Here’s a cheery note: If civil war comes to America as Barbara Walter of the University of California San Diego and other scholars are now predicting, it won’t involve armies marching out to Gettysburg and Chickamauga in blue and gray uniforms — it’ll be more like the sectarian violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“Is the US really heading for a second civil war?,” asks David Smith, the Guardian’s Washington DC bureau chief.
Smith, or a copyeditor for the Guardian’s affiliated Sunday paper answers like this: “With the country polarised and Republicans embracing authoritarianism, some experts fear a Northern Ireland-style insurgency but others say armed conflict remains improbable.”
But the scholars quoted in Smith’s article sound a little less sanguine.
I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ve been alarmed by the ongoing constitutional crisis since the 2020 election, and the echoes I hear in today’s “culture wars” of the breakdown in political discourse during the runup to the first Civil War. Ever since the failed insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, I’ve even had to rethink the assumptions behind my historical research on Swedish immigration in the 1850s; I’m no longer quite as confident of the future of cultural pluralism in America. I’ve blogged about it HERE and HERE, and in May I quoted James Davison Hunter, who coined the term “culture wars” 30 years ago, on the subject:
If I could draw a parallel, it’s not unlike the Civil War. There was a culture war for 30 years prior to the Civil War. The Civil War was—without question—about slavery and the status of Black men and women, and, yes, the good guys won [the Civil War]—at the cost of 4 out of 10 Southern males dying and 1 out of 10 Northern males dying. But think about what happened: Dred Scott was an attempt to impose a consensus by law; it took the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to overturn Dred Scott. And yet that was also an imposition of solidarity by law and by force. The failures of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow and “Black Codes” and all of that was proof that politics couldn’t solve culture; it couldn’t solve the cultural tensions, and so what you end up with is a struggle for civil rights.
My view is that the reason why we’re continuing to see this press toward racial reckoning is because it’s never been addressed culturally.
But like David Smith of the Guardian, I’m not altogether convinced by the scholars.
Verbatim excerpts follow from Smith’s feature in today’s Observer, the Guardian’s affiliated Sunday paper. Smith frames the issue like this, in what can serve as a nut graf or thesis statement:
A slew of recent opinion polls show a significant minority of Americans at ease with the idea of violence against the government. Even talk of a second American civil war has gone from fringe fantasy to media mainstream.
“Is a Civil War ahead?” was the blunt headline of a New Yorker magazine article this week. “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” posed the headline of a column in Friday’s New York Times. Three retired US generals wrote a recent Washington Post column warning that another coup attempt “could lead to civil war”.
The mere fact that such notions are entering the public domain shows the once unthinkable has become thinkable, even though some would argue it remains firmly improbable.
The anxiety is fed by rancour in Washington, where Biden’s desire for bipartisanship has crashed into radicalized Republican opposition. The president’s remarks on Thursday – “I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy” – appeared to acknowledge that there can be no business as usual when one of America’s major parties has embraced authoritarianism.
Illustrating the point, almost no Republicans attended the commemorations as the party seeks to rewrite history, recasting the mob who tried to overturn Trump’s election defeat as martyrs fighting for democracy. Tucker Carlson, the most watched host on the conservative Fox News network, refused to play any clips of Biden’s speech, arguing that 6 January 2021 “barely rates as a footnote” historically because “really not a lot happened that day”.
Another excerpt, quoting Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and author of How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, recently published:
Not even the gloomiest pessimist is predicting a rerun of the 1861-65 civil war with a blue army and red army fighting pitched battles. “It would look more like Northern Ireland and what Britain experienced, where it’s more of an insurgency,” Walter continued. “It would probably be more decentralized than Northern Ireland because we have such a large country and there are so many militias all around the country.”
“They would turn to unconventional tactics, in particular terrorism, maybe even a little bit of guerrilla warfare, where they would target federal buildings, synagogues, places with large crowds. The strategy would be one of intimidation and to scare the American public into believing that the federal government isn’t capable of taking care of them.”
A 2020 plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, could be a sign of things to come. Walter suggests that opposition figures, moderate Republicans and judges deemed unsympathetic might all become potential assassination targets.
“I could also imagine situations where militias, in conjunction with law enforcement in those areas, carve out little white ethnostates in areas where that’s possible because of the way power is divided here in the United States. It would certainly not look anything like the civil war that happened in the 1860s.”
Walter notes that most people tend to assume civil wars are started by the poor or oppressed. Not so. In America’s case, it is a backlash from a white majority destined to become a minority by around 2045, an eclipse symbolized by Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
The academic explained: “The groups that tend to start civil wars are the groups that were once dominant politically but are in decline. They’ve either lost political power or they’re losing political power and they truly believe that the country is theirs by right and they are justified in using force to regain control because the system no longer works for them.”
And another, quoting more scholars
James Hawdon, director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech university, said: “I don’t like to be an alarmist, but the country has been moving more and more toward violence, not away from it. Another contested election may have grim consequences.”
Although most Americans have grown up taking its stable democracy for granted, this is also a society where violence is the norm, not the exception, from the genocide of Native Americans to slavery, from the civil war to four presidential assassinations, from gun violence that takes 40,000 lives a year to a military-industrial complex that has killed millions overseas.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “America is not unaccustomed to violence. It is a very violent society and what we’re talking about is violence being given an explicit political agenda. That’s a kind of terrifying new direction in America.”
While he does not currently foresee political violence becoming endemic, Jacobs agrees that any such unravelling would also be most likely to resemble Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
“We would see these episodic, scattered terrorist attacks,” he added. “The Northern Ireland model is the one that frankly most fear because it doesn’t take a huge number of people to do this and right now there are highly motivated, well-armed groups. The question is, has the FBI infiltrated them sufficiently to be able to knock them out before they they’ve launch a campaign of terror?”
Cite: David Smith, “Is the US really heading for a second civil war?” The Observer, Jan. 9, 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/09/is-the-us-really-heading-for-a-second-civil-war
Background on David Smith
[Jan. 9, 2022]