Books 2017-10-12T03:56:25+00:00

The Democratic Coup d’État

The term coup d’état–French for stroke of the state–brings to mind coups staged by power-hungry generals who overthrow the existing regime, not to democratize, but to concentrate power in their own hands as dictators. We assume all coups look the same, smell the same, and present the same threats to democracy.

It’s a powerful, concise, and self-reinforcing idea. It’s also wrong.

In The Democratic Coup d’État, Ozan Varol advances a simple, yet controversial, argument: Sometimes, a democracy is established through a military coup. Covering events from the Athenian Navy’s stance in 411 B.C. against a tyrannical home government, to coups in the American colonies that ousted corrupt British governors, to twentieth-century coups that toppled dictators and established democracy in countries as diverse as Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, and Colombia, the book takes the reader on a gripping journey.

Connecting the dots between these neglected events, Varol weaves a balanced narrative that challenges everything we thought we knew about military coups. In so doing, he tackles several baffling questions: How can an event as undemocratic as a military coup lead to democracy? Why would imposing generals—armed with tanks and guns and all—voluntarily surrender power to civilian politicians? What distinguishes militaries that help build democracies from those that destroy them?

Varol’s arguments made headlines across the globe in major media outlets and were cited critically in a public speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Written for a general audience, this book will entertain, challenge, and provoke, but more importantly, serve as a reminder of the imperative to question the standard narratives about our world and engage with all ideas, no matter how controversial.

Advance Praise for The Democratic Coup d’État

“Are there cases when a coup can advance democracy? Ozan Varol . . . argues that while the vast majority of military coups are undemocratic in nature, and lead to less democratic political regimes, there are significant examples of democratic coups d’etat. If the concept seems ridiculous, consider the fact that [on July 4th] Americans will celebrate an armed uprising to overthrow an autocratic government. Why are bloody insurgencies sometimes considered legitimate but not actions taken by established militaries acting on behalf of disenfranchised citizens?”

— Foreign Policy

“Ozan Varol . . . first coined the paradoxical concept of the ‘democratic coup.'”


“Varol’s research explains why many see [some] coups as the expression of the popular will of the people.”


“Engagingly written, The Democratic Coup d’État draws on a wide range of examples from the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America to provide a nuanced account of how military interventions in politics can sometimes promote democracy—and why they often do not. This is an important contribution to the study of comparative constitutional law and military sociology.”

— Mark Tushnet, Harvard Law School

“A democratic tour d’force! In this timely, beautifully written, and forcefully argued book, Varol challenges conventional wisdom about the role of the military in democratization. Whether one agrees or not, this is an argument that I suspect we will have to wrestle with again and again.”

— Tom Ginsburg, University of Chicago Law School

“As recent years have shown, the preservation of liberal democracy can never be taken for granted. In this highly original book, Ozan Varol dares to argue that in certain contexts, the use of military force—including military coups—has been a fundamental means of restoring the institutions of liberal democracy. Varol challenges democratic theorists and citizens alike to ask what price we are willing to pay and what risks we should be willing to run, to sustain liberal democracy.”

— Richard H. Pildes, New York University School of Law

“The Democratic Coup d’État constructs a provocative but nuanced account of how military coups can sometimes launch a democratization process and the varied roles played by the military during transitions from authoritarian rule. Constitutional and political scholars, as well as those interested in the Arab Spring and other recent events around the world, will surely learn from Ozan Varol’s rich examples and careful, insightful arguments.”

— David E. Landau, Florida State University College of Law

“Through an impressive exploration of transitional events such as Julius Caesar’s assassination, the Glorious Revolution, the Turkish War of Independence, and the Arab Spring, Varol shows how coup makers can bring about democratic change. The Democratic Coup d’État is an important corrective to the literature and a must-read for those interested in democratic transitions.”

— Mila Versteeg, University of Virginia School of Law