So You Want to Overthrow the Government

by Benjamin Studebaker

Are you tired of your democratic state? Maybe your preferred politician or political party cannot seem to win, or maybe you’re disgusted with all of the politicians and parties altogether. Maybe you no longer trust the electorate to make good and ethical decisions. Maybe you’re a sophiarchist. Whatever your reason, you have, for the purposes of this piece, decided to attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government. How do you do it?

The first thing to note is that overthrowing a democratically elected government is not like overthrowing a non-democratically elected government. With non-democracies, if you have enough people on your side, you can just all go on strike, protest, disrupt the economy, and make a whole pig’s breakfast of the thing in a few short weeks. Those Egyptians had it easy, and those Syrians would have it easy if there were not ethnic and religious motivators for large portions of the population to continue to support the government. By the very nature of what we are doing, opposing a democratic regime entails opposing a government that, at some point, some majority has issued support for. There aren’t likely to be enough people ready and willing to help you. If you want to bring down a democratic beast, it’s going to be harder and you’re going to have to be more creative than “hey guys, let’s all go out into the streets and raise hell”.

Of course, democratic governments have been overthrown in the past–though the results haven’t often been pretty. So before we even get to a workable plan, we need to throw a few other plans out:

  1. Military (Stratocratic) Coup
  2. Plutocratic Coup
  3. Terrorism/Direct Violence

Why can’t you do these things? The problem with military coups is that they produce juntas and extremely totalitarian regimes that aren’t likely to give you what you want either–consider the history of juntas and the fact that they tend to lead to dictatorships. Plutocratic coups (think A Very British Coup) involve a takeover by capitalists and business interests–the resulting government is likely to be a pawn of these interests to the detriment of the rest of society. As for terrorism and other forms of direct violence, in addition to killing people, these tactics tend only to cause populations to rally around their leaders and for opposition to become all the stronger (remember George W. Bush’s 90% approval rating after 9/11?).

So most of the typical elite-driven coups lead to bad government, and it’s tough to find enough support to directly bring down a regime that’s been elected. Where does this leave you? If you cannot directly destroy a government, the next move is to undermine its claims to political legitimacy. Non-democratic governments get their legitimacy from the results they produce. China’s government is considered legitimate by its people because it gets things done and improves their quality of life. If China’s government became very incompetent and consistently failed to perform to expectations, it would lose its legitimacy and face overthrow–that is, broadly speaking, what happened to the Soviet Union. Democratic regimes are different. They get their legitimacy from the fact that a majority has expressed support for their operations, independently of whether they are producing good outcomes are not. Their legitimacy is procedurally based. The government is legitimate because it is elected, not because if does anything good–often times, democratic governments are blatantly and obviously incompetent, but no one does anything about it because they were elected and we have been socialised to tolerate extraordinary incompetence from elected governments.

This legitimacy can, however, be undermined. A democratically elected government’s legitimacy relies on a majority electing it. This gives you a usable tool–not voting. One could point out that, if you’re trying to overthrow a democratically elected government, you’re probably in the minority, so isn’t not voting just another ineffective kind of voting, in a sense? How does one get enough people to not vote? This argument misses one important fact, however, which is that there is already a very large number of people who don’t vote. The Bipartisan Policy Centre estimates that 57.5% of eligible American voters actually voted in the 2012 election. This is no historical anomaly:

Using the recent 2012 election as an example, if only 57.5% of eligible voters voted, and Barack Obama won 50.8% of that vote, then Barack Obama only got the endorsement of  29.21% of eligible voters. Let’s remember also that many people are not eligible voters–children, adolescents, felons, lots of people do not get to vote at all, so the percentage of the population that has endorsed Obama is lower still. One might point out that the 42.5% or so of people who did not vote are not necessarily anti-democratic, and this is true. There are three primary reasons for not voting:

  1. Apathy–people who genuinely do not care about the result of elections.
  2. Efficacy–people who do not think their vote matters or will influence the election.
  3. Subversion–people who are genuinely trying to end the democratic system.

Presumably, you are, for the purposes of this piece, in the third group. That does not mean, however, that you cannot ally yourself to the people in the first two groups. After all, the existence of apathetic voters or voters who feel their votes make no difference is itself an indictment of the democratic system. Democracy has failed to convince 40% of the population that its votes make a different or that the outcome matters. It would be my guess that if that 40% were to rise to somewhere above 50%, a situation in which more than half the people who could vote felt it was not worth doing for some reason or other, the legitimacy of the democratic system would be deeply undermined, and serious calls might go out for its replacement, even though most of the people who did not vote are not expressly opposed to democracy. This means that someone opposed to democracy does not  need a very large number of active supporters to seriously undermine the system. The 1996 presidential election had a turnout very close to this problem zone, and I suspect the mid-term elections are only getting away with their low figures because the presidential figures remain comparatively high. All that is really needed is for a vocal minority, perhaps 10% of eligible voters, to decide to take serious issue with a democratic government and to deliberately refuse to vote. That would push turnout in presidential elections into the 40’s and mid-term turnout into the low thirties or high twenties. Who could honestly say that a president had a legitimate mandate if he won less than a quarter of eligible votes, or if senators elected at the mid-term won only a mere 15%?

A call would go up to try something new, and then we would have a real opportunity to discuss serious alternatives to democracy, and all of it would be earned non-violently through the very civilised act of simply not voting and encouraging others to refuse to do so as well.

Of course, there are some who would rob us of our right to peacefully subvert democracy in this way by making voting mandatory, as it is in a surprisingly large number of countries. This policy makes the democratic process an authoritarian one by coercing people into supporting and endorsing its legitimacy against their will. The proper response to compulsory voting for the opponent of democracy is still, however, not one of violence–it is one of widespread civil disobedience. There is perhaps an argument for not voting in such countries purely on the basis of preserving liberty even if one is a supporter of democracy as a system. One should deliberately break the law, inform the government that one is doing so, and refuse to pay fines or perform community services until one is imprisoned. The jails should be filled to bursting with advocates for the liberty to withhold endorsement until the government changes such unjust laws. Mandatory voting is no better than policies in authoritarian countries of forcing people to profess their love for the dictator, it is the coercive extraction of legitimacy from the population and has no place in a free society. It is the political equivalent of threatening one’s lover with violence in order to obtain affection. It is sickeningly unethical.

A small, concerted effort of like-minded anti-democratic individuals could, by taking advantage of democracy’s tendency to alienate large chunks of its population anyway, seriously call into doubt the legitimacy of the democratic process for the supporters and proponents of democracy themselves. Such a strategy has never, to my knowledge, been employed, and I would be most interested to see its results.