Skip to main content

Behind the headlines

Is America heading for civil war?

A battle at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, in 1864. Getty

Is America on the brink of a second civil war?

That’s the argument made by the authors of three recent books, who present what Edward Luce in the FT calls an “alarmingly persuasive case that the warning lights are flashing redder than at any point since 1861”.

On what grounds?

That America’s two parties are increasingly divided along racial and demographic lines: Republicans are white and rural; Democrats urban and multi-ethnic. “When one party loses,” says Luce, “its voters feel as though their America is being occupied by a foreign power.” More than a third of Republicans and Democrats now believe in violence as a political tool, compared with less than a tenth apiece in 2017. As Canadian novelist Stephen Marche puts it in The Next Civil War, which imagines how such a conflict might happen, America “is one spectacular act of violence away from a national crisis”.

How did the US get to this point?

Take your pick of “grim milestones”, says Luce: the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that handed the 2000 election to George W Bush; America’s “unhinged response” to the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s “almost comically trivial” emails; Democrats attributing Donald Trump’s win in 2016 to Vladimir Putin. America’s “democratic backsliding” is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation on going bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.”

How much is Trump to blame?

As the dust settled on the assault on Capitol Hill by a rabble of Trump-supporting conspiracy theorists in January 2021, top Republicans condemned Trump’s provocation of the mob as “despicable” and “discredited”. But within weeks, bigwigs like then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had backtracked on their criticisms and renewed their fealty to the disgraced president, mindful of his grip on Republican voters. Joe Biden, for all his folksiness, has done little to defuse the situation, say Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in This Will Not Pass. The president has pandered to the Democrat left by treating his cabinet selection as an “identity politics Rubik’s Cube”, adding to America’s disunity.

How would a new civil war differ from the last one?

In 1861, two geographically cohesive blocs – the northern Union and the slave-owning southern Confederacy – faced off in a bloody four-year struggle. That conflict claimed up to 700,000 lives – 2% of America’s population at the time, and more than the total death toll in all the country’s overseas wars. Today’s “separatist geography is marbled”, as Luce puts it, between urban Democrats and rural Republicans. And if civil war were to break out, the government-controlled armed forces could not be outgunned.

So the rebels would lose?

In a straight shootout, yes – but as the US military found out in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, asymmetric warfare is unwinnable. Every military action just breeds more insurgents: “They will slip in and out of the shadows, communicating on message boards and encrypted networks,” says Barbara Walter in How Civil Wars Start. America can no longer get away with soothing homilies to distract from such a scenario. Burns and Martin quote the former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull: “You know that great line that you hear all the time: ‘This is not us. This is not America’? You know what? It is actually.”

Isn’t that too alarmist?

Yes, says Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Forget what Americans say they believe. Look at what they actually do – or don’t do. The tens of millions who supposedly think Trump is the rightful president “show no signs of being radicalised into actual violence” – only a piffling 2,500 turned up to January 6, for instance. The stolen election claims, says Musa al-Gharbi in The Guardian, are really about “social posturing” and – that ageless sport – winding up liberals.

So what will happen?

Most of these civil war claims, when examined, are actually forecasting “periods of political violence”, says Douthat, like Ireland’s Troubles or Italy’s “Years of Lead” in the late 1960s to late 1980s. Equating this with a civil war is a “ridiculous abuse of language”: in a country of 330 million people, there will inevitably be an unhinged handful committing deadly crimes at any given time. America has always known “sporadic armed conflict”, whether it be mob violence, labour unrest, terrorism or riots. In fact, 2021 saw a lower death count from political violence than in any year since 2000.

We should all calm down, then?

Exactly, says Fintan O’Toole in The Atlantic. The Troubles in my native Ireland never rose to the level of civil war, but the belief that they might “made everything worse”. Once the idea takes hold, it has a force of its own. “The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilising. They are coming for us. Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move. The logic of the pre-emptive strike sets in.” This “doomsday mentality” swayed even my usually level-headed father, who came home from work one day in 1972 and told the family to prepare for civil war. Much of America is now similarly spoiling for a fight. But tempers – and headlines – need to cool. “These prophecies have a way of being self-fulfilling.”

🔥🇺🇸 “The lesson of this political moment: don’t be radical, don’t be extreme. Our country is a tea kettle on high flame, at full boil.”
Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal