the Economist, September 3, 2021, titled, “America’s fiery, brutal impotence,” scrutinised the internal dynamics of America and observed that: “The polarisation and schisms within the United States could in time lead to a serious breakdown of public order. We’ve already seen the early signs.” What I have done in the foregoing is to reflect on the January 6, 2020, event, in America and by extension on liberal democracy. I have pointed out the potential for a coup d’état that American society harbours. Poverty, racism, electoral fraud, its foundational principle to throw off an oppressive government, and the invocation of the national security doctrine to rein in law and order by the armed men or the guys with the gun are the very raw materials for a coup. But the American system also harbours some redeeming features in its social policy of occasional handouts to the impoverished, the illusions of soft power, and the dynamics of civil-military relations that inure the military from a direct take- over. They are perhaps the redeeming features but when things get to a point of no return, the inevitable—coup d’état—may happen. There is a compelling need for the improvement of American democracy to truly underline the people as the boss of democracy.