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.)
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