Editor’s (admin’s) note: One of two posts today that were prompted by Nate Cohn’s op ed piece “Why Political Sectarianism Is a Growing Threat to American Democracy” in the New York Times. Link HERE for my notes & quotes from Cohn’s article, and a scholarly article in Science magazine he based it on.
Cite: Robin Wright, “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” New Yorker, Aug. 14, 2017 https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-america-headed-for-a-new-kind-of-civil-war.
America’s stability is increasingly an undercurrent in political discourse. Earlier this year, I began a conversation with Keith Mines about America’s turmoil. Mines has spent his career—in the U.S. Army Special Forces, the United Nations, and now the State Department—navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. He returned to Washington after sixteen years to find conditions that he had seen nurture conflict abroad now visible at home. It haunts him. In March, Mines was one of several national-security experts whom Foreign Policy asked to evaluate the risks of a second civil war—with percentages. Mines concluded that the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years. Other experts’ predictions ranged from five per cent to ninety-five per cent. The sobering consensus was thirty-five per cent. And that was five months before Charlottesville.
“We keep saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but then, holy smokes, it can,” Mines told me after we talked, on Sunday, about Charlottesville. The pattern of civil strife has evolved worldwide over the past sixty years. Today, few civil wars involve pitched battles from trenches along neat geographic front lines. Many are low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales. Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it. On Saturday, McAuliffe put the National Guard on alert and declared a state of emergency.
Based on his experience in civil wars on three continents, Mines cited five conditions that support his prediction: entrenched national polarization, with no obvious meeting place for resolution; increasingly divisive press coverage and information flows; weakened institutions, notably Congress and the judiciary; a sellout or abandonment of responsibility by political leadership; and the legitimization of violence as the “in” way to either conduct discourse or solve disputes.
President Trump “modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign,” Mines wrote in Foreign Policy. “Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this,” he continued, citing anarchists in anti-globalization riots as one of several flashpoints. “It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.”
“When you look at the map of red and blue states and overlap on top of it the map of the Civil War—and who was allied with who in the Civil War—not much has changed,” Judith Giesberg, the editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era and a historian at Villanova University, told me. “We never agreed on the outcome of the Civil War and the direction the country should go in. The postwar amendments were highly contentious—especially the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides equal protection under the law—and they still are today. What does it mean to deliver voting rights to people of color? We still don’t know.”
She added, “Does that make us vulnerable to a repeat of the past? I don’t see a repeat of those specific circumstances. But that doesn’t mean we are not entering something similar in the way of a culture war. We are vulnerable to racism, tribalism, and conflicting visions of the way forward for our nation.”
[quoting David Blight, a Yale historian]
[…] “Parallels and analogies are always risky, but we do have weakened institutions and not just polarized parties but parties that are risking disintegration, which is what happened in the eighteen-fifties,” he told me. “Slavery tore apart, over fifteen years, both major political parties. It destroyed the Whig Party, which was replaced by the Republican Party, and divided the Democratic Party into northern and southern parts.”
“So,” he said, “watch the parties” as an indicator of America’s health.
In the eighteen-fifties, Blight told me, Americans were not good at foreseeing or absorbing the “shock of events,” including the Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the John Brown raid, and even the Mexican-American War. “No one predicted them. They forced people to reposition themselves,” Blight said. “We’re going through one of those repositionings now. Trump’s election is one of them, and we’re still trying to figure it out. But it’s not new. It dates to Obama’s election. We thought that would lead culture in the other direction, but it didn’t,” he said. “There was a tremendous resistance from the right, then these episodes of police violence, and all these things [from the past] exploded again. It’s not only a racial polarization but a seizure about identity.”
Generally, Blight added, “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.” The nation witnessed tectonic shifts on the eve of the Civil War, and during the civil-rights era, the unrest of the late nineteen-sixties and the Vietnam War, he said. “It did not happen with Bush v. Gore, in 2000, but perhaps we were close. It is not inconceivable that it could happen now.”
ROBIN WRIGHT: [bio on the New Yorker website]
A former correspondent for the Washington Post, CBS News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sunday Times of London, she has reported from more than a hundred and forty countries. She is also a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has been a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as at Yale, Duke, Dartmouth, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Wright received the U.N. Correspondents Association Gold Medal for international coverage, and the Overseas Press Club Award for the “best reporting in any medium requiring exceptional courage and initiative,” for her coverage of African wars. The American Academy of Diplomacy named her journalist of the year for “distinguished reporting and analysis of international affairs.” She also won the National Press Club Award for diplomatic reporting and has been the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant.
Wright is the author of several books, including “The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran,” “Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam,” and “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East,” which was selected by the New York Times and the Washington Post as one of the most notable books of 2008. Her book, “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” was selected as the best book on international affairs by the Overseas Press Club.