Like most mornings, I woke up Wednesday morning to the usual political news sites and newsletters: Politico Playbook, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Most of the day's news concerned Tuesday's runoff election in Georgia, in which the Democrats appeared to have control of the Senate. Other articles discussed the ongoing pandemic and the future of commuting in the post-pandemic world.
One article caught my eye: an article in the Washington Post by David Nakamura about whether the protests and petitions against the electoral college vote resulted in an attempted coup. The piece quoted several liberal commentators and historians as saying that this was obviously the case, but the thesis was that what we saw starting Tuesday "did not yet meet the formal academic definition of a coup attempt".
Some of the experts cited in the article pressed for calm, even suggesting that being alarming about the signs that protesters were trying to cause serious riot might fulfill itself. I filed this and one other incident and went to the daily routine testing and interpreting theories about politics. I looked forward to spending the day typing code in the Stata and R data analysis tools, checking in occasionally to make sure the ballot counting is automatic, if a little more dramatic, as expected.
As I write this a few hours later, rioters instigated by President Donald Trump have stormed the Capitol. Both the House and Senate have suspended their count because of security threats. Shots were reportedly fired. A photo of a rioter occupying the speaker's chair of the house shows that the Capitol is essentially occupied. C-SPAN reports that senior members of the legislative leadership are being held in an “unknown location”. Reporters refuse to reveal their locations on the grounds that doing so could endanger their safety. The National Guard was deployed.
This is currently undeniable. The United States is witnessing a coup attempt – a vigorous effort to seize power against the legal framework. The President caused the interruption of the process that would confirm his impeachment. The mechanisms of constitutional government have been suspended. Americans run the risk of losing constitutional government to an extent unmatched even during the Civil War. During this period, the secession has not postponed the holding of elections or the transfer of power between presidents.
In other words, the moment we are facing as Americans is more precisely comparable to the August 1991 coup attempt to remove President Mikhail Gorbachev from the head of the Soviet Union, or to the armed conflict between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the 1993 Russian legislature.
But up until that point, a chorus of voices told us not to worry.
The past few years have been a booming industry for political scientists working on topics such as coups and democratic erosion, including some of the experts cited in the post. As the United States stepped into seemingly unknown democratic waters, journalists and readers alike decided that standard horse racing journalism was not up to the job of interpreting politics.
However, as tensions increased, there was a deep gulf between those who believed that the institutions would save us in the end – that the democratic traditions of the United States would be preserved – and those who knew we might face a time end in a stalemate of this magnitude.
So what went wrong?
At times there was an admirable devotion to scientific integrity – that we as scholars had rules about what constituted a coup. For example, the code book of the Coup for Systemic Peace (CSP) states: “Social revolutions, victories of oppositional forces in civil wars and popular uprisings, although they can lead to significant changes in central authority, are not considered coups. “And nothing like that had actually happened until Wednesday.
However, the events on Wednesday are (so far) an attempted coup. The CSP code book defines a coup as "the forcible seizure of executive power and office by a dissident / opposition faction within the country's ruling or political elite that leads to a substantial change in the executive leadership and policies of the previous regime (though not necessarily) in the type of authority of the regime or the type of governance). “Well, we are seeing this right now as Trump and his loyalists have consistently sought to thwart the legal casting, counting and confirmation of votes, including through the bizarre attempt to subjugate Vice President Mike Pence in the election of the next president. It can be difficult to pinpoint intent with mobs and their instigators, but the organizers of the pro-Trump movements on online forums have been consistent and clear in their desire to reverse the election results and keep Trump in power, as has Trump even in his tweets.
(And no, you don't have to be militarily involved to get a coup – although the latest statement from all ten living former Defense Ministers warning the military to stay in its barracks and support the civilian government suggests it does there may be reasons to be concerned about it.)
Most of the time, the optimists' reluctance to see what is in front of their faces has less to do with scientific integrity than with desire cast – making predictions because you want them to be true, not because the evidence supports it. For US political scientists, coups and paramilitary political forces are axiomatic. Her study fits into the mainstream of comparative politics that studies foreigners rather than U.S. politics (with the exception of the small tribe of U.S. political development specialists who are aware of the history of violence in the country's political history). Until Wednesday, Americanists were modeling election results, not whether their results mattered – those questions mattered to others.
The United States is entering a dangerous phase. The month-long transition that those who know how fragile US democracy classified as dangerous months ago still have weeks to go. The president remains in power. If President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, it will likely have to take place in a safer place than the once sacrosanct steps of the Capitol.
As paranoid as I was about the likelihood of serious problems, even I succumbed. Wednesday morning after reading the Post article, I was walking my dog in my DC neighborhood (and yes, I will use the privilege of not revealing my location). We passed a hotel where there were a few outside strikers without masks. One of them complimented my dog for being beautiful. I thanked them. It was another fine morning in America.
With their Trump hats on, they made their way to the Capitol.