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  • Writer's pictureAmy Erica Smith

Anti-democratic 💩 happens. Is it a coup? *

In which the author ponders a better vocabulary to describe authoritarian power grabs.

Amy Erica Smith

Academics debate "coups." Actually, this is Sudan 2019.

A funny thing keeps happening. It goes like this: some country's legislature, or maybe its president, tries to mess with the standard process of electoral succession for the presidency.** The interference plausibly violates public opinion. Ordinary citizens, and sometimes fancy academics, cry “coup!”

And like clockwork, scholars of comparative politics reply “Nope. Not a coup.” For the umpteenth time, someone explains what "coup" means. Yesterday I was an observer or participant in such discussions about recent events in BOTH Peru and the United States.

I'm tired of the debate and ready to say “uncle.” Ordinary people can and will use the term "coup" however they want. Language evolves.*** But as someone whose first major foray into blogging 4+ years ago was to declare the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff "not a coup," I'm going to take a moment to reflect on the debate and think about a more productive vocabulary.

The crux of the problem is this: the foundational scholarship on how democracies turn into non-democracies was written in twentieth-century, at a time when most violations of presidential succession were led by the military. They were pretty obviously undemocratic.

Today, though, most violations of democratic rules for selecting the president are more ambiguous. The violators are usually "normal" democratic actors: legislatures and presidents. And the two most common tools they use are ostensibly constitutional: impeachment and elections themselves. In Peru this month, Congress impeached the extremely popular President Martin Vizcarra in a blatant effort to quash his anti-corruption initiatives. In the United States, President Trump is right now attempting to manipulate constitutional rules for tallying votes to prolong his stay in the Oval Office. Both efforts obviously violate the expressed will of the majority—but both also claim to follow constitutional mechanisms for doing so.

What should we call their efforts? Across Latin America and the US, "coup" seems to be the universal favorite term when citizens oppose politicians who interfere with the outcomes of presidential elections. Alleging a “coup” sounds big, normatively important, and official. It expresses justifiable outrage at politicians who violate the majority will for who should inhabit the presidential office. The single word constitutes a call for citizen mobilization.

Scholars of comparative politics use the word “coup” more narrowly, of course. In a classic coup, a small group of individuals (typically but not always the military) employs force or the threat of force to remove the president. In “autogolpes” or “self-coups,” presidents themselves use force (again, typically via the military) to unconstitutionally extend their own stays in power. Autogolpista presidents often also shut down or debilitate the legislature or judiciary. Neither “coups” nor “self-coups” typically deploy constitutional means (impeachments, elections) for democratically illegitimate ends.

However, I’m gradually accepting that the broader use of the term “coup” is here to stay. The problem is that we scholars of comparative politics haven’t produced a satisfying vocabulary for talking about the larger grab bag of tools that political actors use to mess with presidential power. This problem is both normative and conceptual.

Normatively, citizens need a word that conveys outrage. In popular use, “coup” refers to an egregious and definitive break with the electoral order of presidential succession—a break that violates principles of popular sovereignty and democratic legitimacy. Phrases such as “authoritarian power grab” or “executive aggrandizement” just don’t have the same weight.

And yet, we comparativists**** also need a shared vocabulary to describe and analyze democratically illegitimate transitions of the presidency. Old labels such as “coups” and “self-coups” were analytically useful, but they didn’t describe a lot of tools in the grab bag.

I propose that we can think of two basic distinctions among the tools. First, some antidemocratic tools are useful for removing presidents, and others for perpetuating presidents in power. This is the core distinction between traditional coups v. traditional self-coups; we can use it to sort the other tools into two piles, as well.

Second, we can categorize the tools by where they fall on a spectrum from ostensibly constitutional to overtly unconstitutional. Here, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s (2018) notion of “constitutional hardball” is useful: one can manipulate constitutional rules to undermine democracy, as when legislators impeach a highly popular president to escape accountability for their own corruption. Classic coups and self-coups, by contrast, are usually thought to involve overtly unconstitutional power grabs.

The table below puts these two dimensions together to categorize different ways that presidents, legislatures, and militaries can block the popular will regarding who holds the presidency. The examples in the cells are not comprehensive, but they give a good sense of the possibilities. The table includes a middle category for the second dimension, since many antidemocratic moves are of ambiguous constitutionality.

Notice something important: every single cell involves phenomena that citizens call “coups.” Democratic legitimacy appears to be uncorrelated with constitutionality—when constitutional hardball subverts the popular will for presidential succession, it’s perceived as just as illegitimate as a twentieth century military coup.

A second insight pops out from the table. The countries listed in the top row are far from high-quality democracies, but we wouldn’t necessarily call them semi-authoritarian regimes, either. Legislatures often remove presidents from power and then fail to keep their preferred replacements in power for more than a few months or years. So, antidemocratic moves against elected presidents today often lead to a morass of very low quality democracy, with no clear movement toward authoritarianism. By contrast, attempts to perpetuate a president in power appear more likely to lead to authoritarianism.

This debate is personal. I just checked, and the word "coup" appears 51 times (not counting figures) in my most recent journal submission. So, it would be good for me to know what the word means. In every single instance, the paper is referring either to traditional coups or traditional self-coups. So, it takes a lot from me, but I’m ready to admit that we need a better collective vocabulary.


* How do you cite a poop emoji? The official title of this piece is: “Anti-democratic you-know-what happens. Is it a coup?”

** This blog post is going to be unabashedly presidentialist; my blinders are for the sake of conceptual and linguistic simplicity.

*** Often a good thing.

**** Heck, Americanists too!

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