Monday, August 09, 2004

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

A poster on Metafilter raises an interesting question:

"The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment." - James D. St. Clair, arguing before the Supreme Court in 1974.

The court didn't agree, returning an 8-0 decision and as a result, thirty years ago today Richard Nixon announced his resignation. The next day at 11:35AM it became official and Gerald Ford, the first unelected Vice-President in history was sworn in under the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as the 38th President of the United States.

But what if Nixon had chosen to respond differently? What if he had vowed not to resign? Article II of the Constitution makes the President the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. Could the Supreme Court really have forced Nixon to comply with their order? What if the President had viewed the Court's order as an attempted coup d'etat?
It's questions like these that make one glad the United States never adopted the Roman system of military administration under which the troops looked first to their commanders for patronage and pay, rather than to the Republic itself, otherwise the outcome of the question above would have been much more in doubt.

Nevertheless, the question remains, why is it that the United States has never seen a coup d'etat or even the mere threat of one, where nations with constitutional arrangements similar to America's have seen any number of generalissimos come and go? Constitutions are all well and good on paper, but as Stalin's Soviet Constitution of 1936 indicates, what looks like perfection on paper can easily turn out to be hellish in the implementation, while there are nations that lack written constitutions but are nonetheless solid examples of free states, Britain being the most obvious example; as such, it can't be a mere matter of hitting on the right incantations and committing them to paper.

My own suspicion is that the difference between democratic stability and the rule of generals has as much (or even more) to do with the character of a nation's people as it does with the precise forms of the constitutional arrangements they adopt; give a people who lack respect for the written law the most perfect constitution and it won't take long for some soldier to shoot his way to the top, while people who are accustomed to the idea that soldiers should be servants of the state rather than its masters will not be ready to grant overambitious generals the acquiescence they require to rule unimpeded. I strongly suspect that if Nixon had tried to call upon the armed forces to retain his position, nobody would have responded to his urgings, and even if the odd commander had actually voiced his support for Nixon, the rank and file would have mutineed rather than support the dissolution of the American Republic.