The militarization of American democracy
In October, Thomas Weiss and I urged all of us to keep calm in the face of what might be a violent election and transition season. We foresaw the need to say, among other things, that the military should affirm the rule of law and their oath to the Constitution. Sadly, the Joint Chiefs felt the need to do just that last week.
When President Trump extolled “strength” to a nascent mob in Washington on Jan. 6, he wasn’t talking about moral force. In militarized societies, the model of political change is often military. War is the assertion of “might makes right,” the negation of the rule of law.
Political scientists worry these days about democratic erosion, when the norms and institutions of previously stable representative democracies decline. We usually ponder the causes of erosion in other countries.
Democracy is, on one hand, democratic elections where the people decide who will govern them, and processes for horizontal and vertical oversight and accountability. There is also a deeper conception of democracy — the norms of citizen deliberation, and human and civil rights that guarantee expression, inclusion and collective action. Democratic legitimacy depends on the ability of citizens to engage in public reason. The more democratic a society is, the greater the limits it has on the use of force both at home and abroad. We don’t take out weapons to resolve our disputes.
Democratic erosion or backsliding occurs when democratic institutions, norms and values are gradually — and sometimes almost imperceptibly — reduced. Democratic erosion includes the decline of competitive elections, the reduction in forums where citizens can deliberate and form policy preferences, and the diminished ability for accountability. The indicators of erosion also include constraints on freedom of the press, which reduces transparency and accountability, the unchecked accretion of power in the executive branch, and the loss of civil rights, including the right of assembly.
Democratic erosion has various causes. Some blame power-hungry executives who don’t want to give up power. The question, here, is why democratic institutions aren’t able to stop power-hungry elites who would concentrate power and economic resources.
Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman, in their book “Four Threats,” also highlight excessive executive power but then add political polarization, racism and nativism, and economic inequality that prompts the wealthy to mobilize to protect their position.
War and militarism exacerbate all those things. But more than that, war and militarism are antipodal and undermining of democratic norms, institutions and practices.
At the beginning of the post-9/11 wars, we worried about the effects on our civil liberties and democracy. But after nearly 20 years, we’ve almost forgotten about these wars and have underappreciated their effect on our democratic institutions and values.
The urgency of war is often used to justify the concentration of executive power and deference to the executive in times of national emergency. In the United States, the trend toward the concentration of power in the executive was accelerated in the George W. Bush administration. John Yoo, working for President Bush, argued the legal basis for what he called the unitary executive theory where, in war, the president’s powers are essentially unchecked. Other officials excused secrecy and torture because the United States was at war. President Trump has continued in that tradition, acting as if the laws and the rule of law do not apply to him.
President Dwight Eisenhower is usually given credit for pointing out the dangers of a military industrial complex. Eisenhower rejected massive conventional forces quite explicitly because he sought to prevent the United States from becoming a garrison state: If the U.S. were to do so, Eisenhower said, “we might as well stop any further talk about preserving a sound U.S. economy and proceed to transform ourselves forthwith into a garrison state.”
Militarization is a perennial concern. James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers in 1795 that “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Madison worried that “war is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement” that could increase public debt and lead to a “degeneracy in manners and morals.” George Washington, in his 1796 farewell address, urged Americans to protect their union and “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
In war, fear is often part of the equation — and fear may be deliberately heightened, threats inflated. We have been living in fear for nearly two decades. When humans are fearful, they tend to pay more attention to fearful information and think less critically. This can bolster groupthink dynamics among decision-makers who otherwise might provide horizontal checks and accountability for leaders. Trump’s Muslim travel ban was, if anything, rooted in fear of another terrorist attack and racial animus.
Elements of our political culture also have been militarized. And, as Kathleen Belew’s research shows, veterans also flock to the white power movement and paramilitary organizations. Veterans are often at the forefront of these movements — including the Air Force veteran who was killed trying to get into the chambers of the House of Representatives on Jan. 6 and another Air Force veteran who was recently arrested. Active duty military personnel also were present.
Militarized right-wing extremism emulates the military, even if the actors aren’t veterans themselves. It is no accident that many who marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 at the Unite the Right rally, who occupied the Michigan State Capitol in 2020, and who stormed the U.S. Capitol wore military-style uniforms, khaki camouflage and bulletproof vests.
In sum, we don’t just have a right-wing violence problem. We have a democracy problem fueled by a war problem.
Neta C. Crawford is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Boston University and co-director of the Costs of War Project.
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