Why You Can't Overthrow the Government
(and Why You Would Almost Certainly Regret It If You Did)
Admit it - you've fantasized about overthrowing the government.
Wealthy corporations and well-paid politicians leave us just enough democracy to keep the masses happy, but we know they're literally getting away with murder. There seems to be no fully effective response to the unilateral invasions and aggression of the United States, nor is there any easy way to expose the blatant lies used to justify them. It appears that the massive amount of suffering in the world, much of which could surely be abated with the determined rational efforts of compassionate people, will instead to some extent or another continue to be exacerbated by systems which create people obsessed with the pursuit of power without regard to the welfare of others.
The idea that some new system could sweep all this away and replace it with a largely fair and efficient system is incredibly appealing. And the notion that you personally might be able to play a major role in such an operation is quite exciting.
So of course you've fantasized about it. You're paying attention, you're a compassionate person, and you're outraged. You want a better world, and you want it now.
But before you advocate revolution at your next political meeting, consider whether you and those around you are really capable of overthrowing the government, and whether, even if you did, you'd be likely to be able to replace it with anything better.
The United States is controlled by some of the most powerful people in the world, with access to mind-bogglingly large quantities of resources. They will not surrender their wealth easily, and they will not hesitate to kill you or any number of other people to defend it if they believe there's a credible threat to it. Obviously, if you've decided to overthrow the government, you've decided that your probable death and that of what will certainly be many other innocents is worth the chance of success. That puts you on level ground with your enemy - both of you are determined to accomplish your goals at any cost. So far, so good.
Unfortunately for you, though, this is where it starts to get tricky. You don't have hundreds of billions of dollars per year to spend on an armed force of troops, tanks, aircraft, and a variety of high-tech weaponry. If you or some of your trusted friends with mutual goals have extensive backgrounds in technology and in using black market connections to secure various forms of weaponry and raw materials, then maybe you've got at least a few resources, even if they're not even a tiny fraction of what you would need to fight an offensive war against an immensely well-equipped and paranoid enemy. It's too bad that you won't be able to use guerilla tactics very effectively, because those typically only work very well in defensive wars.
Naturally, you'll need to know about the locations of important military institutions and officials to get started. Hopefully some of your connections know a good deal about tactics and espionage, and you have a good idea of how to put some agents in key government positions. You'll probably have to devote quite a few decades of your life to this, so your total devotion to the cause will be an asset here. Yes, every day the U.S. government pours insane amounts of money into stopping much better-funded organizations than yours from doing these things, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible.
Still, because you're going to find yourself severely lacking financially, you might turn to people as your best resource. That makes sense. So you'll need to get the word out in order to build up a force of people willing to give their lives to the revolution. Sadly, however, there are a few major obstacles that come up almost right away.
First, the more you start to connect with other revolutionaries, the more risk you take that the government will notice, charge you with treason, incarcerate you, and quite possibly execute you. You're on the government's home turf, and due process for suspected terrorists is in short supply these days. So your efforts will require great duplicity and secrecy. Hopefully you'll be able to rely on your extensive background in espionage (which you've so far managed to hide from the U.S. government), but you'll need to ask an awful lot of people to join you in order to have the numbers you'll need. To be an effective organizer you'll also need to communicate with people all over the country, which would be a lot easier if you could use the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure. Unfortunately, that's been being monitored a lot lately. If your network of revolutionaries is exceedingly well organized, maybe the capture of one of your cells won't bring down everyone in your organization. But frankly, in a country this obsessed with counterterrorism, the government is going to find you sooner or later, and almost certainly sooner - in which case, you'll get to go down in history as just another justification for more suspensions of civil liberty.
Of course, vastly exacerbating the problem of drawing others into your movement is the fact that most people would perceive you as a dangerous radical and turn you in, or otherwise actively oppose your actions. How do I know this? Well, if enough people were so opposed to the government that they believed that revolution were a reasonable course of action, there would no longer be a need to overthrow the government, because the people would already be responding to the existing political corruption with outrage. They would start by voting out corrupt politicians and demanding accountability from their representatives. They'd get involved in peaceful organizations demanding change and alter the way they lived to take away power from the existing power structures. Eventually, people would riot in the streets. If all this happened, and for some inexplicable reason positive changes to the system weren't forthcoming, then people would probably begin to support revolutionary movements. Notably, none of this is happening. The reason it's so difficult to create meaningful change within the context of the current system is the exact same reason it's next to impossible to get people to revolt. A propaganda-duped population won't support revolution any more than they'll fight within the preexisting system to create change. It won't even accept that there's a problem. For that matter, most people are extremely distracted, either by their comforts and leisure activities or by their daily struggle to survive.
You might think you can expect your progressive friends to join you, but don't count on it. If you've ever done any organizing (which I sincerely hope you have if you're planning on being a leader in a revolution), you know how hard it is in the prevailing American culture to motivate even those who might agree with you to take even a single day off work to carry a sign expressing one of their political views in their own words. Do you really think you can persuade even a small number of people from such a population to take it a few thousand steps further and give up their lives for the cause?
Something else that's important to remember is that as corrupt as many of our leaders are, the root causes of our country's problems are systemic. Specific politicians aren't the issue; when they leave their jobs (or are, say, assassinated), the system that put them in place just replaces them with others who are similarly corrupt. There are a lot of systemic reasons for this, such as that it's difficult (or maybe impossible) to become a successful politician without accepting financial help from powerful interest groups who then gain influence over your governance, or that the way wealth is distributed in the U.S. is incredibly unequal. In order to improve things, therefore, you won't be able to stop at getting rid of the people who are currently in power. You'll also have to replace the current government with a system that prevents small groups of people from attaining disproportionate amounts of power and money, but continues to encourage innovation and production.
So even if you can convince a substantial number of people that revolution is needed and that they're the ones to do it, you're now faced with the problem of defining a goal for the revolution that they can all get behind. Oops! You forgot that progressives and liberals are notorious for disagreeing about things. We can't agree whether or not to impeach perhaps the most criminal president in history, whether it's a good idea to vote for third party candidates, or even, sometimes, on what street corner we should protest. It appears that we can't agree about whether or not revolution is a good idea. We can't agree, even in broad terms, about whether the system we're striving to create is socialistic, anarchistic, communistic, democratic, or something else. How can we agree on a fine-tuned system and a well-defined plan of action for implementing a new system?
So assuming that you've somehow managed to elude the government and develop a network of revolutionaries, you're now going to have to compromise your goals. In this case, that probably means accepting inconsistent ideas from all the different progressive factions and coming up with an incoherent result. In order to avoid conflict, there will be a lot of temptation to be vague on the details. But vagueness could be a recipe for disaster when you've overthrown the government and the country's social and economic systems collapse, chaos reigns, and the people of the former United States are waiting for someone to fill the void. On that day, there will certainly be many contenders. Here's hoping it's your vision of society that's implemented in the vacuum and not some fundamentalist nut job's, or some much better funded foreign country's!
But let's say that somehow you've beaten the overwhelming odds, and now the government has collapsed. You've also, somehow, successfully made sure you have totally trustworthy people in all the key places at the time of collapse, ensuring that your group is in control of the entire region, and that no specific parts of these 3.7 million square miles are taken over by anyone else in the world who might want to try their hand at nation building.
Now you need to worry about what you can do to make sure that the people of what used to be the United States will listen to you. What penalty is applied to those who refuse to acknowledge your authority? Prison? Death? You'll have to make people obey you in order to implement your plan, but weren't you trying to create an improvement over the current system - a coherent, reasonably fair and efficient system of governance?
Another thing you might want to consider is that although the U.S. has been instrumental in creating this unique brand of oppressive, imperialistic first world capitalism, the real problems with our society are, quite simply, not local to this country. The top one percent of U.S. Americans own about a third of the total wealth, and the top five percent own over half of it. Much of this is invested in multinational corporations based overseas, The wealth that doesn't evaporate when the government falls will simply be transferred overseas, stranding you and your would-be utopians in a collapsing economic and social structure. World capitalism and its power structures will endure, except that the area between Canada and Mexico will now be a poverty-stricken wasteland. You'll be starting almost from scratch as you scramble to divide the remaining resources in an equitable fashion, build systems which motivate people to continue to be productive, and put down looters, rebellions, and other revolutionaries who think they can do better than you. In order to do this, did you and your group seize absolute power? It sure is going to be difficult to accomplish your goals without it, and surely it's an understatement to say that creating an equitable and functional alternative will be challenging, but as I recall the aim of this revolt was not a benevolent dictatorship. Don't say it's temporary; dictatorships have a tendency to endure.
If you really want to create positive change, forget revolution. Gradual positive changes aren't nearly so glamorous as an imagined revolution, it's true. But demanding immediate perfection is unrealistic and counterproductive, and too easily turns into a cop out for failure to do the hard work of creating real change.
If we can learn anything from the problems of revolution, we can learn that social change requires an informed and engaged population living in a society with a minimum of systemic conflicts of interest and where checks and balance prevent power abuses. So if you really want to make a better world, help improve the education system so our children learn to care about others. Work to improve the media used to disseminate information so that people know what's really going on. Fight for campaign finance reform to prevent powerful companies from buying governmental legislation. Fight for instant runoff voting so that when people do figure out what's going on, they have a choice that reflects their views. Oppose politicians who defy the law and claim supreme power by working to impeach them .
Anything you do to improve these things strikes at the core of the problems of our society and brings us one step closer to a just world.
It won't happen overnight. But then, neither will revolution.
D. L. Corvin