by Tony Wyman
That was the consensus chance a panel of national security experts polled by Foreign Policy magazine in 2017 said America had of entering into a second civil war over the next 10 to 15 years. And that poll was conducted five weeks before the fractious clash of alt-right hate groups and Antifa leftists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Had the poll been conducted after the death of one protester at the hands of a neo-Nazi, the percentage might have been even higher.
One of those polled was Keith Mines, a former special forces officer and foreign policy expert who served in places like Darfur, the Al Anbar Province in Iraq and Kabul, Afghanistan. There are few men in this country with a better or more practical perspective on what it takes for a society to fall apart and descend into civil war than Mr. Mines.
He puts our chance of a second civil war over the next two decades at 60%.
“We keep saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but then, holy smokes, it can,” Mr. Mines told a reporter for The New Yorker shortly after the Charlottesville clash.
Charlottesville was a conflict so heated it prompted Gov. Terry McAuliffe to ask “How did we get to this place?” as he called out the National Guard to restore calm.
How we got to this place is clear.
Anger, accumulating over years and inflamed by radicals and demagogues on both the left and the right, is boiling over among partisans who see those on the other side of issues such as race relations, individual liberty, economic opportunity and the proper use of government power, as enemies who must be destroyed if America, as they see her, is to be saved.
This view is held by many on both sides, including more mainstream thought leaders. One example is conservative columnist Dennis Prager, who wrote for the National Review in 2017:
Americans are more divided morally, ideologically, and politically today than they were during the Civil War. For that reason, just as the Great War came to be known as the First World War once there was a Second World War, the Civil War will become known as the First Civil War when more Americans come to regard the current battle as the Second Civil War.
He suggests the only way for this divide between Americans, which he blames on the Left’s hostility towards Western Civilization, claiming they “see America as essentially a racist, xenophobic, colonialist, imperialist, war-mongering, money-worshiping, moronically religious nation,” is for one side to “vanquish” the other.
Without any important value held in common, how can there be unity between Left and non-Left? Obviously, there cannot. There will be unity only when the Left vanquishes the Right or the Right vanquishes the Left. Using the First Civil War analogy, American unity was achieved only after the South was vanquished and slavery abolished.
Another example, this time on the left, is Daily Banter writer Justin Rosario, who wrote:
Conservatives are destroying America and until enough of them break free of their addiction to hate and nihilism, they will continue to burn everything down to the ground. We can either indulge them at our peril or rise up and take away their power until they can wield it responsibly again.
While the comments of both men hold some truth to them – the left often hostile to western values and the right equally guilty of promulgating hatred towards groups they see as threatening those values – their words are mostly hyperbolic and incendiary, designed more to impassion their tribes than to address and solve problems in the American body politic.
And this is the direction America’s Second Civil War is likely to take.
One where slow-burn agitation and minor flare-ups, like those in Charlottesville last year or in Sacramento today, evolve into larger-scale, nationwide conflicts between the right and the left, rather than outright shooting wars between separatists, like the Confederacy, and loyalists, like the Union.
Over the past several decades in countries around the world, strife between groups of citizens have evolved from pitched battles along clearly defined front lines to periodic and sporadic clashes between ethnic or political groups that move from locale to locale.
What Mr. Mines warns about is these flare-ups can morph together and turn into large-scale shooting wars if five conditions are met:
- Increasing political polarization of the population that is unable or unwilling to find a center where both sides can meet for the good of the country
- The deliberate misuse of the press and other information sources to spread false, misleading and intentionally divisive information designed to inflame already agitated citizens to resent and hate those on the other sides of critical issues
- The use of violence or the threat of violence as a political tool to control, intimidate and pacify opponents to get one’s way
- The deliberate weakening of institutions, like the media, the FBI and other agencies whose mission includes providing checks and balances to the power of the executive branch of the government
- Acquiescence or subjugation of the legislative branch to the executive, capitulating the responsibility of the people’s representatives to stand up against the excesses of the executive branch in the interest of preserving the rights of the people.
Clearly, these five conditions exist in America today. Social media is full of examples of how Republicans and Democrats “block” each other, rather than engage in constructive and respectful conversation; the media, especially outlets like Russia Today, Sputnik and similar publications, are often used by political forces to advance an agenda, rather than objectively report the news.
Donald Trump, according to Mr. Mines, “modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign,” and, in his view, “the left is now fully on board with this.” The president and other politicians have also attacked the FBI, calling them corrupt and impugning their integrity, while also assailing the objective media for being purveyors of “fake news.”
And, in sight of this, Congress has barely stirred, much less risen up in righteous anger, condemning the administration for its innumerable excesses.
It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.
And that is the problem, everyone is mad about something, some are mad about everything, and some are mad and have no idea why. And this nation is armed to the teeth, with some 300 million firearms in the hands of an increasingly agitated populace.
We are still even fighting over the end of the Civil War, a conflict that resulted in the creation of a number of amendments to our Constitution, including the 14th amendment, the most controversial, that afforded equal rights to all Americans, regardless of race. Courts, 150 years later, are still resolving exactly what “equal protection under the law” means.
The political polarization that Mr. Mines warns about is even having a real and, possibly, lasting impact on our political parties.
Both have seen their number of supporters drop off as younger voters choose to register as independents rather than with one of the major parties, but the most dramatic shift is in the average of age of voters registered to one of the main parties since 1992.
Then, the Republican Party had a slight edge over the Democrats in the number of young voters registered with them.
Today, that has sharply reversed, In 1992, only 38% of Republicans were over 50; today, 58% are in that age group. The median age of a Republican in 1992 was 46; now it is 52. For Democrats, the median age has gone up from 47 to 48, an increase caused largely by the aging of America.
The significance of these numbers is they threaten the health of the major political parties, foreshadowing, potentially, their demise. Talking about parallels between today’s political climate and the one before the First Civil War, Yale historian David Blight said to the New Yorker:
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. 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.
He said we should “watch the political parties” if we want an early indication of the health of America’s political system.
Clearly, if the health of the two major parties is any indication of the likelihood of the country imploding, it might be time to stockpile ammunition. Both are at or near historic lows, with only 18% – three-points higher than the historic low of 15% – rating Congress positively. Favorability ratings for the parties typically run parallel to the percentage of voters who register with them, indicating that partisan divides are as set in ink as are the words on a voter’s registration cards.
So, if our nation is to truly enter into a civil war that goes from being a low-heat, slow-burn one to a full-fledged shootout, what would prompt it? For that answer, we look, again, to Mr. Mines. He lists the following:
- The impeachment of Donald Trump, a man hated and loved by groups of Americans with such passion their emotions could drive them to violence
- A major terrorist act that the government fails to prevent and the widespread fear of the populace that it can no longer provide for the nation’s security
- A call to action by a failing president desperate to remain in power that inspires his supporters to act violently
- Racial events, such as those that lead to deaths of a minority that feels powerless, that spiral out of control
- A war that goes very badly, resulting in massive American casualties. We have grown accustomed to fighting wars where American military deaths are a fraction of those we suffered in Vietnam, Korea and the two World Wars.
- And the last scenario that Mr. Mines suggests is one in which the president’s decision-making during wartime is so ill-advised, so dangerous, that the military decides it must remove him from power.
While the chances that America will collapse into a full-fledged civil war like the one in the 1860s might not be as precipitous as Mr. Mines and the others that were polled fear, the fact that several serious news periodicals, ranging from the National Review to the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker have run articles on the subject over the past 12 months, should be a warning to Americans that we are not immune to the political strife that has torn other nations apart.
If we want to reduce the chances of a civil war from 35% to zero, we need to start making real changes in the way we interact politically.
The lesson of the (Civil) war that should never depart from us is that the American people have no exemption from the ordinary fate of humankind. If we sin, we must suffer for our sins, like the Empires that are tottering and the Nations that have perished.
– Murat Halstead, journalist, 1867