2020 Election, 2nd Amendment, 9-11, Abraham Lincoln, Articles of Confederation, Benjamin Franklin, Border States, bread and circuses, Civil War, Confederacy, Constitutional Union Party, Continental Congress, coronavirus, COVID-19, crisis, Declaration of Independence, Deep South, Democrats, Era of Good Feeling, extreme, Federalist, flyover country, Fort Sumter, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, free speech, George Bush, government expansion, guerrilla warfare, house divided, I-95 corridor, illegitimate, independents, James Monroe, John Adams, John Bell, limited government, lying, Missouri, moderates, negative rhetoric, news media, Pacific Coast, pandemic, patriotism, Pearl Harbor, political base, political sides, politicians, prayer meetings, President, Presidential Election, pundits, Reconstruction, religious freedom, Revolutionary War, Richard Nixon, Rutherford Hayes, Samuel Tilden, secession, shutdowns, slavery, Stephen A. Douglas, Stock market crash, Texas, Thomas Corwin, Thomas Jefferson, Tipping Point, twin towers, underground forces, unfriend, Viet Cong, War of 1812, World War II, worship
I continue with the discussion regarding the possibility of an imminent civil war in the United States.
Virus (crisis): The United States has faced many crises in its 245 year history. Indeed, it was a country born in crisis and its success was in doubt as it went through the birth pains of uniting the colonies, fighting a revolutionary war, struggling with an inadequate Articles of Confederation and keeping the European powers at bay until it could hold its own against them.
Except for a period during the two terms of James Monroe’s presidency (the Era of Good Feeling when the Federalist Party ceased to be viable), there has usually been a loyal opposition, even in times of crisis. But any disagreements over policy never reached a point where they exacerbated the crisis.
Here’s an example. At the end of my senior year of college, I was two credits short of graduating. So I took a U.S. History course at my local community college. Nearly thirty-three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the professor advanced the theory that FDR knew about the upcoming attack and allowed it to occur to create an excuse to enter WWII and neutralize significant sentiment in the U.S. to stay out of the war.
There were nine official US government inquiries into the attack in the 1940’s, most during the war and all completed by the end of 1946. There were some accusations along the lines that my professor asserted. None of this prevented an ailing Roosevelt from being reelected in 1944 or caused the Democrats to fall from power. They did lose a considerable portion of their majority in Congress in the 1942 elections (something that happens frequently in off year elections), but regained about half of the House seats in 1944 and only lost one more Senate seat that year.
Imagine what such accusations would have led to had this scenario occurred during 2017-2020.
One of the things that concerned me was the reaction to the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. Despite the closeness of the 2000 election and all the acrimony over the challenge to the results in Florida, in the immediate wake of the attacks the country pulled together. There was a spate of nonpartisan public rallies and memorials. Support for President George W. Bush and his response to the attacks was high. Attendance at worship services and prayer meetings also increased significantly.
I thought that the attack would be the defining moment for a significant portion of US History, similar to how the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the attack on Pearl Harbor defined that generation. I was wrong. Within a year, partisanship in the political sphere and the media returned in full force. Worship service attendance returned to its pre-attack declining levels. Either the divide in the country was too strong or anti-terrorism was simply not enough of an issue to have staying power. Whatever the reason, the lack of sustainable national unity triggered my concerns.
Most of the biggest crises in US History have occurred in the year following a Presidential Election. Of course the start of the Civil War was precipitated in large part by the 1860 election, but other crises (the Stock Market Crash, Pearl Harbor and 9-11) would appear to have been independent of the political process. We have to go back the U.S. declaring war on Great Britain in June of 1812 to find a time when a crisis occurred during a Presidential Election year. However, there was little fighting on U.S. soil during the campaign and election. Most of it was concentrated around Detroit which could not vote as Michigan had not yet become a state.
But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic occurred at the beginning of the 2020 election year with shutdowns being ordered as winter drew to a close. It both affected and influenced the method of voting in the later primaries and the general election. And the occurrence of the general election may have taken away the last hope that the country would be united in its efforts to minimize the devastating impact of the disease. It brought out all the worst behavior, whether finger pointing by politicians or charges and countercharges of selective reporting by the news media; not to mention charges of outright lying flung from all directions. At a time when the country needed to pull together, it flew apart. The climate was looking more and more like the 1850’s heading into 1860.
Voting validity/victory legitimacy: A close, hotly disputed election couldn’t have come along at a worse time. But considering the climate in the country, it was likely to happen.
It’s another in a 28 year string where the legitimacy of the Presidential election (or the President who was elected) has been questioned in one way or another. During George H.W. Bush’s term as 41st President of the United States, there were the usual disagreements over policy that can be expected in a political system with two or more viable political parties. And there are always people on the fringes with outlandish theories. But even though he failed in his bid for reelection, there was never any significant discussion of his presidency being legitimate or his 1988 election being illegitimate. That hasn’t happened since.
Whoever holds the office of President of the United States on January 21, 2021, there will be a significant portion of the country who will consider that the election was stolen in some fashion, whether through fraudulent votes, voter suppression, or legal chicanery. The unwillingness of Richard Nixon to challenge the results of the 1960 election in Texas and Illinois for the sake of the country, combined with a likable and youthful new first family helped diffuse any rancor Republicans felt about the 1960 results. A devastating terrorist attack ten months after the 2000 election reordered the national focus and priorities away from that result.
The mood of the country is much uglier now. People on opposite political sides find it more difficult than ever to talk to each other. People unfriend each other and stop patronizing businesses over political opinions, real or perceived. At the root of this, most on either side cannot see any reason why their candidate would be considered illegitimate, but they can state numerous reasons why the other candidate would be. I do not know what will bind the nation’s wounds now, but it will need to be huge.
Academically speaking, it is interesting how similar the two sides are in many ways. But as a practical matter, it is scary. Both sides claimed that the incumbent President on the other side would not leave office on January 20. Both sides claim the moral high ground and aver that the other side has a corner on the corruption market. At one time, both parties ran to the edge of their base during the primaries and to the center during the national election. Now they continue to run to the extreme of their base. They both try to perform the high-wire acrobatics of appealing to moderates and independents while denigrating the moderate members of their party and the opposition party. There is generally little reward given for statesmanship and compromise.
Each election cycle, the political pundits claim that this is the most critical election of our lifetime. Some of that is normal rhetoric: a way to encourage voter turnout by their political base. But in some ways it is a truism that has begun to reveal truth. The larger and more powerful that the federal government becomes, the more troublesome it becomes for that government to fall into the wrong hands. No matter which side of the political aisle you are on, try this thought experiment: imagine that the opposition party is sitting in the White House, has at least 75% of the seats in each house of Congress and has a 7-2 majority on the Supreme Court. Are you still in favor of an expansive federal government?
When I started this essay within a week of the 2020 election (and had been pondering it for months beforehand), I mentioned that over the past ten years, I had raised my estimate of the chances of a Civil War. As I’ve read online posts and talked to people, I am raising my estimates again. I now believe that there is a greater than 50% chance of some sort of Civil War starting and that it will be even sooner than in the next 15 years. Since it is still less than a 100% chance, possibilities remain to avoid it. But the trend is that those possibilities are diminishing.
Understand that the war doesn’t necessarily have to take shape the same way as it did in 1861-65. Yes, there are states that are talking about secession. You can quote Texas v White (1869) to me all you want. Just because the Supreme Court declared that a state has no right under the Constitution to secede from the Union, it doesn’t mean that one or more states won’t do so. And if more than one state secedes, that they won’t form a separate country. At that point, it will be up to the Federal Government representing the remaining states how to respond. And the final spark could be the same thing that happened at Fort Sumter in April 1861: the Federal Government asserting its claim on its property located in a secessionist state.
Remember that secession could happen in either direction. A couple of years ago, I read that for the first time in U.S. history, there were active petitions for secession in all fifty states. It didn’t matter whether those states were red, blue or purple.
The map would be different this time. The Pacific Coast (including Hawaii) and the I-95 corridor as far south as the District of Columbia would be on one side. Portions of the Atlantic Coast south of DC, the rust belt, the southern Rocky Mountain region and some other major cities would be the “border states”. The rest of “flyover country” would be on the other side.
But there is a different possibility. This time the war could take place by means of a coalition of guerrilla and underground forces with some similarities to the Viet Cong (which were eventually successful in overcoming the combined forces of the United States and South Vietnam.
Signs to look for that the chances of war are increasing:
- Escalating negative rhetoric
- Escalating use of more extreme political tactics (so-called “nuclear options”)
- Increasing disdain of moderates and independents
- Increasing support of secessionist movements within the several states, especially key ones (e.g. Texas)
- Increasing debate over the limits of free speech and religious freedom
- Increasing debate over interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and its limits
- Increasing debate over the conduct of elections and voter eligibility
What can be done to avoid the country splitting apart? Cooler heads need to prevail. But that is easier said than done. One way would be if moderates in both parties and political independents could unite to form a viable third party. But that is a difficult undertaking and it would have to be seen as a bipartisan movement, not dominated by elements of either existing major party. And such a party would have to be able to agree on core unifying principles. Note that in 1860, the parties seeking compromise to preserve the Union (the new Constitutional Union Party with John Bell as its nominee and Northern Democrats with Stephen A. Douglas as their nominee) were unable to combine forces and finished third and fourth in electoral votes respectively in that year’s presidential election. The more extreme parties, the Republicans and Southern Democrats, finished first and second in electoral votes. (Note that the Northern Democrats finished second in the popular vote to Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, but their votes were more evenly dispersed throughout the country and they only carried one state, Missouri.)
Note also that the Republican platform was more moderate in 1860 than it was in 1856. It called for abolition of slavery in territories and new states, but not in existing states. The more ardent abolitionists in the Republican Party were generally disappointed in Lincoln’s nomination as him being too moderate. Nevertheless, the Deep South perceived Lincoln’s election as a threat to their state sovereignty and right to continue the institution of slavery in their respective states. Seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy as a preemptive measure before Lincoln ever took office. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina did not secede until actual hostilities broke out. (The Confederate States of America also accepted Kentucky and Missouri into the Confederacy, but the secession governments in those states were only shadow governments that never took power. Kentucky managed to avoid internal hostilities but Missouri fought its own mini-Civil War, with the Union forces prevailing.)
There was one final attempt to mollify the South in early 1861. Named for its principal sponsor, Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio, the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution would prohibit the abolition or reduction of slavery in the states where it existed legally in 1861 by either Constitutional amendment or action of the U.S. Congress. It passed in both houses of Congress and was endorsed by Lincoln in his first inaugural address. It was sent to the states for ratification two days before Lincoln was sworn in as President. The attempt was ignored by the first seven seceding states and the outbreak of war made it moot. The country had passed the brink of war and reached the point of no return.
Some would claim that when all else failed, the Civil War of 1861-65 was a necessary evil to eliminate the greater evil of slavery from U.S. soil. But the cost was high. Estimates of military deaths from the war range from 620,000 to 850,000. Civilian deaths add to the number. The South remained an economically disadvantaged region for close to a century. And most blacks lost their franchise and right to hold office once the Federal troops were withdrawn and the Reconstruction Era came to an end (ironically as part of the compromise that decided the disputed election of Rutherford Hayes over Samuel Tilden in 1876). In some ways, we may still be fighting that war; in some minds, the seeds of that war have carried over to our current divisions.
Generally speaking, history is written by the victors. Therefore, the prevailing view was that the North had the moral high ground 160 years ago. Even so, there was a concerted effort over the past 100 years to paint the Confederacy as a noble lost cause. The battle against this romanticized view of the Southern reasons for the war continues to this day.
Which side has the moral high ground today? I find that each side has some valid claims and each side has done things to void such claims. History will ultimately have its say. Consider this bit of dialog from the movie “1776” when South Carolina threatens to vote against independence from Great Britain over the issue of slavery:
John Adams: If we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.
Benjamin Franklin: That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing. We’ll be long gone. Besides, what will posterity think we were, demigods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John; independence, America: if we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?
Some may wonder which side I identify with. Truth be told, I have strong connections to both sides. It gives me a perspective that enables me to see both their strengths and their warts. But ultimately it is a distraction from the topic at hand: is the United States on the road to fracturing?
I’m sure some will disagree with my assessment about an upcoming Civil War. Some will find it preposterous, that there will be too much to lose by starting one. In 1861, we had no Social Security or Medicare. There were very few government employees looking forward to their government pensions upon retirement. And even if a person hasn’t reached retirement age, if they have a number of years in the system, they are likely to think twice about possibly forfeiting those benefits that they contributed to.
And how many people have been lulled into apathy by a culture of modern day “bread and circuses”? Keep the people entertained and well-fed and they will be malleable to whatever the government wants, so the theory goes. But 2020 saw a lot of disruption to both food and entertainment. The discontent meter was raised a few notches.
A 21st century civil war will not be an easy decision. Nor was it an easy decision for the residents of 13 colonies 245 years ago to break ties with what was their mother country for the vast majority of those sitting in the Continental Congress. But they reached a tipping point and subscribed to these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Have the people of the United States reached a tipping point once again? Will they soon? Has the government become destructive of the ends that the people desire, and if so, which side and which people? Has the general public suffered abuse to the breaking point that they are willing to risk personal security to regain the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that they believe they have been increasingly denied. From my perspective, I believe the trend is towards the answer “Yes”. The closer we get, the harder it becomes to apply the brakes and reverse course.
And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. – Mark 3:24-25