On June 1, 2020, President Trump declared he would invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and activate various military units to move into states to assist local police and national guard troops with quelling rioting and stopping looting and other violence. Since he did that media, Democrats, and other progressives have been up in arms shrieking about authoritarian moves and how dare he and…and…and… I even saw a post on FB suggesting that Trump would cancel the November election in order to remain in office. I have to wonder how dark, twisted, and pessimistic is one’s view of this country and it’s people, and how much hatred you hold for Trump that that’s where you go first. Seriously? I read that post, rolled my eyes, picked them up and put them back in my head, and then logged out of Facebook. I may check back in tomorrow, but I think I’m going to go back to my previous routine of checking in on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and then skipping that swamp for the rest of the week.
Back to my original topic…the mention of the Insurrection Act pushed me back into my political science researcher mode. What exactly does the act do, and when has it been utilized? My comparative side wanted to go find out if other democratic countries had something similar.
Starting with the U.S. law, Jefferson signed the Insurrection Act of 1807 into law. It has been used several times since. What most people probably recognize are Eisenhower and Kennedy’s use of it to break up anti-desegregation protests and open schools in the south. It was also invoked during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Wikipedia has a good discussion and a list of the times that its been used here.
What I hadn’t known (US law is not my area of specialization), is that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Congress changed the law and expanded it to include natural disasters, epidemics, public health crises, and terror attacks. By designating AntiFa as a terror organization, it seems to me that Trump has now provided two underlying justifications for invoking the Insurrection Act: a functioning terror group, and riots that have moved beyond the capacity of local law enforcement to handle. As of now (Tuesday morning), the act has not been officially invoked. However, we did have a relatively quiet night here in Philadelphia, so perhaps it will not be necessary. I hope.
Looking at other countries with federal systems, you obviously find laws that specifically outlaw riots (even in democracies the term “riot” can be defined more or less strictly, but usually includes violence and looting in the definition. Here’s the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition). Sanctions for participating or fomenting vary between countries as well. Canada, for example, gives police and governments, provincial and federal, much more leeway to define a gathering as a riot, and take actions as police deem appropriate. As a member of the Commonwealth, Canadian law mirrors that of Great Britain. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is a federal police force and the one used most often to disperse violent gatherings and deal with things like wide-spread looting. My quick and dirty search for Canadian law regarding activating military units within the country didn’t turn up anything specific, but going off of their status as a former British colony and current Commonwealth member, I’m going to guess that there are provisions for the Prime Minister to call up military units if he deems it necessary.
India is another democratic federal system. It has a strong central government that has more control and power over state governments than does the U.S. government over states here. India also has so-called paramilitary units which function similarly to the U.S. National Guard. India runs high with tensions between Muslims and Hindus and those tensions frequently break out into violent clashes. Also, almost as frequently, police will either do nothing, or occasionally step in on one side or the other as opposed to simply stopping and/or arresting all participants. For the army to be called in to help control violent riots, the civilian authorities must make that request. The army is viewed as more secular than local police forces so when the violence is between religious groups (usually Hindu and Muslim) the army gets the call.
In the end, it does not mean that a government has shifted from a democracy to an authoritarian system simply because the leader, whether president or prime minister, has called in the regular army to help local and state police forces deal with violence. Yes, a democracy can morph into an authoritarian system so slowly that one might not notice. But, if this is a part of that process, I argue that people are noticing the change (I think some moves have been going on for a while) and are now taking steps to reverse away from authoritarian means of governing. As an example, during Obama’s presidency, conservatives were extremely upset about his use of executive orders (EOs) noting (correctly) that EOs violated the legislative process. During the Trump presidency so far, that concern has reverted to liberals who are now extremely upset about EOs and claiming (correctly) that they violate the legislative process. In the end, more people are learning about the problematic nature of EOs and that’s a good thing.
We must remember that the U.S. is a very unique political system in the world. We were the first to institute a representative or republican form of government. We also have the widest/highest levels of individual freedoms among the world’s democracies. Those wide freedoms mean our political culture is also unique and that can be seen in how we respond to issues like police brutality and looting, or even the fact that we do respond. I know that it is not fashionable to proclaim American uniqueness, but we are indeed a one-of-a-kind political culture and political system.
I believe we will come through this current craziness and we will not be an authoritarian system. That will happen only if we allow it. And, no, Trump will not be the cause of it. I’m more inclined to think that those who so violently and vehemently oppose him and his policies (without ever thinking through results or consequences), those who scream at any and all dissent from their policies (on both sides), and those who try to force speech conventions (i.e. political correctness) on the rest of us, shift history around to suit their needs (1619 Project), and those who demand conformity with their ideas are the ones who would institute an authoritarian system.
We are a country and political culture built on individuality and compromise. The very definition of compromise is that nobody and no group gets everything they want, but we all come away a bit more satisfied with the situation than we were previously. Compromise by its very nature is messy and less than wholly satisfactory. Long-term survival, both as a political system that gives people the most leeway to define themselves, and as a species, demands that we all compromise with each other.
That’s the end of this rambling rant. Thank you for reading. Here’s to a looting-free week and all of us calming down, correcting what needs to be corrected (so, maybe the MPLS PD can look at their training and discipline procedures…), and return to rebuilding our lives and economy.