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Thoughts on revolution - Peter Hentges

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July 14th, 2004

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07:17 am - Thoughts on revolution
So we've seen, recently, the passage of Canada Day, Independence Day and, now, Bastille Day. There was something about the time, the end of the 18th century, that made things ripe for revolution. I'm thinking more and more lately that it might be time for that sort of thing again.

The sheer amount of legislation that now forms the legal code of the United States bears, I think, review. Is the Constitution all the relevant any more? Are there things that should be part of it that aren't? Are there things that are part of it, that should not be.

I had an interesting discussion with my friend Ray (http://www.kaligari.net for his far-too-infrequently updated blog) while on vacation at the end of June. He brought up an article or study he'd read (and a pointer would be appreciated if it's online, Ray) about the theory and reality of the Senate and House of the U.S. Legislative branch.

In theory, the House is a populist body. It's members are elected to two-year terms by direct vote of the population. It should represent the ability of the people to swiftly make changes to the government to redress perceived inequities. The Senate, on the other hand, was initially an appointed body. It was to be the more sober, steady hand of the legislative branch. It's members serve for six year terms and make decisions that effect the other branches of the government, accepting or rejecting the appointees of the executive branch and likewise approving appointments to the judicial branch.

The reality, the theory Ray laid out goes, is that the roles of the two bodies have almost completely switched. Members of the House are now elected for nearly life-time terms. It is rare, in this age of gerrymandering, that a Representative that seeks re-election will not get it. Senators, on the other hand, do not have the benefit of having the voting body they are elected from drawn from areas carefully chosen for their benefit. They are, now that they are no longer appointed, more beholden to the common man in their state and more likely to be ousted after a term or two. So the Senate is a more dynamically changing body and, yet, its responsibilities remain unchanged. The House, ironically, has become the more staid body.

I'm not sure if I buy this theory whole-heartedly. I don't know enough about the current aspects of the daily workings of the House and Senate to intelligently comment on whether or not these characterizations are accurate and I don't know enough of the history of the bodies to know if this change is recent or if this phenomenon has been around for a while. I can report, for what my observation is worth, that I can easily recall seeing campaign ads for people that run for the U.S. Senate over the last several elections that I've been able to vote. I can name several of Minnesota's past Senators. I can name my current House Representative but I can't recall who ran against him in his last election nor do I recall seeing ads for House contests for either my district or nearby ones.

So what stops us from revolution today? One thing is the centralization of the U.S. military. Even the state militias so carefully provided for in the Bill of Rights, are under the command of the federal government. Governors can call out the National Guard but those units train and are in the command structure of the national fighting forces. No, any revolution could not be undertaken by conventional military means. I would go so far as to say that any attempt at revolution that includes a military aspect would be doomed to failure. The impacts of the Revolutionary War included the federalization of the military and the overall distrust among the populace for armed rebellion.

So what peaceful means of revolution are available? My mind goes to Gandhi and the non-violent movement he started that ended with the overthrow(?, is that the term I want) of British rule in India. Are there aspects of civil disobedience that could be undertaken in the U.S. that could have similar results?

I somehow doubt that the revolution (whether televised, allowing dancing, or otherwise) will come soon, if it comes at all. I think that it's healthy to think about it, however, as a way of keeping an eye on the government we have. How far do things have to go (in one way or another) before "it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature ... entitle them,...."
Current Mood: quixoticquixotic

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 14th, 2004 07:40 am (UTC)
My guess is that revolution will look different in this day and age.

[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2004 03:20 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, very different. But different how? No public executions of those formerly in power, I'm sure. Probably some slick media campaigns to drum up support for the new government (drawing on Soviet Russia and Communist China for influence, perhaps).
[User Picture]
Date:July 14th, 2004 08:17 am (UTC)
Wasn't there an option in the Constitution for the States to convene a Constitutional Convention, which would let them re-write the whole thing?

OK, not quite:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of it's equal Suffrage in the Senate.

I suppose the Convention described could propose a set of amendments, the first of which would void the existing Constitution and Amendments. Which would then need to be ratified by ... 38 states?
[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2004 03:18 pm (UTC)
I was thinking that if we were to right a whole new Constitution, that it would be a good idea to include a clause that allowed it to be tossed out and re-written fi certain criteria were met. One of those criteria could be "If X00 years have passed since the ratification of this Constitutions."
[User Picture]
Date:July 14th, 2004 11:57 am (UTC)
I'm not going to be advocating revolution -- peaceful or otherwise -- but it is worth noting that, at present, the UK House of Lords has a higher turnover rate than Congress . . . and the only way one gets out of the House of Lords (a few marginal exceptions aside) is by dying.

As to violent, armed revolution, that's theoretically a lot more possible, I think, than you're suggesting. (I also think it's vanishingly unlikely.) Imagine what would happen if, say, as little as 1% of the populace turned into Timothy McVeighs -- and do remember that, should there be a groundswell of support for revolution (and, obviously, there isn't even a real ripple, at present), that would include a lot of folks in the military.

And, of course, you're assuming that there wouldn't be a uniformed military component on the revolutionary side. I think that's not even vaguely on the table right now, or under any circumstances I think other than humongously unlikely, but I do think that it could easily happen, postulating a situation where there was a wide-scale support for a revolution.

Jerry Pournelle reports that there were some hotheads, after Truman fired MacArthur, who at least talked about wanting to revolt and put MacArthur in charge. (He also reports that it's just as well for the hotheads that word of that never reached the general, who would have treated such suggestions less than kindly. I'm no fan of MacArthur, but I think Jerry's right on this.)

Much more likely, I think -- and still vanishingly unlikely, at present -- is a Constitutional Convention.
[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2004 03:24 pm (UTC)
Interesting anecdote from Pournelle. My perception is that the centralized miliary would have access to much better intelligence, equipment and support so as to make armed revolution very unlikely. I suppose, however, that if one could get a military base (and appropriate personnel) here or there to come over to the revolutionaries, that could sway things toward a more even stance.

This is percolating around to sounding like it would make an interesting novel.

I agree that a Constitutional Convention is more likely and that it's highly unlikely.
[User Picture]
Date:July 14th, 2004 06:35 pm (UTC)
The discussion in interesting, but I'm afraid that the only thing I can add to it is a quibble: Canada Day has nothing to do with a revolution or with independence from a foreign power, for that matter.

Oh, and maybe that Massachusetts is a counter-example to your friend Ray's theory: we've had the same two Senators for a rather long time, with more periodic shake-ups in our cast of Representatives as they get caught in bad situations, sent to jail, and so forth.
[User Picture]
Date:July 15th, 2004 03:15 pm (UTC)
I am generally aware that Canada Day doens't mark a revolution, but it was one of those holidays about births of nations that just happen at the right time. Cinco de Mayo was early enough that it didn't hit my thinking or I would have mentioned it too.

Like I said, I'm not sure the theory is correct, but it does make for some interesting thought.

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