Is America Heading for a Civil War?

Is America Heading for a Civil War?

Sumantra Maitra
Sumantra Maitra
5 min read

The National Rifle Association’s latest advertisement has been described as a “whisper shy of a call for full civil war“. Dana Loesch, NRA spokesperson, paints a Manichaean picture for U.S. citizens that can only be resolved through the “clenched fist of truth”. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now.

This advertisement comes less than three weeks after an assassination attempt at the Republican Congressional baseball team, carried out by a Bernie Sanders supporter, which some of the Left seemed to tacitly support.

The escalating political rhetoric on both sides has led Pat Buchanan to ask openly what some on the American Right have been pondering privately for a while: Is American system broken beyond repair? John Podhoretz agrees there’s a sense that America is descending into chaos. Kevin Williamson blames it on the acceptance of political violence by the Left. This concern isn’t new. A year ago, Ross Douthat also wondered whether American society was unravelling. Is America heading for a civil war, and what would be the global implications of such an event? Only ten years ago, such a question would have been laughed at, but it is now all too common. What has led to this crisis?

To those of us raised in the Anglican schooling system, America has always seemed to be a highly opinionated society, not especially given to stoicism or the “stiff upper lip.” That’s not necessarily bad, of course, but the current feverish political climate feels unusually alarming all the same. My Republican friends and colleagues in the DC area are worried about a possible backlash. A backlash some of my Democrat friends welcome so that the battle lines may be drawn more firmly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the people unconcerned by escalating tensions are well off, urban professionals. None of them seem to understand that further polarization won’t produce any winners. They do not seem to understand that throughout human history, organised political violence has been the norm, not the exception, and only some societies have managed to break this destructive cycle and broker a precarious peace based upon the rule of law. Once that peace is gone and the social contract is broken, there’s no way to prevent the tension from snowballing. From there, it’s a fairly straightforward descent into conflict.

Consider another insane episode in the ongoing American culture war, in which “Alt-Right” protestors rushed the stage and tried to shut down a play in which Trump was depicted as Julius Caesar. For believers in free speech, there can be no justification for this reprehensible act. It should not be coming as a surprise, however. As I pointed out during the Berkeley riots that shut down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, it would only be a matter of time before ‘SJW’ tactics were adopted by the Right and turned on the Left. Once dialogue and discussion are superseded by continuous marches, censorship, no-platforming, and direct action, chaos and anarchy risk replacing the rule of law with the law of the jungle. The nastier and more vicious an actor is, the greater the chance of bullying an opponent into silence. That is not, to put it mildly, healthy in any democracy.

The cause of this unwelcome development appears rather simple. In 2016, no one expected Trump to win and when he did the Left’s culture warriors collectively lost their heads. Resistance and social anarchy and even calls for violence became the order of the day. The Chinese internet has defined this phenomenon using the term baizuo (白左), literally translated as ‘the White Left‘: perpetually offended activists, more worried about minority rights and immigration than more basic needs like food security and infrastructure. These mostly college educated coastal and city dwelling activists have been on the forefront of the culture wars since the mid-nineties, and those wars were thought to have been largely won by the liberal Left.

However, it seems that history has a sense of irony. Around 77.5 percent of the US population is white, the majority of them working or lower middle class, and they are less interested in transgender bathrooms than in rising living costs, a lack of jobs, and meaningless foreign interventions. With Trump’s win, the political situation has become polarized and toxic, there are daily White House leaks to the media, and pundits and journalists are stoking unrest against what they perceive to be the tyranny and fascism of the Trump administration.

Imagine for a moment if the shoe were on the other foot. A Democratic administration is in power and Republican bureaucrats are “resisting” by leaking to a sympathetic right-wing press. There are marches and protests and calls for violence, but in this scenario, it is the Democrats who are the “fascists”. (To paraphrase Lencioni, when everyone is fascist, no one is). That is what is happening. It should be no surprise that this has led to actual violence and treason. And while it is a good idea to resist tyranny, the problem is that people define tyranny differently. “Punch a Nazi” might mean “Punch whomever I disagree with.” A peaceful transition of power is a civil system that relies upon adherence to law. Once the rules are discarded, only arbitrary action remains.

This is not to say that Trump is a competent leader, or that he does not deserve very close scrutiny at every step. But there is a difference between scrutiny and sabotage. The point that needs to be made here is that tensions on both sides need to be de-escalated, the daily outrages must stop—for the health of the country—and to prevent an atmosphere of rhetorical extremism from spilling into violence.

I was born in India, a country that has seen its fair share of organized political violence, and I can assure you that if you look for violence, then violence will find you, your family, and the people you care about. The urban college-educated “protesters” now seeking to delegitimize the peaceful transition of democratic power, will be the first to suffer in an escalating spiral of disorder. The NRA’s latest call to arms underscores this. For all their online bravado, they are not vicious enough for sustained societal bloodshed. This is the time for policymakers, journalists, and politicians to reflect. Is this what they want? As Auden wrote almost a century ago:

I and the public know,
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done,
Do evil in return.

The political science literature suggests that chances of an actual “civil war” are low. Civil wars usually happen in “grief or grievance” scenarios, when either the elite is divided, or there’s significant outside support to an already defined movement with a defined leadership. In the U.S., for all its faults, the elites are still significantly bipartisan and centrist. There isn’t that much daylight between the Republicans and Democrats with regards to either economic and foreign policy. Movements need leaders, and if the leaders are sane, the chances of bloodshed remains low.

That said, no one knows these days. The record of predictions since the 2010 Arab Spring is mixed, to say the least. It is therefore only prudent to prepare for all contingencies and try to calm things down on all sides. If there’s sanity in the United States, now is the time for cooler heads to reflect the direction in which they wish to lead their country. Perhaps the young radicals on both sides and the pundits fanning the flames should read a bit more Auden. And be more careful about what they wish for.

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