Legitimacy, democracy, and liberty would seem to be interrelated but it is liberty that should be most highly prized. A state may have a democratically-elected government that follows laws but deny liberty to certain or even most of people. The slave states of antebellum America were legitimate political entities and the legislators were elected by the people. Yet slaves in those states were treated as less than human in clear violation of a key phrase of our Declaration of Independence. After the Civil War, legislators continued passed restrictive “Jim Crow” laws that kept the newly-freed slaves in a state of second class citizenship.
Throughout history there have been cases where a legitimate government has been overthrown by force of arms from within. The incumbent monarch claimed an aura of legitimacy and other monarchs might fight to maintain the status quo for their ‘brothers’ because of a perceived commonality of interests. For centuries, monarchs claimed that their rule was sanctioned by divine right. In an era when souls were not put in jeopardy lightly, a rebel against some king or duke could experience unspeakable modes of execution and fear an even more unpleasant afterlife.
Elected governments could turn into tyrannies and oligarchies as oppressive as the worst of monarchies. Democratic city-states in Greece could tolerate institutions such as ostracism of citizens and various degrees of slavery. The concept of a constitution that put limits on the power of governments was deemed to be a radical, even revolutionary concept. Efforts to adopt constitutions were suppressed with often extreme cruelty. A constitution was seen as a limit on the unlimited power of the monarch. English kings had long been under some limits that preceded the Magna Carta but such restrictions were not the norm in Europe.
The revolution that deposed and executed Charles I did not seem to threaten the political stability of Europe. The second Cromwell did not wear well and the monarchy was restored.
Overthrow of the King of France and his subsequent execution was seen as a threat to all of the crowned heads and Napoleon was seen as a liberator before he became an Emperor.
When what we know as Germany was not a unified state but a geographical region of sometimes hundreds of independent (and often warring) political entities, there was a popular desire for a unity by constitutional means. Bismarck attained this unity through ‘blood and iron’ to pre-empt any constitutional mode of unification. He desired a unification that would elevate the King of Prussia to the status of Emperor. Constitutionalism would limit the power of the prospective Emperor.
The year 1848 was one of revolutionary fervor and most crowned heads again saw their fellow monarchs as kindred spirits. The following years were marked by reaction. Yet their were splits to this unity that reflected certain national interests. Russia sought expansion at the expense of Turkey. The ‘Unspeakable Turk’ was considered to be a threat to all that was decent. A decadent regime had millions of Christian inhabitants in land that had been conquered during centuries of warfare. Yet England and France and the plucky Sardinia made war against Orthodox Christian Russia in a struggle best remembered via the epic poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade.
There was revolution brewing in Greece. There was a sentimental support to the oppressed residents of one of the cradles of Western Civilization but realpolitik demanded that the legitimate interests of the Sublime Porte not be violated by supporting revolutionaries. European public opinion generally ran counter to this official policy. As a form of compromise, a liberated and united Greece was presented with a German monarch. This clever compromise brought Greece into the European family of nations as a monarchy rather than a potential hotbed of regional revolution.
Italian revolutionaries included commoners such as Garibaldi and the head of the House of Savoy. Piedmont and Sardinia produced some of the most courageous fighters in Europe. The future Napoleon III meddled in the dispute between would-be liberators and creators of a modern Italian nation and both Austria and a Pope who ruled far more than the microstate of Vatican City. Napoleon took Savoy as the price of some shoddy services poorly rendered. Another European monarchy as the modern Kingdom of Italy appeared to be acceptable to the European Powers.
Napoleon III once appeared to be a revolutionary and was elected President of France. He overcame a constitutional limitation on a single term by a referendum and then assumed an imperial title and powers. He was not given the respect due to a crowned head by what he considered to be his fellow monarchs and soon blundered into a war with Prussia that weakened France and made Germany into an empire. Napoleon III had abused democratic institutions to concentrate power in himself.
Constitutional monarchies have survived in Europe in an era when elected governments have sometimes turned into tyrannies. Political fragmentation involving four or more parties have created unstable coalition governments that sometimes turned into tyrannies. Hitler and associates failed with their putsch attempt but assumed power through the ballot box. Some orchestrated violence helped and an atmosphere of public fear facilitated the creation of the Third Reich. Hitler maintained a popularity with the German people that was not shared with such institutions as the General Staff and the leaders of the German Navy. While there was Marxist opposition, this involved a dispute among rival political gangs. Military coups had never been a Germanic tradition and a cabal of officers who happened to be gentlemen failed to oust a monster who discovered how to manipulated public opinion and manipulate the political process.
The first phase of World War II saw the United States recognize the Vichy Regime that was a virtual puppet of Nazi Germany. There were certain short-term and limited geopolitical advantages to this recognition.
Postwar Europe saw many ‘liberated’ nations rapidly devolve from coalition governments to Soviet-controlled puppet states with living standards bordering on the subsistence level. Most included the word ‘democratic’ in their formal name. Many were treated as legitimate nations by the United States and the United Nations.
A few Marxist states were overthrown in the postwar era. The election of the radical Mohammed Mossadegh reflected a popular resentment over the profits taken by foreign oil companies from facilities developed at their expense. The Tudeh Party in Iran was seen as an adjunct of the Soviet regime and a structure that included a Politburo gave more than a hint that this was true. Mossadegh found a theocratic ally with a contemporary Mad Mullah who resented the modernization of Iran and the decline of the power of potential theocrats. Under the dismal duo, Iranian oil production was declining, so a bigger share in oil revenues would be of no benefit to the Iranian people. A coup was organized and the Shah was restored. Tudeh enemies continued to develop deadly plots against the Shah that included the death of the ruler and his family and associates. Plotters were dealt with harshly. Iranian prosperity and modernization returned. Political liberty was limited but many aspects of personal liberty were improved.
In Chile, the Marxist Allende won a three-way race with far less than a plurality. His radical plans were proving to be economically ruinous and his plans for military leaders not personally subservient to him were seen as a threat. He was ousted by a coup and rendered harmless. Chile returned to prosperity and the coup leader relinquished power. The coup was a victory for individual liberty.
Hugo Chavez has exploited the politics of envy to create a Marxist regime in Venezuela. The wealth of the nation is derived from petroleum that was initially discovered and extracted by foreigners. The country is not enjoying prosperity and Chavez intends to be president for life. He has limited many aspects of freedom in his country and appears able to modify the constitution to his liking. He has the resources to exploit Marxism and is close to present and future tyrants. The best option for restoration of Liberty to Venezuela would be a coup on the Chilean model.
The president of Honduras wanted to be president for life in spite of constitutional term limits. He is supported by Chavez and is a Marxist. While elected to a term in office, his eagerness to change the constitution to extend his rule is a warning of impending tyranny. He was opposed by a majority of the members of his nation’s congress and ignored the opposition. Ballots for a plebiscite deemed to be illegal were printed in Venezuela. Thwarting of this leap towards Chavez-style tyranny by military elements is a positive step in the preservation of individual liberty. Tyrants, would-be tyrants, friends of tyrants, and sycophants may find the action of the military offensive. Yet what should the military do? Stand by to serve as an agency of repression?
The German military never had a reputation for staging coups but efforts were made to depose Hitler. All failed and the last had tragic consequences for many decent officers. The consequences of failure to take the appropriate action early in the life of the Third Reich gave the world a megatragedy.
Now we have Obama demanding that Honduras reinstate the ousted would-be president for life. Perhaps Obama sees Zelaya as a role model. The notorious liar Rigoberta Menchu has been named as a potential negotiator in this travesty of bullying of a sovereign nation wishing to thwart a would-be tyrant.
The mistake made was not eliminating Zelaya in the style of Allende. That way there would be no demands for restoration of another potential Hitler or Chavez.
The meddling of Obama in this manner may reflect an identification with a potential dictator who would assume the title of President for Life. Perhaps this sympathy may be a genetic trait inherited from his father.