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From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? (Part 3)

Part 1 of this series discussed some recent books on American secession and a second American civil war. In Part 2 of this series, I laid out some factors of concern when looking at the potential for a U.S. national split-up. In this final installment, I want to detail some of why I think a second American Civil War is unlikely to occur.

Three main factors influence my impression that the United States is not about to descend into civil war any time soon. Of course, any of these factors could change in the future. For now, though, they remain relevant. 

1. The American political system – flawed as it is – is still fundamentally designed to absorb insurgent momentum and maintain federalist cohesion.

2. The complexity of politics at America’s political fringe is far too convoluted to be reduced to easily definable factions at the moment.

3. The economic factors aren’t bad enough yet.

Let’s take a look at each of these factors in turn:

Ballots and Bullets

In his Ethnoregional Conflict in Democracies (1996), Saul Newman details how separatist movements in rich liberal democracies primarily attempt to achieve their goals through electoral means. Part of this comes down to the well-funded and frequently beefy security apparatuses of these countries. Partly, though, it’s due to publics in these countries having come to expect a certain degree of stability. Large majorities in these societies generally frown upon disruptions to that stability, such as those caused by militancy, political violence, and terrorism. For separatist movements in rich-liberal states, violent insurrection tends to be counterproductive to organizational longevity and subsequently to achieving their goals.

As Brookings’ William G. Gale and Darrell M. West point out in Is the U.S. Headed for Another Civil War?, despite false accusations of widespread election fraud and sharp political divisions, American electoral and political institutions are still essentially dominant. “The rule of law remains strong and government officials are in firm position to penalize those who engage in violent actions,” they explain. Fundamentally, the capacity of the American federal government to meet widespread violence with superior organized violence is still present. While it could significantly deteriorate, given the right set of influences, it has not yet done so and remains a force to be reckoned with.

The Judean People’s Front vs. the People’s Front of Judea

In Chapter 7 of How Civil Wars Start (2022)*, Barbara F. Walter lays out a relatively straightforward scenario for a second American civil war. It is catalyzed after a series of targeted violent events spur fringe ideological and ethnic entrepreneurs to pull together large political factions based upon loose networks of alliances and ethnic and political affinities. The problem with this vision of a dystopic war-bound future is that it seems incredibly aloof to the experience of on-the-ground big-tent organizing in American fringe politics. 

It is incredibly difficult to overstate the capacity for large groups of Americans united only by the presumption of mutual aims to disrupt each other when insufficiently organized. This may be down to American individualism or possibly even narcissistically framed political identities focused on moral purity rather than strategic political effectiveness. But whatever its origin, it is difficult to pull off what is known as “big-tent organizing” in the U.S. for long periods. Carl von Clausewitz describes an equivalent wartime phenomenon in chapter seven of book one of On War: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.”  

On the American Left, this has created a recurring phenomenon. From the alter-globalization movement of 1999-2003 to the Occupy movement over a decade ago, the phase in which political cohesion among disparate fringe groups can sustain itself before factionalism topples the big tent generally runs along a few-year cycle before sputtering out almost entirely. The process by which this occurs isn’t very complicated: competing visions of the future lead to different strategic goals and different tactics. These aims and tactics occasionally lend themselves to uneasiness among some elements within the larger network seeking to distance themselves from others. This splits the network into smaller and smaller factions.

The American right may be showing some signs of this process, as well. In August of 2017, hundreds of far-right adherents descended on Charlottesville, VA, for the now-infamous Unite the Right Rally, in which a neo-nazi plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. When Organizer Jason Kessler attempted a similar event the following year in Washington, DC, only a few dozen individuals attended. In the wake of the U.S. Capitol riot in January of 2021, many within the networks of individuals associated with organizations involved may likely be reluctant to continue their associations. But only time will tell.

Returning to Gale and West, despite “high levels of inequality and polarization,” the case remains that “most of the organizations talking about civil war are private, not public entities” and “There is no clear regional split” as existed in the lead up to the American Civil War of the 1860s. With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and a slew of similar Supreme Court decisions potentially on the horizon, however, this could change very soon.

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler detail this in their 2002 paper, Greed and Grievance in Civil War. Looking at contributing factors to the outbreak of civil wars, they identified economic factors as crucial. Among the chief contributors:

  • Low growth
  • A high proportion of the national economy devoted to the export of natural resources
  • Meager per capita income

Despite some variation at the regional and municipal level, the United States hasn’t suffered from these problems in a very long time and won’t likely do so soon. Moreover, as shown in Part 2 of this series, the main threats to American national integrity have little direct relation to trending issues, political polarization, or failures of America’s two-party system. Instead, these issues are symptoms of longstanding cultural trends that have a long history and deep roots in American society. If anything will be the undoing of the United States, it will be hard material realities. With its large and dynamic economy, though, ideological and ethnic entrepreneurs face tough competition in the United States. 

Bluntly: So long as Americans have no trouble accessing basic nutrition and entertainment (panem et circenses), they will likely remain a skimp recruiting ground for a grueling modern war of attrition against their fellow countrymen on their home soil. While inflation, global food shortages, and rising U.S. federal interest rates threaten to curb many of the factors that contributed to America’s economic prosperity for over a generation, this will be felt more strongly elsewhere. For the United States to reach the levels of economic decline cited in Collier and Hoeffler’s study – less than or roughly equal to $1645 (PPP) income per person – would be historically unprecedented.

In conclusion, there are good reasons to be concerned about the potential for political violence in America to escalate. There are also good reasons to expect that reports of the death of American federalism are premature. However, this is not necessarily a net positive. Alternatives to the outbreak of a full-fledged civil war – from sustained low-level political violence like that of the Irish Troubles or the Italian Years of Lead – would still be a brutally traumatic turn of events in the lives of many. Likewise, a descent into deep and irreversible authoritarian rule – a possibility which BOTH poles of American liberal politics have demonstrated at least some willingness for – is not out of the question, either.

The future is unwritten, though, and we can’t tell what’s lurking around history’s corner that might make all of today’s talk of civil war irrelevant in the near or distant future. But an essential thing to understand is that the factors at play are not as simple as they seem on the surface. Whatever happens, the world will be dealing with the consequences of America’s present political strife for a long time to come.

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