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About ten years ago, I told a small e-mail group of friends that I believed that there was a ~25% chance that the United States would be engaged in a new Civil War within 25 years. I based that on the way things have been breaking down in the country and comparing it to the mood of the country in the 1850’s.
With all that has happened in the past ten years, and especially with the response to COVID-19 combined with the Presidential election results, I now estimate that there is a ~50% chance of that Civil War in the next 15 years. That means that it still is preventable, but it also means it could happen sooner.
Historical Perspective – the 1850s
In the first half of the 19th century, a new nation called the United States of America attempted to balance its growing pains, competing ideologies and regional interests while also fine tuning this great experiment that formed a democratic republic. Certainly the government had to tackle issues such as tariffs, a national bank, growing populism, diplomatic relations with foreign governments at a time when Europe was often engaged in warfare, exploration, western expansion and dealing with the indigenous population. But no problem was proving to be more difficult to solve than the issue of slavery versus abolition. It threatened to split the country on both philosophical and regional grounds with free soil states in the North, pro-slavery states in the South, and a handful of Border States that held a mixture of both sentiments.
The country was held together by compromises during this time, the most prominent of which were the Missouri Compromise (1820-21) and the Compromise of 1850. Henry Clay of Kentucky, one of those Border States, gained a reputation for his ability to forge these compromises, but in the end, especially after Clay’s death in 1852, the ability to reach any further effective compromise was lost.
In the end Abraham Lincoln, in his acceptance speech when nominated by the Illinois Republican Party as its candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1858, proved correct when he stated “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan (Northerners with some Southern sympathies) did little to resolve the situation. One provision of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, created great resentment in the North by its requirement that people in Free States help with the return of runaway slaves or face penalties, and that free blacks accused of being runaway slaves could offer no defense on their own behalf. Those in favor of Congress’s passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 (signed into law by Pierce) and the Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, had hoped that they would resolve the slavery question once and for all. Instead, they outrage the North even more. The first led to the formation and rapid rise of the Republican Party as the vanguard of the abolitionist movement and both added to the divisions that brought about the secession of 11 slave states to form the Confederate States of America and the onset of the Civil War in 1861.
Where we are in 2020
The United States has had close and controversial Presidential elections before. We have had power in the three branches of government divided between the major parties before. We have faced crises before. With the exception of the 1850’s leading to the election of 1860 and the secession of the Confederacy in response, the Union has held together and even pulled closer together. What is similar now to the conditions 160 years ago? Why do I think that there is a serious danger of another Civil War in the lifetime of most of the people currently living in the United States?
History has had over 150 years to digest the events surrounding the Civil War and proclaim winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. We don’t have the benefit of historical perspective with our current situation. But I will note that a current reexamination of attitudes towards the Civil War, the honoring of those who were the military leaders of the Confederacy and attachment to certain symbols of that period have contributed to the current divisions in the country.
So I will attempt to be as nonpartisan as possible. The focus is to be on the prediction, not who is the guilty party, if there is only one, even if it could be determined. The difficulty in determining guilt is due in part to something I learned about many years ago in interpersonal dynamics. It is called the Vendetta Principle.
It works something like this: let’s take two hypothetical people and call them “Mister A” and “Mister B”. Over time, these two people become increasingly upset with each other until Mister B does something that Mister A sees as being over the top. In fact, he feels that he is justified in killing Mister B in response. So he kills Mister B. As far as he is concerned, that matter between them is now closed.
But Mister B’s friends are outraged. They know of nothing that justified their friend being killed. Therefore they feel justified in killing Mister A, and they do so. As far as they are concerned, the matter is now closed.
Now Mister A’s friends are outraged. So they kill some of Mister B’s friends in vengeance for what happened to Mister A. Unless cooler heads prevail or an outside force intervenes, the vendetta will continue until one side is either wiped out or too weak to retaliate.
The longer the vendetta lasts, the harder it is to trace back to the original cause. Some would claim that it was Mister A shooting Mister B. But others would point to whatever Mister B did that angered Mister A or some earlier event in their dispute.
Was the Civil War started when troops fired on Fort Sumter? When the first seven states seceded? When Lincoln was elected? Was it at earlier skirmishes? Was it at earlier actions (or lack thereof) by the Supreme Court, or Congress or the President? This is my point exactly.
Alliteration is often a useful tool. Building on “Vendetta Principle”, I will look at other current contentions with a series of “V” words and phrases.
Veracity (Truth): One side tends to believe in the existence of absolute truth (and also that they have a superior knowledge of it). The other side often believes that each person has and has the right to their own truth. Each side increasingly accuses the other of lying (about facts, if not the truth). Eventually this spread to the news media. Politicians don’t just accuse each other. They accuse the news media of taking sides and either reporting fake (i.e. false or uncorroborated) news or ignoring stories that do not fit their narrative. The division has not only spread to social media, in the days leading up to and continuing after the election, news stories by major media outlets were suppressed and fact checkers were accused of not being independent.
There is even a movement on the right to abandon the most utilized social media sites and search engines which are perceived to be increasingly left leaning (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Chrome, etc.) for equivalent sites catering to the right. On top of all this, we are treated to a steady supply of politicians on both sides reversing their positions depending upon who is in office, who won (or is perceived to have won) or which way the wind is blowing.
Because I identify as both transgender and Christian, I receive e-mails from both sides of the political spectrum. Some of my e-mail addresses are with a major tech giant. Only one side’s e-mails are being sent to my spam filter, sometimes even after I mark earlier e-mails from those sites as “not spam”.
Violation and Violence: Its beginnings saw increasing accusations of freedom of speech being hindered, reporters being threatened or attacked, politicians and members of the news media being doxed and threatened at their homes or in public places. In the 1850’s, embers of violence were fanned at places like Harpers Ferry and in various locations in “bloody Kansas” (e.g. Lawrence and Pottawatomie). In the future, will historians look back in a similar manner at Charlottesville, Minneapolis, Portland, Kenosha and Philadelphia? Meanwhile the violence gives still another issue to debate: who’s responsible and how justified is it? But there is no debate that it is actually happening. The videos are out there of people being hit with blunt objects (either swung or thrown), punched, kicked while on the ground, stabbed or having harmful substances sprayed in their faces. The videos are out there of cars or businesses (often small businesses with minority owners) being looted, burned or otherwise destroyed. The videos are out there of the police or guards being attacked or standing by while the violence occurs because they lack the numbers to enforce the law.
Villainy: In addition to criminal activity by individuals or groups of citizens, there is increased accusation by each side that the other side is engaged in outright criminal activity. Some attribute this to increased corruption in the political sphere. Others attribute it to greater awareness of normal levels of corruption. Still others believe that it is an attempt by both sides to politicize the courts, throwing issues which should be decided by the political process into the court system. Whichever theory is correct (and it may be a combination of all three), it adds to the rift already felt in the country.
Virtue (or lack thereof): The three items already discussed are evidence of a growing lack of moral virtue, or at least the perception that this is so. This is turn leads to a lack of trust in the system. Approval ratings of Congress and recent Presidential candidates have been low, sometimes abysmally so. Of the three branches of government, only the Supreme Court has seen approval ratings on the rise, with similar scores from members of both major parties and independents. https://news.gallup.com/poll/316817/approval-supreme-court-highest-2009.aspx
Note however that the latest Gallup Poll was taken prior to the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. If the 2020 Presidential Election ends up in the hands of the Supreme Court, it is likely to affect the ratings as it is doubtful that any rulings issued could please both parties. Even with some sort of compromise stance, ruling in favor of one side on some suits and the other side on other suits, still only one candidate can be the victor. And refusal to hear cases will also not be seen as neutral. So my prediction is that the next poll will show a lower approval rating for the court with the higher approval from one side outweighed by lower approval ratings from the other side and independents.
Decreased trust in the political system, institutions and office holders leads to increased cynicism in the populace. It took significantly increased convenience in available methods for voting to boost the turnout for the recent election. Some on one side are increasing calls to move away from capitalism or abandon it entirely. Some on the other side are promoting holding a new Constitutional convention. Such a convention could prove to be a safety valve. But it could also become an additional battleground.
This issue includes a lack of trust by at least half the population in how the major issues of the day are being handled by the government. Even worse, many times government is blamed for causing major problems. Counterintuitively, for many the solution is more government, not less.
Victimization & Vituperation: At one time, there was a place for healthy satire in the entertainment sphere of the U.S. Satirists and standup comedians in the age of mass entertainment, from Will Rogers to Bob Hope, from Tom Lehrer to Don Rickles. Today’s comedians and talk show hosts tend to lampoon only one side. So instead of helping the people laugh at themselves, comedy has become part of the battle. When someone on their own side is the target, it is for not being tough enough or letting the team down.
When comedy and satire becomes one-sided, it tends to develop a mocking tone. Mockery tends to be destructive, tearing down respect for institutions and individuals.
Related to this topic is the growing tendency for people to see themselves as victims: marginalized, oppressed by systemic forces. One side sees this phenomenon as current, active and pervasive. While apologizing for their own past (and sometimes present) contribution to these forces while calling for social justice remedies, they attack and mock those who disagree as guilty of a list of isms. The intelligence of those on the other side is also attacked, especially those who are outside the power structure of the nation.
The other side sees these issues as mostly a thing of the past. They attack and mock social justice warriors as weak, overly sensitive and easily offended (even to the point of going out of their way and inventing reasons to be offended). In turn, they resent being labeled with the isms. They see themselves as under attack from the mainstream media and the privileged elites.
Both sides blame the other for inciting violence. Both sides see themselves as being treated unfairly. Both sides are galvanized by the verbal attacks on them to support their side’s candidates. Both sides are growing increasingly unwilling to dialog, not only with members of the other side but also with moderates and independents in the middle of the political spectrum. Both sides are growing more and more intolerant of any signs of defection or compromise within their own ranks.
Veneration (spiritual climate): In the years leading up to the Civil War, the 19th century Christian Church was divided over the issue of slavery. There were exceptions but the divide was generally on a regional basis: Northern Christian leaders decrying slavery, some at the forefront of the abolitionist movement; Southern Christian leaders using religion to justify the enslavement of blacks. Mainline denominations split over the issue into separate organizations. The main body of the Presbyterian Church wasn’t able to reunite the north and south until 1983.
The Third Great Revival of Christianity began in the 1850’s and continued through the rest of the 19th century. But it was interrupted by the Civil War and failed to stop the war because of the division of Protestants over the issue of slavery. And this was at a time when church attendance was high and Protestantism was by far the predominant religion of the day.
Today, the ability of the Church to provide consistent moral leadership is even more diluted. While the split is less regional, the divide between conservative and liberal Christians is growing. Furthermore, while Protestantism still has the plurality of the population, it no longer enjoys a clear majority. And many who identify as Protestant are nominal at best by all measures: frequency of church attendance, Bible reading and prayer at the top of the list.
In addition, much of the population now either identifies as irreligious or spiritual but not religious. Ultimately in terms of political and moral influence, religious groups are seeing theirs diminish. And for those who are religious, political alliances are cutting across denominational and religious lines. For example, a conservative Protestant is more likely to have commonality with a conservative Catholic or Jew than with a liberal Protestant.
Bottom line? The lack of religious unity takes away one of the possible breaks against a political firestorm leading to a new civil war.
(The discussion of a pending U.S. Civil War continues in Part 2.)
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. – John 17:20-23