Five reasons James Fallows’ coup is a fantasy

Rory Cooper Comm. Director, The Heritage Foundation
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In the run-up to the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare, we have seen articles engaging in mild hysterics and some that are downright fantastical delusions wrapped in hysterics. And then there is this Atlantic piece by former Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows.

Perhaps Paul Krugman pining for terrorist attacks in order to stimulate the economy is comparable, but few measure close. Yet, many supposedly smart people, including Arianna Huffington and The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein (who called it “chilling”), are circulating it as if the conclusion is sane, debatable or even remarkable.

In the piece, originally titled “5 Signs the United States is Undergoing a Coup,” Mr. Fallows suggests that you consider: 1) the 2000 Bush v. Gore case; 2) the 2010 Citizens United case; 3) a potential ruling against Obamacare this week; 4) the continued existence of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate; and 5) voting reform efforts in Florida. Taken together, he says, these things constitute “what we’d identify as a kind of long-term coup if we saw it happening anywhere else.”

It’s not clear if there was an Internet randomizing program that picked these five items out of a hat or if they came to Mr. Fallows in a vision, but it is pretty hard to string these items together into a coup. But for the sake of those who may be swayed by the masthead this conspiracy theory enjoys, let’s quickly debunk Fallows’ bizarre talking points:

The definition of a coup d’état: According to Auburn University, a coup is “a quick and decisive extra-legal seizure of governmental power by a relatively small but highly organized group of political or military leaders, typically by means of the unexpected arrest or assassination of the incumbent chief executive and his principal supporters within the government.” This widely accepted definition of “coup” doesn’t even come close to describing Fallows’ “coup.” What Fallows describes is certainly not quick — he says it started 12 years ago, with Bush v. Gore. None of the items he mentions are extra-legal according to our current set of laws. And there is no small cadre of people responsible for these five events. Let’s set aside the disposition of the chief executive, since presumably Fallows didn’t mean that one of the Supreme Court justices is literally plotting against the president.

Some would say that I am quibbling with Fallows’ word choice, but he is the one who centered an entire piece on this charged word and serious accusation.

“It was out of loyalty to the system that Al Gore stepped aside after Bush v. Gore”: It seems like Fallows wrote this piece so that he could once again bemoan the results of the 2000 election. Liberals will never get over 2000, despite all the evidence pointing against the possibility of a Gore victory. As The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney points out, even if Gore had won his case before the Supreme Court, he still would have lost the ballot count, as The New York Times and a consortium of independent election observers found in 2001. While the Supreme Court is a convenient scapegoat for Gore supporters, the Bush v. Gore decision was not part of a conspiracy.

The filibuster: The 60-vote threshold in the Senate is a feature, not a bug, of congressional practice and is actually a stop-gap tool designed to protect against the very mob-like measures Fallows apparently fears. If the Senate were to make itself no different than the House and install majority rule, it would be possible to pass all types of legislation that does not enjoy strong public approval. Fallows contends that Republicans have “abused” the procedure, “especially to the courts.” But they did not filibuster President Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees — both of whom were easily confirmed by the Senate (unlike Harriet Miers, Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas).

Citizens United: Fallows doesn’t even lay out a case against Citizens United. He merely lists the decision as part of the coup and then decries a separate ruling last week that forced union members to “opt in” to political donations. Unions are, of course, the only political entities that have largely non-voluntary contribution bases. In any case, it’s likely that neither party will enjoy a significant financial advantage in the 2012 cycle, so it’s unclear how these decisions are contributing to a “coup.” Likewise, Fallows never explains his opposition to Florida’s election reforms.

Obamacare: Fallows suggests that the majority of the Supreme Court was “prepared to negate” Obamacare as soon as it was passed. Of course, the most often discussed “wild cards” on the court are Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts — a Reagan appointee and a George W. Bush appointee, respectively. According to Fallows, any ruling against Obamacare is insidious because Obamacare is a Republican idea that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee once supported. Of course, this isn’t true, but even if it were, wouldn’t the divide between Republicans and “conservative” justices suggest the absence of a political conspiracy?

Fallows’ article is part of a strategy to delegitimize the Supreme Court ahead of this week’s Obamacare ruling and turn public ire away from the Democrats’ unpopular health care reforms and toward what the president describes as an “unelected group of people.” Ironically, this coordinated attack on the judicial branch is a bigger threat to the legitimacy of our government than any of the events that Fallows mentions.

Rory Cooper is the director of communications for The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.