In 2005, a young actress and her fiancé decided to celebrate her new job with a night out. As they walked home past the shuttered storefronts of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a group of teenage boys stepped out from a dark alcove and asked for money. The couple tried to get past them, but one of the kids produced a .357 Magnum and pistol-whipped the fiancé in the face. The actress turned to the kid with the gun and yelled, “What are you going to do now, shoot us?!” The kid shot her through the chest at point blank range. She died in her fiancé’s arms on Rivington Street.
Somewhere behind her on the sidewalk, she had stepped into a world where violence was a real possibility. Most of us don’t live in such a place so, like the actress, it’s not clear that we understand what causes violence. In a recent essay for National Review, Jay Cost argued that, contra what some who follow our political discourse have been saying, we are not on the brink of civil war. He is probably correct. Yet his essay seems to say, “What are you going to do now, shoot us?”
Cost makes two related arguments against the idea that we are careening towards civil war. First, we have persevered through periods of worse strife; second, and more importantly, we are designed to withstand division. After the Articles of Confederation failed, the nation became more anarchic than anything we have today. By invoking Alexander Hamilton, Cost reminds us that our entire constitutional system is designed to bring together disparate people divided along religious and ethnic lines. The most important principle, and the true indicator of Hamilton’s genius, is that individuals who are economically dependent on each other do not fight civil wars. Citizens put aside their differences when they make money for each other. Our own Civil War happened, in part, because the South felt economically independent from the North because they believed they could subsist on trade with Europe.
Cost isn’t wrong about this, but he misses much about our present situation. He argues against a narrowly defined conception of civil war: when people fret over the possibility of violence they’re not usually talking about states formally seceding. It is difficult to imagine a real scenario where state governments bloated on federal money issue mini-declarations of independence. It is not at all difficult to imagine small IRA-style groups carrying out acts of domestic terrorism. A nutjob tried to assassinate Congressman Steve Scalise while shouting “This is for health care!” A sweaty weirdo ran over a left-wing protester in Charlottesville. The Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania compared beating his opponent electorally to stomping on his face with golf spikes. In 2016, a Black Lives Matter-inspired shooter slaughtered five Dallas police officers.
We can imagine these events becoming common enough to erode our political process, or summon something worse, without there ever being a formally declared civil war. Despite Cost’s assurances, it doesn’t matter that we’ve persevered through more divisive times. The news cycle moves too fast for reflection, and partisan spin on both sides downplays the significance of violence. Stampedes aren’t caused by fires; they are caused by people yelling fire. We don’t have to live in the most divisive times to be on the brink of catastrophe; we just have to be unreflective. Cost himself gives heft to this danger when he bemoans the quality of public intellectuals. Leaders are supposed to calm passions. If our public intellectuals pour gasoline on the fire, then the actual state of our division doesn’t matter much. Cost points to Hamilton as the way forward, but Hamilton’s life belies the solution he offers.
Hamilton was shot dead in a duel because a newspaper reported that he had said something nasty about Aaron Burr, such a benign slight that the modern mind finds it laughable. Yet it’s only in recent times that honor has been discarded as a serious concept. Hamilton had many material incentives to decline Burr’s duel challenge, but those didn’t determine his actions. When Cost argues that our current situation isn’t combustible because people are still making money, he makes the hidden value judgement that our main motivation is material. Yet Hamilton was shot over the immaterial. That happened because we are not purely acquisitive creatures. The Iliad, perhaps the ultimate literary examination of violence, does not have Achilles returning to the battlefield after being offered wealth; he returns when he becomes enraged. Though we may not be on the cusp of any large-scale violence, Cost’s reduction of the nation to a marketplace governed by complacency is a mistake.
Who are we as a nation? Conservatives keep raising this question, and it is worth asking. Nobody argues that a nation’s people needs to unanimously like each other in order to function, but they do need to be more than a marketplace to be worth dying for. This is not just an abstract concern. Look at the violence in Portland and New York this weekend between the Proud Boys and Antifa. There is something false and overly self-conscious about these groups. The politics is secondary to the blood. They are the product of America’s bored, secular middle class. They use these brawls to grasp for meaning, or at least a higher level of entertainment. Cost says we won’t have violence because we are a functioning marketplace, but part of what makes us combustible is that civil strife is more entertaining than economic life.
Violence is rarely a rational result of weighing material interests. To say we won’t have a civil war because we have a system that disincentivizes it sounds an awful lot like saying you won’t get murdered because that’s illegal. We can respect the framework behind our constitutional system while still affirming that society is man written in big letters. If we want to diffuse our present tension, we should conduct ourselves as if violence is a real possibility.
James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.