Not long ago, a poll by the British outfit YouGov purported to demonstrate that roughly a third of Americans could imagine a scenario under which they would support a military coup against the U.S. government. I say “purported” because any question that asks respondents if they “can imagine” a scenario is dependent for its results on whatever alien invasion scenarios or political fever dreams people might cook up. Still, YouGov did come up with some interesting data:
The proportion of the country that would support a military takeover increases when people are asked whether they would hypothetically support the military stepping in to take control from a civilian government which is beginning to violate the constitution. 43% of Americans would support the military stepping in while 29% would be opposed.
And we have headlines! Or at least a press release to send around — which YouGov did.
An acquaintance promptly sent around an article about the poll, prompting this odd response by an old college classmate: “Interesting. Nearly 1/3 of Americans are seditious traitors? I find that surprising and alarming.”
I suggested that the problem might be a government that alienates huge swathes of the population, and that throwing names at the ticked off recipients to a survey wasn’t helpful.
“Calling them seditious traitors is the literal truth. They support overthrowing the government, which would make them traitors, and since they’re ‘supporting’ it, I presume that means encouraging it, which is sedition. No hyperbole there.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I transitioned to explaining the legal requirements for treason and sedition charges under U.S. law, and that he might have a hard time making charges stick.
So we never got around to an important point: Even if he’d been right that “nearly 1/3 of Americans are seditious traitors,” would that have been the damning condemnation that he intended? Or just a description?
What is “sedition“? It’s “overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward insurrection against the established order.” Likewise, “treason” is a more extreme point along the same continuum: “‘…[a]…citizen’s actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation].’ In many nations, it is also often considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government, even if no foreign country is aiding or involved by such an endeavor.’
In both cases, you can definitely see why governments would dislike sedition and treason, but they’re not like murder and rape, which are inherently wrong. The moral content of an act of sedition or treason is entirely dependent on the quality of its target. If a government is good, working to overthrow it is morally wrong; if it’s evil, committing sedition and treason against it might constitute your righteous deed for the decade.
Presumably, people contemplating seditious treason against the government have lost respect for the institution and think it might need to be tossed out. Pointing out their seditious, treasonous ways isn’t a criticism; it’s just a description. They’re potential revolutionaries intending to replace a government they dislike with one they think will be better.
You know, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and company.
This poses a problem for people like, I’ve come to realize, my old classmate, who personally identify with the state. They believe, like Bernie Sanders, that “The government, in a democratic society, is the people” and that if you resent intrusive officials in any way “You’re assuming that the government is some kind of foreign entity.” To them, to challenge the state is to challenge their sense of selves. That strikes me as freaky to the point of pathology, but it explains responding to the YouGov poll with charges of “treason” rather than a more reasonable, “I’m having trouble imaging a committee of colonels as a better alternative to anything.”
But much of the population does see government as an “other.” When it offends us, we no longer want to be subject to its abuses. That doesn’t mean that every “solution” somebody answering a survey might imagine is an improvement. But it does mean that contemplating something other than the political status quo is not a bad thing.