Just a few months ago the Atlantic published a piece claiming that there was a group of conservatives preparing for a new civil war because the country was now so divided between the conservative right and the woke left. Since then, it seems the left is eagerly picking up on the civil war theme. A few days ago the Guardian published a piece titled “The next US civil war is already here – we just refuse to see it.” The author of the piece has just written a book predicting a civil war is coming soon.
The United States today is, once again, headed for civil war, and, once again, it cannot bear to face it. The political problems are both structural and immediate, the crisis both longstanding and accelerating. The American political system has become so overwhelmed by anger that even the most basic tasks of government are increasingly impossible…
At this supreme moment of crisis, the left has divided into warring factions completely incapable of confronting the seriousness of the moment. There are liberals who retain an unjustifiable faith that their institutions can save them when it is utterly clear that they cannot. Then there are the woke, educational and political elites dedicated to a discourse of willed impotence. Any institution founded by the woke simply eats itself – see TimesUp, the Women’s March, etc – becoming irrelevant to any but a diminishing cadre of insiders who spend most of their time figuring out how to shred whoever’s left. They render themselves powerless faster than their enemies can…
The United States needs to recover its revolutionary spirit, and I don’t mean that as some kind of inspirational quote. I mean that, if it is to survive, the United States will have to recover its revolutionary spirit. The crises the United States now faces in its basic governmental functions are so profound that they require starting over. The founders understood that government is supposed to work for living people, rather than for a bunch of old ghosts. And now their ghostly constitution, worshipped like a religious document, is strangling the spirit that animated their enterprise, the idea that you mold politics to suit people, not the other way around.
I’m condensing this longer argument down to just three short paragraphs but I’m doing that because I think it gives you a sense of the beginning, middle and end of an argument that is gaining traction on the left. The war is here. The right is ready for it but the left is not. We need to burn down everything (including the Constitution) and start over because it’s the only way. An even simpler summary might be: Panic now and then start the revolution.
Yesterday over at Politico, John Harris sounded a note of caution about the rush to declare a new civil war. Normally, he pointed out, people fight a civil war over some great, irreconcilable issue. But what’s the issue now?
The real Civil War was about slavery — at the start, to restrict its territorial expansion, by war’s end to eliminate it entirely. Capitalists opposed to the New Deal knew why they loathed FDR — he was fundamentally shifting the balance of power between public and private sectors — and FDR knew, too: “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” The unrest of the 1960s was about ending segregation and stopping the Vietnam War.
Only in recent years have we seen foundation-shaking political conflict — both sides believing the other would turn the United States into something unrecognizable — with no obvious and easily summarized root cause. What is the fundamental question that hangs in the balance between the people who hate Trump and what he stands for and the people who love Trump and hate those who hate him? This is less an ideological conflict than a psychological one…
A country that can have a civil war with no one really knowing what the conflict is about is one in which the muscles of governance are pitifully atrophied.
The fact that there’s no clear reason suggests this fringe idea is being adopted for some other reason.
Finally, yesterday NY Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg also wrote about the next civil war, looking at various arguments and concluding a shooting war isn’t likely but some kind of lower-level conflict seems inevitable. Goldberg herself notes the odd phenomenon of this topic going from the farthest fringes of the left and right to the pages of major papers in remarkably short time:
…it’s absurd to treat civil war as a foregone conclusion, but that it now seems distinctly possible is still pretty bad. The fact that speculation about civil war has moved from the crankish fringes into the mainstream is itself a sign of civic crisis, an indication of how broken our country is.
The sort of civil war that Walter and Marche worry about wouldn’t involve red and blue armies facing off on some battlefield. If it happens, it will be more of a guerrilla insurgency.
If Goldberg isn’t fully convinced the war is coming, her commenters seem much more confident. A few samples:
- No, we’re not about to enter another Civil War. It’s just that the previous one never really ended.
- When Joe Manchin representing a state of just over a million people whose population is dropping off a cliff can override the will of the president and Bush and Trump were voted into office without winning a majority we are not a true democracy.
- What we are likely headed toward is sustained, low-level political violence like The Troubles in Northern Ireland or Italy’s Years or Lead. Terrorist attacks, street battles, assassinations, and more. And this might be if we are *lucky*.
- The panicked talk of civil war stems from a feeling of powerlessness. But we perpetuate this hysteria at our peril. We are not powerless.
- it takes two sides to fight a war. And only Trumpists are prepared to fight. The rest of us will shuffle along meekly, as we’ve done these past five years.
Each of these comments has been upvoted many hundreds of times. These aren’t just fringe voices, these are the best responses as voted on by readers of the NY Times. It’s hard to draw a simple conclusion from the comments except that few of them seem to think the civil war talk is overblown. Many think things will get worse before they get better.
It’s hard not to see that as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. To the degree Democrats and progressives convince themselves they need to get ready to fight a war, either to save democracy for the sake of some revolution to take us beyond our current democracy, it’s difficult to see how the temperature and tone comes down. Tell people over and over that democracy is about to fail and revolution is the only option and some will believe it and begin to act accordingly.
My own take is that all of this agita is about the fact that Democrats know they could lose a bunch of upcoming elections. They can’t face that possibility so they’re increasingly claiming the process is rigged and we’re already at war. But as I said before, Democrats losing doesn’t mean democracy has failed or civil war is at hand. It just means Democrats are unpopular and in a democracy, unpopular things can be made to go away.