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From whence shall we expect the approach of danger?

Americans Won’t Stop Worrying About Civil War

Civil War talk is de rigueur this year in the United States. Its most recent iteration follows the results of a late April poll conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tulchin Research examining public attitudes toward “extremist beliefs.” Among its key findings:

  • More than two-thirds of republicans polled agree with some aspects of the racist replacement theory.
  • There appears to be an increase in fear of the ideological “indoctrination” of children by transgender people among younger Americans on either side of the political aisle.
  • A majority (53%) of Republicans polled agreed that the “U.S. seems headed toward a civil war in the near future.”

In a year that’s seen the release of two popular books about the prospects for civil war in the U.S., I think it’s time to look at what this means and how likely it could be for America.

Back in January, I slammed my way through four books on the topic of a second civil war in the United States and secessionist aspirations across America:

  • The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future by Stephen Marche (2022)
  • How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter (2022)
  • American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup by F.H. Buckley (2020)
  • Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union by Richard Kreitner (2020)

A Brief Overview:

  • The Next Civil War applies speculative non-fiction to argue the case that America is heading toward civil war. Marche’s five “dispatches” explore potential scenarios leading to a rupture of American state continuity and subsequent political uncertainty.
  • How Civil Wars Start presents a decent social-anthropological look at the political and social dynamics of civil wars around the world in recent decades. She then compares these dynamics to political and social dynamics within the United States to make a case for a looming threat of civil war in the U.S.
  • American Secession sets out the polemical case for breaking the United States into multiple countries. Buckley argues in favor of James Madison’s belief that large countries should be broken up into smaller ones to function properly. He concludes that Madison is correct and that the United States should be broken into smaller independent states.
  • Break It Up delves into the history of America’s self-perception. Kreitner explores the many twists and turns the U.S. has taken along its 200+ year existence. He makes the case that the United States has always viewed itself through lenses of competing identities. Break It Up dispels the myth of a unified sense of American identity by demonstrating the constantly evolving historical struggles between these competing American identities.

Each of these books sets out its own conclusions. For Marche and Buckley, breaking up the United States is inevitable and perhaps even desirable if conducted peaceably. For Walter, the threat of such runaway political violence is grounds for beefing up the American surveillance state (She’s former CIA. What else could we possibly expect?). For Kreitner, the future remains uncertain, but the contours of present uncertainty have their roots in some solid history. For me, however, the most compelling conclusions are those grounded in history and lived realities. For that reason, out of these books, Break It Up is the work I would most recommend to anyone exploring the topic of American disunity. Of course, we can speculate a great deal about what might or should happen in the future. But the past, as it happened, carries more weight than anything we could conceive of hypothetically.

On that note, I want to preface what follows by highlighting that The Next Civil War and How Civil Wars Start were released on the first and second Tuesdays of January. The publicity campaigns behind these books drove great interest in the subject of a near-future American Civil War. In many ways, this is unsurprising following the political tumult of the Trump years. The culmination of tensions from the George Floyd protests, riots, and political violence that rocked the U.S. throughout 2020 was almost certainly a factor in much of the recent buzz. Subsequently, it is impossible to separate any current talk about this subject from the flurry of media attention that the issue received following the January release of Walter’s and Marche’s books. So, while I believe there are some points of potential concern, I recommend taking the results of the SPLC poll with that grain of salt.

Last year, Brookings’William G. Gale and Darrell M. West published two pieces for Borkings’ FixGov blog (Is the U.S. Headed for Another Civil War? and How Seriously Should We Take Talk of U.S. State Secession?), concluding that “civil war in the near future” is unlikely to occur. I believe this to be a sound position. For a variety of reasons that I will point out, later on, I do not believe that political violence in America will become organized into the kinds of simplified narratives that lend themselves to civil war. This is not to say that it can’t. Just that I don’t expect it to. However, I think a few potential catalysts and flash points bear a deeper look. So, before making a case supporting the case that America is unlikely to enter a second civil war n the near future, I want to lay out a few areas of concern.

To Be Continued…

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