Myth No. 1
Coups are a thing of the past.
“The days of opportunistic military officers making a play for power seem to have come to an end,” reported Axios, after 2018 passed quietly as the first year since 1946 without a single attempted coup d’etat anywhere in the world, according to one dataset. CoupCast project at One Earth Future estimates that the global annual risk of a coup attempt was 99 percent throughout the 20th century but fell in recent decades, to 80 percent by 2019. Coups are “almost extinct” in Latin America, the region that had the highest number since World War II, the noted coup scholar Jonathan Powell declared in 2016.
Although coups are much rarer today than in their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, triumphal claims are premature. A new study of historical regime breakdowns finds a cyclical rather than linear pattern of coups since the French Revolution. Coups were quite rare around the turn of the 18th century but waxed and waned in several cycles over the next 300 years. If history repeats itself, coups could happen more often in the coming decades.
Bolivia helps illustrate the problem. For a long time, it was the most coup-prone country, experiencing 28 attempts between 1946 and its democratic transition in 1982. Then coups went “almost extinct” there, with the last known try in 1984 — that is, until November, when Evo Morales was ousted under military pressure. Even if “old coups,” when the army strikes in the middle of the night, are passe, recent years have seen a spate of “new coups,” which take place during mass uprisings, as in Algeria and Sudan in April 2019.
Myth No. 2
Coups happen only in impoverished nations.
This is a timeless conceit. One classic study, published by the political economists John Londregan and Keith Poole in World Politics in 1990, claimed that poverty is “close to being a necessary condition for coups.” Since coups themselves often hamper economic growth, the theory goes, countries that suffer them risk falling into a coup trap, in which an overthrow leads to impoverishment, which leads to more coups. In his bestseller “The Bottom Billion,” Paul Collier concluded that Africa has become the world’s most coup-prone region precisely because it is “the epicenter of low income and low growth.”
It’s true that some coups are associated with poverty, particularly in Africa, but there are other types, too. The Colpus data set, a survey of coups I built with scholars David Carter and Joseph Wright, identifies two distinct categories: regime change coups that transform the entire ruling group and the “rules of the game,” and leader reshuffling coups that oust the top honcho but do not radically disrupt political institutions. We found that poverty is not associated with the second type, which has been most common in Latin America and has declined most in recent decades.
Though rare, coups are not impossible in developed countries. In May 1958, French generals in Algeria planned an armed takeover in Paris, ending their uprising only when Charles de Gaulle was brought back to power. A similar putsch against de Gaulle was thwarted in 1961 by mass civil resistance. Today, rising polarization bodes ill for the risk of coup attempts in the democratic West. One of the major findings of the Political Instability Task Force (PITF), a government-funded research group tasked with predicting state failures, is that “polar factionalism” predicts “adverse regime change.” Since 2016, the United States has seen a rise in such partisan divisions, leading Polity5, another research project, to downgrade the country’s democracy score for the first time in more than 50 years.
Myth No. 3
Coups are violent, bloody fights for power, just like civil wars.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” as the hit TV show put it. “There is no middle ground.” Observers regularly contrast violent coups (“bullets”) with nonviolent elections (“ballots”), as political scientist Brian P. Klaas did in a 2015 paper. Encyclopaedia Britannica goes so far as to define coups as “the sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group,” lumping them together with rebellions and revolutions as forms of collective violence. PITF researchers likewise often analyze coups alongside revolutionary or ethnic civil wars, genocide and politicide.
Unlike in armed conflict and civil wars, fighting and death are not defining features of coups. Sure, all coup attempts involve at least the implicit threat of force, but fewer than half result in fatalities, according to data compiled by the political scientist Erica De Bruin. My own data suggests that 80 percent of coup attempts under autocracy involved explicit threats of force, less than 60 percent saw shots fired, less than 15 percent led to at least 25 deaths (a standard threshold among scholars for armed conflict) and only 1 percent escalated to fighting that caused at least 1,000 deaths (a standard threshold for civil war). In Tunisia’s “medical coup” in November 1987, for example, President Habib Bourguiba was ousted by Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who sent doctors to the presidential palace in the middle of the night to examine Bourguiba and declare him unfit. As Naunihal Singh argues, coups may be better thought of as complex “coordination games” rather than “pitched battles” among military factions.
Myth No. 4
Coups always promote political instability.
If they oust a sitting executive with force, it is natural to assume that coups weaken regimes and hasten their demise. Thwarting the will of the people supposedly invites challenges and results in “continued political instability and illiberal politics,” according to political scientists Kevin Koehler and Holger Albrecht, in a 2019 paper for the journal Armed Forces & Society.
Although all successful coups undermine incumbent or constitutional leaders, failed efforts at regime change can actually promote the longevity of leaders and systems, as they can be used to justify the personalization of power and greater repression of opponents. After surviving several invasion attempts and putsch plots in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier moved to destroy the organizational capacity of the military, relying instead on a militia, the Tonton Macoute, accountable only to him. For their part, leader reshuffling coups can serve as an effective accountability mechanism that strengthens a regime by removing a principal perceived as weak. Successful “veto coups” blocking new elites from coming to power can breathe fresh life into threatened regimes. But a failed veto coup, as in the Soviet Union in August 1991, can accelerate a regime’s demise.
Myth No. 5
Coups are always bad for democracy.
Conventional wisdom holds military coups to be anti-democratic by their very nature, as well as in their political effects. After all, they involve unconstitutional moves by unelected actors, and it is true that they have been a leading cause of transitions to dictatorship since 1946. Some prominent scholars even use “coup” as a shorthand for any democratic breakdown. Nine in 10 coups against democratic leaders indeed lead to the death of democracy, according to the Colpus data set. This was the fate of Chile in 1973, for example, when Salvador Allende was ousted.
But some coups against democratic leaders have not resulted in democratic breakdowns, mainly because the putsch-makers handed power to the next in the constitutional line of succession or soon presided over new democratic elections. Such a situation came in Honduras in 2009, when the military forced Manuel Zelaya into exile but quickly held new elections that brought Porfirio Lobo to power. Still, the “good coup” hypothesis (the idea among some scholars that coup attempts against dictators often promote democracy) is also naive. Only a few attempts — particularly those that oust entrenched personalist dictatorships — have had any chance of advancing a shift to democracy.