Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Is A New Civil War Possible?

No, states are not going to secede -- but Americans may find a way to fight it by other means

I’ve recommended this many times in this space, and want to do it again: the 1980s-era Granada television documentary about the Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936-39. It’s all in English (Granada is a British TV production company), and is quite balanced. The first episode (see here) covers the background to the conflict, in the years 1931-35. It details how Spaniards came to hate each other so much in that time that they were ready to shoot each other. It makes for discomfiting viewing as an American in 2020.

There’s a new website, A New Civil War, that aggregates news and op-eds from both the left and the right, on the subject of the possibility of such a conflict in contemporary America. In an American Greatness op-ed, the sites authors, Clifford Humphrey and Juan Davalos, say:

In June, we counted 23 articles written about the prospect of a new or cold civil war in the United States. In July, that number doubled to 46. That’s no mere “uptick.”

Right or wrong, these prognostications from both Left and Right are significant for what they reveal about the nature of the political division in the United States. Interest in this topic will only increase as we approach the election in November and whatever lies beyond it.

For this reason, we are launching a website dedicated to collecting and cataloging all the news and opinions on the prospect of a new civil war. We do not aim to be alarmists but to bring attention to the fact that both Left and Right are talking about this topic, and to make it easy to follow that conversation.

By gathering all of the rhetoric on what is perhaps the most important political subject in the last century and a half in one place, we hope that Americans may better understand the nature of our divisions and work to discover unifying solutions.

Take a look at the site, and bookmark it. They really do have pieces from both sides there. I found Damon Linker’s latest, in which he asks the question, “Can America split up?” Excerpt:

When I try to wrap my mind around what it would look like for political violence to break out and start spreading like brushfire through the country, I come up short. The historical Civil War was waged as a traditional military conflict over territory, with discrete battles, campaigns, victories, and surrenders. That’s because the dispute mapped precisely onto the physical world. The North could have allowed the Confederacy to walk away, but it didn’t, and so the two sides fought it out, with the South eventually losing, bringing the war to a decisive end.

But today? We talk of red states and blue states, but that’s obviously simplistic. It’s not even possible to speak of an archipelago of progressive coastal cities arrayed against a much less densely populated inland empire of conservatism. The fact is that even small cities in America are significantly more liberal than the small towns and countryside that surround them. I live in an inner-ring suburb of Philadelphia that is heavily Democratic, but just a few miles from my house there are neighborhoods and towns filled with loyal Republicans. We are politically intertwined. That’s the way a country is supposed to be — at least when those on different sides of political disputes don’t hate each other.

Do we hate each other? And if we do, what are our viable options as a polity? I don’t know how to answer those questions. What I do know is that it is long past time to begin posing them.

I think the main reason we can’t think very productively about the prospect of a new civil war is because our thinking is conditioned so heavily by history (this is what Linker is talking about in the passage I quoted). It’s why so many Americans today can’t grasp the rising totalitarianism in our society: because their idea of totalitarianism is conditioned by the experience of the Soviet Union and its satellites. In this vision, totalitarianism is about secret police bugging your phone,  gulags, torture, etc. This is wrong. Totalitarianism, in its most essential form, is about the politicization of every aspect of life, and a state with the means to enforce that single vision. In our case, it’s not just the state, and maybe not even mainly the state, but also major corporations, mass media, and other institutions of our society.

The main reason I insist on the phrase “soft totalitarianism” is because I’m trying to shake up the people who won’t recognize as totalitarian anything short of gulags and secret police. Technology has changed what it means to be totalitarian — that is, how elites (governmental and otherwise) within a modern society can see to it that a single view is permitted, and those who dissent from it are marginalized and punished. It is entirely possible that they may get what they want without resorting to “hard” methods. Anyway, my views are all in Live Not By Lies, which we can argue about when it is published in about seven weeks.

If we miss the potential for creating a soft totalitarian society, then we might also miss the potential for a civil war. The culture war has been a civil war by other means. Take the idea of armies fighting each other along battle lines off the table. We are not looking at state secession, and so forth. It would be impossible, in 2020, to do what was possible in 1861. I live in a blue city-parish in a ruby red state. The people of Baton Rouge would be completely divided themselves on which polity to align themselves with — and this would be repeated in most red states, and many blue states too, with the countryside opposing the urban left. The new civil war, if it comes, will primarily be carried out within institutions, all of which are controlled by the left, with purges against the right. But it could turn violent if militias begin attacking each other, and/or if the police cannot stop outbreaks of violent protest and crime. There could be other ways, I’m sure — and we need to think about them, and talk about them, and attempt to stop them before they start.

The root of it is rage. In that documentary to which I link above, a Spaniard who fought on the Nationalist side in the civil war says that by 1935, all sides despised each other so thoroughly that when they saw someone from the other side walking down the street, they reacted as if they were looking at a demon. I think that’s entirely possible here. Think about the coming election. If Trump loses, does anybody think he’s going to go quietly? No, he’s likely to behave as if the result was illegitimate, no matter how fair the election is demonstrated to have been. He will urge his followers to resist the new president. If Trump wins, though, I expect many on the left to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the election, no matter how fair it is demonstrated to have been — and even if Joe Biden concedes. In either instance, I predict that a significant minority of Americans will not recognize the legitimacy of the president, and will conclude that democracy is a system that can be gamed by the Forces of Evil.

In his column, Damon Linker asks: What are the forces that bind us as Americans? Right now, I’m having trouble seeing those as greater than the forces that are tearing us apart. What could turn that around? The deepest reason for my pessimism is that we have become a people who cannot see any good greater than our own desires. This is not a left-wing or a right-wing thing; it’s who we are here in late modernity. It’s the Triumph of the Therapeutic. 

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Thank you for your posting this morning.  I agree that a new Civil War in the US will not be like the last one – and that one was horrific enough.  Some historians are now pushing the total death toll closer to 700,00-800,000 from the war – well beyond the official military casualties by looking at the wider net of destruction the war cast.  When talk of the need or the advisability of a Civil War began emerging on the Right during the late 2000’s early 2010’s, especially after Romney’s defeat, I kept saying, it won’t be Gettysburg 2.0 it will be Guernica 2.0.
The Spanish Civil War seems the most likely parallel in many ways, but even so, it is interesting to dig into the numbers and specifics of the last war to find it wasn’t as neat and tidy as we remember.
When I moved to the South and began studying the local history of my new home I was astonished to discover that my current home county voted against secession in it’s state’s vote in 1861.  When the main town was invaded by the Union Army in 1865 it was generally warmly received and little or no violence ensued.  Earlier in 1864, even the nearby and much larger metropolis welcomed (or at least some of the community did) the Union Army, and then when it was retaken by the South there were recriminations and reprisals that were then repeated when the city fell a second time to the North in 1865.  Also, there were plenty of places, especially in the mountain counties, and Missouri and Kansas, that were far more like Spain than we want to remember.  I thought the generally lousy movie Cold Mountain did a good job of showing this world of bushwhacking, as does the movie The Free State of Jones.
On top of that we aren’t attempting to be a Christian Civilization (flawed and hypocritical as it may have been) that we were in 1861-1865.  Then further couple that with modern weapons, technology, the fact that the army would likely break up and fight itself (there are plenty of progressive officers, perhaps a slight majority, especially in the upper echelons) and we’d have a royal, bloody, horrid mess.  It would be people fighting house to house, neighborhood against neighborhood, roving armies and militias, and the minorities of all kinds (politically, religious, ethnic) killed, evicted, and harassed in any given territory held by the other side.  There would be reigns of terror and reprisal killings and massacres.  I know, I’ve heard people right and left making stupid blood curdling statements when they thought no one would disagree or take them seriously, but if you are willing to say, as one political activist did in my presence, assuming I was a liberal, “we just need to put all those f**** … against the wall” referring to local politicians of the right, and I’ve heard similar statements from people on the right, we’ve a problem.  A new Civil War would be the worst of all possible worlds.  Plus most people in 1865, North and South grew their own food or at least knew how to or live by hunting and fishing, not so now.  The suffering would be horrific, look at any of the Civil Wars — Syria, Iraq, and think of that in the US.
Any time someone wants to advocate for a Civil War or anything that pushes us toward one we should seek to counter that sort of talk.  I do wonder though, if talking about it at all, is a dangerous thing.  Having a discussion, only seems to garner more discussions.  I think we need to make an effort on both sides of the political aisle to throw cold water on all of this.  I used to think that most American’s were too apathetic to care, but I think that many of our boiling and legitimate grievances and hurts, as well as the more dangerous imagine ones are eating away at us, and that is why destroying all the symbols that helped bind us together is so dangerous.  If “all men are created equal” is no longer sufficient, along with “we the people” there isn’t anything left to hold us together.  When a nation founded on an idea gives up on the idea, there isn’t much left.
I agree with this, mostly, but I do believe that it’s important for us to talk about the prospects of civil war, no matter how remote them seem at the present time, for the sake of making Americans take seriously where all this unbounded rage could end up. Is that really what we want?
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
Just read your latest blog regarding the possibility of a new civil war and had some thoughts. I live in a suburb outside [mid-size Midwestern city] with my wife and two school-age children. [My city] is similar to Austin or Seattle or Portland in that it’s a deeply Progressive city surrounded by a rural conservative population (big difference is that there are more African-Americans here). I’m from [a small town in this state], but after serving for six years as an Army Infantry Officer, my wife and our two kids settled in [this area] because there is little opportunity in the rest of the state.
I say this all because I feel like I’m living on a fault line between the two sides of this civil war we are talking about. Ten minutes south of me they are protesting for Black Lives Matter and demanding government mandated shutdowns over COVID; ten minutes north of me they are holding outdoor high school graduations and Back the Blue rallies. My wife and I are conservative Christians who are very active in our church; our next door neighbors and good friends both work for universities and are very liberal. We hang out several times a week and get along well but avoid talking about anything that could lead to uncomfortable conversations. I’d like to think that we model what a good friendship across party lines is but I don’t have much faith in that.
It’s difficult to picture what a civil war would look like because while the differences between urban and rural are very striking, there are plenty of us in the middle who would have to make very tough decisions on which way to go. My wife and I both work in the corporate sector and feel like we are being slowly backed into the corner with our traditional beliefs and values. If the violence of the cities spills into the suburbs I can’t picture us standing and fighting as we’d be outnumbered. Even though there is a healthy mix of conservatives in our area, how many of them are prepared to fight back? Fortunately, we have family in the rural parts of the state to retreat to, but we’d be forced to give up our jobs and our house and the way of life we enjoy.
And that is how I think this will play out. People with traditional values will be forced to retreat to the rural areas and accept a different standard of living ( which might be better, who knows) while ceding the urban and suburban centers to the Left. We’ll take up a defensive posture with our guns as we really do not desire to use our weapons except for in self-defense. We’ll leave the Left to build their utopian society and they’ll leave us alone because in all reality they’ll have nobody to come tell us what to do. They’ll need rural America to provide them with some food and we’ll need them for…something.
Hmm, sounds kind of like the Benedict Option. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to believe we’ll be left alone but I still believe that Law Enforcement and the military lean right, so I can’t imagine them coming after us. Anyway, thanks for your work, I’ve enjoyed reading you for the past several years and will be sure to get the new book when it comes out.


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