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The Destination of Democracy

In a democracy, the job of government is to serve the public, right? That's the idea anyway. And indeed, despite all the bickering and inefficiencies of government, most of our governments' actions seem intended for the public good. But I think a deeper truth is lurking out of sight. I think the long term trajectory for any democracy is toward a military dictatorship. By my calculation, we're about halfway there.

The halfway point between a civilian-led military and a military dictatorship would have these key markers:

1.       The military would appear oversized despite budget problems. (check)

2.       Top generals would have lavish lifestyles. (check)

3.       The country would be in a state of continuous serial warfare. (check)

4.       Generals would get rich upon retirement. (check)

5.       Civilian leadership in military matters would be mostly cosmetic. (check)

Realistically, I can't imagine a situation in the United States in which a president would go against the advice of top generals on any important military decision. A president always needs political cover in case things go wrong. Essentially, the military decides and the president pretends it was his decision. That's what passes as a civilian-led military.

On a more basic level, the military has the big guns. If a civilian government pisses off the military, it could end up a smoking pile of embers. We're nowhere near the point at which the military might turn on the government in the United States, but that's because top generals are getting most of what they want. That's what keeps us halfway between a civilian-led government and a military dictatorship. But what sort of situation might cause the military to grab full control?

The minimum requirement for a military takeover is that some future war produces a celebrity general, such as General Patreaus, and that general goes on to become President. Obviously General Patreaus is out of the running for president, but every war creates new celebrity generals. If Iran goes ugly in the next year, we'll all be reading about the awesomeness of whatever general leads the military action.

Once a general gets elected to the presidency he can use his military connections to consolidate power. He would also have access to vast private wealth via the defense companies that would happily do his bidding in return for contracts. That's a lot of money available to buy influence.

A general can serve as president for eight years, then step aside to let a puppet take over for another eight years, Putin-style. It might take a full generation before people realize democracy has become window dressing.

Eisenhower warned us about the military-industrial complex. One assumes he knew what he was talking about.

Just to be clear, I believe 99.9% of military personnel are true patriots who support democracy and are willing to risk their lives to defend it. My scenario only requires a few bad generals. And as we know, generals are sometimes flawed. It's also a truism that power corrupts. So the seeds are all in place. I'm just connecting the dots.


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-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 29, 2012
"It could never happen."
"It has already happened."
Typical so far...

The parameters of the hypothetical situation were, we were "halfway there" not "we are already there". Arguing we aren't there yet, doesn't work either. There is plenty of time to finish the job.

Then it became interesting.

Now you need to add
6. Questioning anything the military says or does becomes socially unacceptable, then becomes impossible.

"We use words like honor, code, loyalty...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it!"

With all respect, Phantom II, I'd bet more than half the Navy pukes out there couldn't tell you what the Constitution says, let alone what it means to support it. I'd also bet that Annapolis life is very different than being stacked 3 deep, sleeping below a guy with IBS. Since Kindergarten I pledged allegiance to the flag. Will someone hold me to that pledge someday? What does that even mean?

You will die defending Scott's right to free speech, as long as he apologizes to you if he writes, even hypothetically, about something you don't like.

It's fine to be angry or disagree, but to demand an apology?

Scott, if there is an "error" accessing your portfolio tomorrow, you can't say you weren't warned.

Full disclosure: I was never in the military, but I fully support all those who do, unquestioningly. Thank you for your service. (You too, John Walker, Jr.) We'll ignore Hasan, since he was Army not Navy. (Ok, I had to go back to 1967 to find one example, so a point for you PHII.) If we limit speech to what doesn't insult you, either I get the same limits onto you, or we start a dangerous double standard.

Careful there Scott, offending the feminists is one thing, offending the guys with stealth aircraft (and drones, and secret pen guns) is quite another.
Nov 29, 2012
I think your five point list could also be applied to dentists... or cartoonists. Maybe they're trying to take over the world? Or is it just their dogs?
Nov 29, 2012
Hasn't this already happened?

Nov 29, 2012
I couldn't disagree any more with your post. If our military appears oversized, it's only because militaries of our allies (Europe) are undersized, and rely upon us. I think the true destiny of democracy is collapse, not by military coup, but collapse by stagnant economy.
Nov 29, 2012
I am trying my best not to allow my anger at what you've written color my post. I understand your disclaimer, but that doesn't lessen the blow of what you've said in the least.

First, full disclosure: I am a graduate of the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis). I am also an ex-Navy fighter pilot. The reason my handle here is 'Phantom II' is because that is the airplane I flew aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal.

I am somewhat surprised that no one has brought this up yet - but with the state of civics teaching in our schools today, I guess I shouldn't be. We in the military, as do federal elected politicians, do not take an oath to defend the country. We do not take an oath to defend the people. We do not take an oath to defend the president or the government. We take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

The reason we have never had, nor will we ever have a military dictatorship is because the military's loyalty is to the Constitution and what it demands of us. Yes, it's true that the Constitution seems to be pretty much overlooked these days by people in both political parties, but that doesn't change the fact that those of us who have served take that oath seriously, and always have and always will live up to it. It is the most important oath we will ever take, and honor demands we live up to it, even if our government doesn't.

The Constitution makes no provision for military rule. We're not a banana republic, we're a federal constitutional republic. Nothing could be more abhorrent to those of us who are or have been in the military than the concept of arbitrarily putting ourselves above the Constitution.

Any inference that our military would ever do such a thing is an insult beyond the pale. On this one, Scott, you have gone too far. You're across the line, and you truly need to apologize to the men and women who have and who would die for your right to post such absolute drivel.

This time, you should truly be ashamed of yourself.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
One thing we lack: Hereditary military leaders.

I used to think West Point was only available to kids with well-connected parents - because you have to get a congressional appointment to go.

I was wrong.

The congressional appointment thing is really a brilliant idea - and helps protect against the scenario you envision. There are 435 congressional districts in the US, allocated based on population and spread out amongst the 50 states. Each state has volunteers who meet with cadet candidates and assist with the selection process. There is a fairly rigorous application process - but the net result is that cadets are selected from all across the country - offering much better geographic and cultural diversity than that schools that produce most of our political leadership.

Also, while some cadets do come from military families -most don't. That means that the school that exists to produce military leaders would have to convince those individuals to turn on everything they were raised to believe in. Not very likely.

Military dictatorships tend to be made up of hereditary military families. You need an "Us" vs. "Them" system before one side can assert control over the other.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
[JFK wants our of Vietnam and says not another US soldier should die there: Bullet to the Head
Nixon wants to improve relations with China, prevent a future war: Watergated
Reagan wants to end the Cold War peacefully: Gets shot, successfully lives though
Bush Senior is part of the intelligence community and makes war: OK
Clinton goes along with the current wars: OK
Bush makes wars: OK
Obama makes wars: OK]

Johnson escalated Vietnam. What about Carter and Ford though?
+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
I think our republic will head toward a new type of hereditary monarchy. There are so many career politicians now, so many families in which politics is the family business. Eventually the dominant political forces will entrench themselves as monarchical powers, resulting in the establishment, once again, of kings, queens, princes, princesses, and all the other noble titles. The lesser forces will consolidate into them. Within a century or so, there will be a Planetary Empire.

There might be a few problems at first. For instance, I think Illinois will be the first to roll over its political families into royalty, and shortly thereafter will attempt to invade Indiana or Iowa, if for no other reason than to make them wear shoes and to worship the Daleys and Madigans. Wisconsin will be temporarily safe, as there are too many mosquitoes there. Wisconsinites might also stave off invasion by offering tribute in cheese and beer.

And the military class will change, become hereditary according to rank, with much cooler uniforms, and will easily fall into line with the new order. In most cases our militaries follow a hierarchical structure similar to and entwined with monarchies, anyway. Subservience to the dominant leader is within our primate natures, and this will be enforced through subtle genetic engineering by subsonics. Actual military adventurisms will change into bloodless game simulations. Those pesky foreigners who object to our way of life will be obliterated with neutron bombs delivered by drones the size of Wisconsin mosquitoes. * Sorry to offend any foreign readers of Dilbert, but it will be necessary and make things easier in the long run. And we need your stuff. *

Every election, a diminishing percentage of citizens vote. The percentage will continue to decline. Eventually like-minded blocks of voters will consolidate within bounded areas and the need for voting will vanish. Regional differences of nationality and lifestyle will initially determine how the United States will be divided. There will be political skirmishes, perhaps even actual battles, to gerrymander emerging kingdom states for access to natural resources. After several generations, under the enlightened encouragement of advanced smartphones, they will be consolidated under the Planetary Empire, as explained previously. Having temporarily shriveled, Democracy will return in new, interesting forms.

As we become increasingly interconnected through social media, the technical nature of it will become so efficient it will be seamless and nearly telepathic. It will be a form of very advanced Democracy, as the monarchies themselves then evolve into mere useful illusions, reality shows irresistibly habit forming. Human beings, stinkers that we are , might continue their rascally ways for a while, but peer pressure will settle them down. Genetic engineers will use the equivalent of kitchen blenders to mix the races, and that will be the end of that nonsense. Imaginative personas will replace each person’s actual appearance and personality, as complicated algorithms will have the bases of human nature down exactly and lead it to improvement and optimum performance.

It will be the Golden Age, and our descendents will be as rock gods, and you heard it here first.
Nov 28, 2012
I would argue that proof that the US is not a military dictatorship is that, when ordered by the (civilian) President to do something stupid (invade Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, anywhere, etc) the Generals followed the order -- despite probably strongly advising the President not to do it.

So far, I don't think any of the Generals have been urging the President to attack another country. They may want more tanks, ships and aircraft, but they don't want to have to use them.
Nov 28, 2012

"Realistically, I can't imagine a situation in the United States in which a president would go against the advice of top generals on any important military decision."

History is the place where you can read about situations in which the president went against the advice of top generals, thereby repeatedly preventing WWIII.

By practicing with those (numerous) historical examples, you could learn how to imagine such a situation in the future.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
You've written a splendid endorsement of the Second Amendment:
"A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

This is specifically what the framers were protecting against (perhaps also invaders, but a military can do that; a people's militia is necessary to guard against one's own government).

Note that it has nothing to do with hunting or self-defense - two very common, erroneous arguments. It's about the PEOPLE keeping and bearing arms in defense of a FREE STATE.

I believe the high gun-ownership levels in the US would deter an all-out dictator. Bands of rebels can be suppressed by a military; populations can be controlled if they are disarmed (too many examples to name); but an entire armed population cannot (see Arab Spring or a host of revolutions).

Before anyone jumps on the anti-gun soapbox based on one datum (US has high gun ownership and a high murder rate) as a pattern, please look up Switzerland (mandatory gun ownership, low murder) and Australia (massive gun buyback and control program followed by a big jump in violent crimes as law-abiding citizens disarmed). But that's not the debate here; this about a military dictator taking hold in the US.
Nov 28, 2012
The best lesson in history is the fall of the Roman Republic into a military dictatorship. The General Julius Ceaser had all of those things listed, plus a few more.

1. The Loyalty of his officers and troops were to him, not the Republic. I don't think we're there yet, and the fact that the monetary system is safely in civilian control should keep it that way.

2. A critical portion of the population had lost faith in the legitimacy of the Republic. We're getting close on that one.

3. The rebel general was extremely charismatic and a political and tactical genius. Most people of that inteligence are attracted to positions of economic power, rather than military.

In light of that, I think an economic dictatorship is more likely than a military one. Jeff Bezos is the one to watch.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
Interesting to think we're already there. Just secretive.

JFK wants our of Vietnam and says not another US soldier should die there: Bullet to the Head
Nixon wants to improve relations with China, prevent a future war: Watergated
Reagan wants to end the Cold War peacefully: Gets shot, successfully lives though
Bush Senior is part of the intelligence community and makes war: OK
Clinton goes along with the current wars: OK
Bush makes wars: OK
Obama makes wars: OK

As for US soldiers not actually turning on Americans with fatal weapons, that is probably a safe bet. Unfortunately the US also employs vast armies of mercenaries and trains soldiers in other countries to use US weapons and tactics. Not hard to imagine squads of US trained Columbians being deployed to kill US citizen resistance where necessary. Or more likely the drone program being enacted could simply kill key players in resisting the military.
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
You forgot another precondition.
The soldiers must be on the side of the dictatorship.
Historical example: The east german revolution in 1989. It was clear that we, the conscripted soldiers and lower ranks (and many of the officers), simply would not fire on our own people out there. And, consequently, the higher echelons never tried to send out a bunch of armed soldiers who switch sides first chance they get. (We were about to be sent out, but without weapons. Didn't happen in the end and peace, happiness and cheesecake were ours forever after and so on.)

You might have a chance of a military dictatorship if you have a professional army and the soldiers and their families are more or less segregated from the civilian population. Then you have a kind of warrior caste you can brainwash into seeing the civilian government as enemies of the people or something.
Nov 28, 2012
analogies to Rome?
Nov 28, 2012
<scott>Realistically, I can't imagine a situation in the United States in which a president would go against the advice of top generals on any important military decision.</scott>

Actually, I think it's more complicated than that. According to reports the military was generally against a raid to get Bin Laden instead proposing an air strike. But a more direct example would be JFK during the Cuban missile crisis. He was advised to invade Cuba by the generals as they believed it would be an easy victory. He chose the embargo instead. Which is fortunate because Castro already had strategic nukes and the authority from Khrushchev to use them.

So I agree that it would be imprudent for a president to micromanage a war effort they do lead more than you implied.
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 28, 2012
The best form of government would be a beneficent dictator (think George Washington, whom they did ask to be king but he turned them down, or Gandhi), the worst would be if that same dictator got syphilis and went bat-sh*t crazy.
Nov 28, 2012
If I remember my high school history correctly, Ceasar Augustus was a military dictator who pushed aside the republic and presided over a long period of peace and prosperity for Rome. Sounds like it could be a pretty good solution. Until you remember that his grandson was Caligula.
Nov 28, 2012
[...what sort of situation might cause the military to grab full control?]

If PETA or the Earth Liberation Front is successful in bioengineering a virus to cleanse the Earth of homo sapiens, human survivors will probably welcome martial law. But once in place, military rule will be impossible to get rid of. Then without civilian checks and balances, the generals will become increasingly arrogant much like a North Korean-style dictatorship.

Nov 28, 2012

[Also, nobody feels like voting for a general if they don't feel threatened, so you also have to add that. A threat people really believe in.]

Who were we feeling threatened by in 1888 when we elected General Harrison? In 1880 when we elected General Garfield? In 1788 when we elected General Washington? The list goes on for maybe half a dozen more generals we elected during, to my knowledge, time periods when we weren't really expecting war anytime soon.
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