The United States of America was born in revolution. The Declaration of Independence asserted that people have a right of revolution. According to The Declaration, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [such as “life,” “liberty,” “the pursuit of happiness,” and “the consent of the governed”], it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The Declaration acknowledged that people should not, and will not, seek to overturn “long-established” governments “for light and transient reasons.” After “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” however, which are clearly aimed at establishing “absolute Despotism,” people have not only the “right,” but the “duty,” to “throw off such Government, and provide new guards for their future security.”
The U.S. has not experienced a successful revolution since the one between 1775 and 1783, despite Thomas Jefferson’s hope that “[t]he tree of liberty should be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Some think it’s time for a new American revolution. Moreover, many of the preconditions for a revolt exist.
Before specifying some indications of the potential for revolution in the U.S., let me mention several conditions noted by the historian Crane Brinton (1898-1968) in The Anatomy of Revolution (1938, 1952, 1965). Brinton studied revolutions in four western countries: Great Britain in the 1640s, America in the late 18th century, France a few years later, and the Russian revolutions of 1917.
Although the four countries’ revolutions manifested differences, each had in common major problems with the pre-revolutionary regime. Many of the same problems afflict the U.S. today. In each country, just before revolution broke out, there were indications that the old regime was increasingly dysfunctional. The four governments faced huge budget deficits. Citizens complained — far more than normal — about excessive taxation. There were conspicuous decisions by which the central government favored some economic interests over others. There were also well-publicized instances of government malfeasance and/or corruption.
Brinton identified two other important developments in pre-revolutionary societies: (1) members of the ruling class lost self-confidence, leading to that class’ increasing ineptitude; and (2) the intelligentsia were alienated from the old regime.
As before, are any bells ringing?
Now we’re ready to look at developments in America, and ask if they foretell revolutionary change.
I shall focus on public opinion polls.
Brinton lacked access to reliable information about public opinion in the four countries: i.e., polls conducted by modern methods.
(Some people distrust polls. Provided, however, one understands the pitfalls associated with polling, they contain useful information about grassroots opinions and behavior. All the polls I cite come from reputable polling organizations; all are based on nationwide samples; every sample contains enough respondents to be reliable. For an excellent primer on public opinion polling, see Herbert Asher, Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know, 8th ed., 2012.)
It would require too many words to relate all facets of recent polls that reveal the potential for a new American revolution. I concentrate on the most important. Others could readily be added.
Perhaps the most important poll — for our purposes — is the one reported by Rasmussen Reports (October 28, 2012) that was conducted October 21st and 22nd of last year. That poll of “likely voters” — who are probably the most attentive, best informed, and politically active citizens — found 60% did not believe the federal government had the consent of the governed. Only 25% did, and 15% were not sure.
The notion “consent of the governed” encapsulates the essence of popular government. When three-fifths of the most informed and active citizens hold that belief, the legitimacy of America’s central government is in question.
Grassroots doubts that the central government has “the consent of the governed” become more compelling because a Rasmussen poll, conducted just before July 4th, 2012, found 70% of likely voters agreed with The Declaration of Independence that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Agreement with that statement rose four percentage points in just one year (2011-12), and 14 points in four years (2008-12).
Other, more recent, Rasmussen polls also show worrisome trends (for those who support the old regime). A poll from mid-June, 2013, for example, reported only 35% of likely voters held a favorable opinion of the federal government, and 60% viewed Washington, DC unfavorably.
Even worse, a Rasmussen poll from early June, 2013 reported that 56% of likely voters viewed the federal government as a threat to individual rights.
Rasmussen is not the only pollster to report that a majority of the American public disdain the federal government. Gallup has been asking respondents whether they think “big government, “big business,” or “big labor” “will be the biggest threat to the country in the future” since at least 1965. The most recent Gallup poll asking this question — December, 2011 — found 64% of respondents picked “big government” as the most likely future threat to the country, while only 26% selected “big business,” and 8% picked “big labor.”
Although the Rasmussen and Gallup polls’ questions are different, they suggest the same conclusion: a majority of the public view the central government in jaundiced terms.
Other polls go even further. Gallup polls between 2011 and 2013 asked random samples of the public how much confidence they had in 16 major institutions: “newspapers,” “television news,” “banks,” “organized labor,” “public schools,” “the medical system,” “big business,” “small business,” “the criminal justice system,” “the church, organized religion,” “health maintenance organizations,” “the police,” “the military,” “the Supreme Court,” “Congress,” and “the presidency.” Majorities expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in only the military (70+%), small business (65+%), and the police (55+%). Other recent Gallup polls report approval of the Supreme Court at 43% and of Congress at only 14%. (A Rasmussen poll conducted in late July, 2013, confirms Gallup’s finding; only 10% of likely voters rated the job being done by Congress as “good” or “excellent.”)
Before concluding that the U.S. is ripe for revolution, consider the following: First, these polls do not prove the public is ready to overthrow the old regime; they only hint at that. Second, polls are like a snapshot; they freeze public opinion at the time they’re conducted; things may change dramatically in short order. Third, change a poll question’s wording or context and the results may be very different.
Fourth, successful revolutions almost never occur spontaneously; they require leadership, especially individuals who can mobilize millions by their charisma. Even with a Samuel Adams, a Patrick Henry, or a Martin Luther King, Jr., a revolutionary movement will not draw majorities to its banner. The first American Revolution was probably backed by 40-45% of the populace. Between 15-20% opposed the revolution. The rest just wanted to be left alone.
Are sufficient numbers of Americans willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor? Time will tell.