With its uninterrupted history of peaceful transition of power through elections, America has a multitude of citizens who justifiably feel pride in the strength of their democracy. But it cannot be denied that political tensions are rising, and it is not uncommon for occupants of the extreme end of both sides of the political spectrum to voice fears of (or hopes for) revolution. Is there any reason to believe that the republic is in danger of revolutionary activity?
Crane Brinton authored The Anatomy of Revolution (hereinafter "Anatomy"). The "aim [of his] study is the modest one of attempting to establish, as the scientist might, certain first approximations of uniformities to be noted in the course of four successful revolutions in modern states" (Anatomy, at 7).
He intended to accomplish his goal by application "of the bare elements of scientific thinking - conceptual scheme, facts, especially 'case histories,' logical operations, uniformities..." (Anatomy, at 13).
Brinton identified certain characteristics common to the revolutions he analyzed. Due to space limitations, I will focus principally and briefly on just two: structural weaknesses in the economy and politics.
The economic events Brinton linked to successful revolution were "unusually serious economic, or at least financial, difficulties of a special kind":
... in all of these societies, it was the government that is in financial difficulties, not the societies themselves. [Italics in the original.]
The first two Stuarts were in perpetual conflict with their Parliaments over taxes[.] ...
Americans need not be reminded of the part trouble over taxation played in the years just before the shot fired at Concord[.] ...
In 1789 the French Estates-General, the calling of which precipitated the revolution, was made unavoidable by the bad financial state of the government[.] ...
... three years of war had put such a strain on Russian finances[.] (Anatomy, at 29)
That the government of the USA faces financial difficulties and tax issues is axiomatic. (It is also agreed upon by both major political parties.)
Economic deprivation of society at large was not a factor Brinton found to be of significance (Anatomy, at 32). However:
... what provokes a group to attack a government is not simply deprivation or misery, but an "intolerable gap between what people want and what they get[.]" (Anatomy, at 30)
Thus, the animating element is not necessarily true deprivation so much as perceived deprivation.
In the USA, the perception of deprivation is rife despite the absence of true widespread privation.
Nicholas Eberstadt, in his 2008 book The Poverty of "The Poverty Rate," has evaluated the official U.S. federal metric used to assess deprivation and material need. Citing federal data, the:
... consumer patterns of officially poor households ... have recorded simultaneous, steady and significant increases in consumption of food housing, transportation and health...examination of the remaining categories within the market basket of the low-income consumer - clothing, entertainment, personal care, and so on - would reveal additional and analogous improvements in material circumstances[.]
The data and conclusions in Eberstadt's tome were recently confirmed by Robert Rector, and also by using the government's own numbers.
Brinton demonstrates that:
... revolutions did not occur in societies ... undergoing widespread and long-term economic misery or depression. You will not find in these societies of the old regime anything like widespread economic want[.] (Anatomy, at 29)
Of much greater importance is the existence among a group, or groups, of a feeling that prevailing conditions limit or hinder their economic activity. (Anatomy, at 33)
To sum up ... we note first, that these societies have been on the whole prosperous; second, that their governments are chronically short of money - shorter, that is, than most governments usually are; third, that certain groups feel that governmental policies are against their particular economic interests[.] (Anatomy, at 35-36)
This sounds quite in keeping with the conditions in the USA.
Addressing the political milieu in the years leading to revolution, Brinton notes that regarding:
... the actual workings of the machinery of government[,] ... there are obviously degrees of governmental inefficiency, and degrees of patience on the part of the governed. In our four societies, the governments seem to have been relatively inefficient, and the governed relatively impatient[.] (Anatomy, at 36)
... in eighteenth-century France it was very hard to get action from the government[.] (Anatomy, at 37)
... What is most striking in the English situation is the total inadequacy to modern government of a tax system based on the modest needs of a feudal central government. For the government of James I was beginning to be a modern government, to undertake certain elementary social services[.] ... The chronic need for money...brought them into sharp quarrels with the only people from whom they could in those days readily collect money - the gentry and the middle class[.] (Anatomy, at 37-38)
In America ... the attempted reform in colonial administration ... only made matters worse ... since it was carried out in a series of advances and retreats, cajoling and menaces, blowing-hot and blowing-cold. (Anatomy, at 38)
Russia[n] ... failure in war had ... brought with it a partial collapse of the machinery of internal administration. (Anatomy, at 38)
Finally, one of the most evident uniformities we can record is the effort made in each of our societies to reform the machinery of government. Nothing can be more erroneous than the picture of the old regime as an unregenerate tyranny, sweeping to its end in a climax of despotic indifference to the clamor of its abused subjects. (Anatomy, at 39)
This, too, sounds quite in keeping with conditions in the USA.
Though one can question the sincerity or gusto behind efforts made to reform the machinery of the federal government, one cannot in good faith deny that election after election, government reform is raised as an issue.
In summation, Brinton lists the preliminary signs of revolution, which include:
... government deficits, more than the usual complaints over taxation, conspicuous governmental favoring of one set of economic interests over another, administrative entanglements and confusions ... the intensification of social antagonisms, the stoppage at certain points...of the career open to talents, the separation of economic power from political power and social distinction ... (Anatomy, at 65)
The conditions above do not sound foreign to the times.
But, as Brinton acknowledges, these matters are generally present to some degree, and grumbling about them is not usually absent. In referring to the successful revolutions:
In all of them ... there is, as the actual outbreak of revolution approaches, increasing talk about revolution, increasing consciousness of social tension, increasing "cramp" and irritation[.] (Anatomy, at 65-66)
As some have noted, the conversations, tensions, and irritations are ratcheting up, and arguably enough to consider the possibility of a more violent future -- i.e., revolution or civil war.
Whether civil war will precede revolution, be contemporaneous with it, or not occur at all is unknowable and likely will depend to some degree on the influence of Fifth Columnists and their religious/racial/ethnic/cultural/philosophic/violent inclinations. As to them, we will have to see.
Predicting the future remains a tough game.
Still, many among us try to prepare for/predict the future, which is unknowable in its specifics -- e.g., folks buy insurance, evildoers (according to some) speculate in the markets, and those hopeful of heavenly reward perform good deeds and/or kill.
If Brinton's analysis has merit and is properly applied, life in the USA might be in some danger. Responsible Americans of all political stripes should seek to keep our political conflicts within the boundaries constitutionally laid out for change.
Michael Applebaum is a physician and attorney practicing in Chicago. His website FackBarack.com is up and running. His website civilwarwatch.us is in public beta. He asks that you come visit so he can work out any bugs over the next few months. Thanks.
This article was edited after publication.