Fantasies and fears of a second civil war have seldom been more popular than in the past few years. In the 2017 novel “American War,” Omar El Akkad envisioned war erupting when the Deep South secedes over northern efforts to outlaw fossil fuels. In Foreign Policy last fall, Chris Arkenberg warned that waves of violence among ideological factions could either splinter the republic into small, competing confederacies or enable a hardened, tyrannical federal government. After the events in Charlottesville, the New Yorker asked: “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” On Twitter, #secondcivilwarletters trolled Alex Jones for predicting that liberals would fire the first shot on July 4, 2018.
From fiction to hashtags to serious think-pieces, worries about a society coming undone reflect deep anxieties over the political, social and economic divisions roiling the country.
But these fears are unfounded. And in fact, these professed fears about our future actually provide hope. Perhaps one of the most striking differences between now and the Civil War era is how we talk about our national goals and collective actions. Civil War Americans anticipated a different future than we do. They declared optimism about the future and believed violence could hasten it. We express anxiety about tomorrow and fear that warfare will destroy it.