Could a Civil Uprising Unseat an Illegitimate Government in the U.S.?
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Could a Civil Uprising Unseat an Illegitimate Government in the U.S.?

Let’s say the nightmare scenario…

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the idea of Election Day giving way to “election season,” that record-breaking early voting numbers have permanently shifted the way we think about the process. That may be, but Election Day this year matters for a very specific reason: We’re less than a week away from the most volatile political moment America has seen since the Civil War.

I mean that literally. There’s a greater than zero chance that democracy itself crumbles under an autocratic regime takeover. That after 242 years, a certain someone is either going to steal the election or simply decide they’re not going anywhere.

The possibility of a government that somehow becomes even more draconian and repressive than what we’ve lived under for the past four years is more than just unsettling — it’s enough of a threat to have everyday citizens wondering what resistance will look like.

We’ve all heard theories about nonviolent grassroots uprisings, and what they could do to an illegitimate government. These theories live on places like Facebook and Twitter, but also in barbershops and bars, text messages, and GroupMes. I’ve seen them myself. I’ve seen mentions of “simple” solutions that would bring the government to its knees, ranging from mass worker strikes to refusing to pay taxes.

There’s a greater than zero chance that democracy itself crumbles under an autocratic regime takeover. That after 242 years, a certain someone is either going to steal the election or simply decide they’re not going anywhere.

They sound good, but what would actually happen if citizens used these avenues of resistance? To find out, I spoke to experts about the logistics of some of the more popular scenarios that have been tossed around. Would they work? What’s required? And could they be effective — or is there a path to the most resistance?

Not paying taxes

Taxes are a favorite talking point in this regard, and have become even more popular in light of recent reports that Donald Trump has — well, let’s just say he’s been creative with his personal tax payments. If enough Americans simply refuse to pay taxes, the thinking goes, then it would cripple the country’s economy and create a viable form of community resistance.

The problem is, there are already millions of people who don’t pay taxes. One out of every six dollars Americans owe in taxes is unpaid. The amount of unpaid taxes is equal to 75% of the entire deficit every single year. So it would require a massive undertaking to coordinate the type of tax evasion it would take to create a tremor. One problem lies in the fact that money in general, and especially in the ways America uses it, is a made-up notion.

“The government can simply print more money,” said Beth Logan, an enrolled agent at Kozlog Tax Advisors in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. “It would increase inflation and the deficit, but it’s something the government can do. Overall, it’s very hard for a W-2 employee to exempt themselves from paying taxes because they’re already being taken out. It’s out of the question for government workers. And if I don’t file my taxes, I lose my license.”

In short, there are just too many barriers to refusing to pay taxes. The government would start doling out liens before the system could ever get overloaded, creating a game of chicken in which individuals would risk losing everything for the slim chance that it financially impacts the country in any meaningful way.

A work strike

Earlier this year we saw Amazon workers strike for a day as a means of getting the company’s attention and raising awareness about the inhumane conditions the company’s “essential employees” face on a given day. The plight of the everyday worker has only been highlighted during the pandemic: They’ve endured the worst of Covid-19 while those in charge have rolled in the dough, actually increasing their wealth and creating the largest wealth gap in American history. As a result, there has been a renewed interest in the idea of full, concerted nationwide work stoppages.

Again, we’re looking at a game of chicken in which people with much fewer assets and resources are simply going to have to try to outlast huge corporations. And again, we run into a problem of coordination. “I don’t see a nationwide labor strike happening,” says Russell Spears, an economist and professor at Clayton State University in Georgia. “People love their assets. We value what we can lose more than what we can gain.”

However, there are some vulnerable industries out there, especially when it comes to those in charge of the supply chain in this country. We’ve seen that airlines can’t sustain long-term losses, and railroad worker strikes have caused the government to intervene and negotiate. So there’s some possibility of action in those sectors.

As for the big corporations? “If you have your massive strikes from the Amazons and Apples and those top 1% of the firms, then we’re going to have some problems,” Spears says. “Those are the types of companies keeping the money in our government.”

“Apple has enough money to cover itself for three years even if it doesn’t sell another phone,” adds Brian Hunt, another economics professor at Clayton State. “So the vulnerability of companies depends on how big their war chests are. One thing to consider is that these strikes could simply force a move to automation and cost more jobs long-term.”

Leaving America

This is one of the more common considerations: just leaving the country. There’s a lot of discussion about simply fleeing for greener pastures. But how possible is it?

As we see with many people trying to come into America over its history, those with the most means will have the most ability to travel. Those most impacted by an autocratic government are going to have the most difficult time picking up and starting in another country. “You have to take into account what is the income, educational level, and skill set of the populace leaving,” Hunt says. “When you immigrate, you take your standard of living with you. Who even has the mobility to move?”

Even if we do have an ability to move, what is the target country’s policy? How do we secure visas in, say, Canada, for long-term living? The idea of picking up and leaving the country for a lot of people depends too much on a need for a level of financial security that far too many people, especially now, don’t have.

Now, for an individual, it might be more doable and make sense. But for enough of the population leaving to impact the country’s bottom line? Not likely.

A civil uprising

The most common refrain in the call for resistance is for Americans to just simply storm the White House and send the president into exile like we’ve seen in other countries refusing to fall victim to coups and government takeovers. It’s something we never thought we’d see in America — but it may yet happen.

“There’s pretty good evidence that mass, sustained protests in government have a good chance of ousting leaders in different countries,” said Joe Wright, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University who has done extensive work studying autocratic regimes. “There isn’t a reason to believe that couldn’t happen in the United States, though there are obstacles here I’m not sure would be overcome.”

According to Wright, there are three essential characteristics of successful citizen uprisings: the size of the uprising, its sustainability, and its commitment to nonviolence. The size and sustainability are hampered by the simple American geography. “I can list places like Chile, Serbia, Sudan, and other countries and many of those countries had a huge chunk of their populations already in the capital city,” Wright says. “You need about 5%–10% of the population for this to be successful. That’s 30 million people — all converging on D.C. The geography of the country just makes that really difficult.”

A key tenet of an uprising is the political leader’s base defecting. That would mean the president’s supporters turning on him as well — which, if any Fox News broadcast or QAnon post is any indication, seems unlikely.

Finally, a sustained nonviolent effort that garners more violent responses — like the one in front of St. John’s Church this summer, where Trump used tear gas to disperse protesters for a photo op — could sway public opinion toward the side of resistance. “If you can turn the tide of his supporters by showing this violence and one side using weapons,” Wright says, “you could see a shift in support.”