Reviews | No, we’re not headed for civil war

The New York Times podcast The Argument just posted an episode asking, « Is America heading for another civil war? » Right-wing voices warned of a brewing civil war and speculated how Red America might win it. Barbara Walter of the University of California, San Diego has published a highly acclaimed book, How civil wars start: and how to stop them.

There is no doubt that our politics are in a perpetual feverish state; that a former President of the United States to this day denies the legitimacy of his defeat in the 2020 election and has made that assertion a central pillar of his still powerful political movement; and that trust in our institutions is at rock bottom.

It is entirely possible that we will experience more political violence, and that would be a tragedy. But that would be far from unprecedented in our national life and would in no way constitute a civil war.

The American Civil War had been in the making for decades, a clash between rival systems of political economy and ways of life with different moral foundations in two sections of the country marked by relatively sharp geographic lines. The economic and political stakes were enormous at a time when the nature of the American union was still the subject of major disputes. Growing sectional conflict has loomed over congressional debate for years and has separated key institutions from American civic life.

Mean tweets and primetime barbed cable TV shows don’t compare.

In his book, Walter argues for the advent of a low-intensity civil war. Much of his material on internal conflict in foreign lands, however, serves to demonstrate how different we are from places descending into civil war.

Our political tribalism has nothing to do with the dispute between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, where Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy in the 1960s, leading to the exile of Tutsis who formed a rebel army and invaded the country in 1990 It bears no resemblance to Lebanon. multifaceted conflict from 1975 to 1990, which included a dizzying array of religious and ethnic factions and foreign powers taking a large hand in the fighting.

Countries torn by civil wars are prone to endemic instability and divisions that go far beyond disputes over the causes of inflation, how much federal money we should be spending to fight climate change, or whether the Abortion should be legal.

The United States has a long-standing and widely respected Constitution, a durable two-party system, national elections that still rely on persuasive voters in the middle, and a federal system that is cohesive while allowing room for state and local differences. The same cannot be said for Syria, Somalia, Congo, Tajikistan or a number of other places that are or have been in the throes of civil war.

Walter points out that so-called anocracies, governments that have been somewhere authoritarian and democratic, are particularly prone to civil war. Leaders in democratizing states may be too weak to control factions and enforce loyalty – Uganda and Georgia are examples. On the other side of the ledger, democracies sliding back into authoritarianism are also prone to conflict – she points to Ukraine under pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, toppled by the Maidan revolution.

That’s great, but the United States doesn’t have much in common with Uganda or Ukraine. Walter points to the work of something called the Polity Project to prove otherwise. The outfit rates countries on their autocratic or democratic attributes. Supposedly, American democracy took an instant hit when Donald Trump became president in 2016 – after winning a totally free and fair election. In the aftermath of 2020, the US score has fallen further so that, according to Walter, “we are no longer the oldest continuous democracy in the world. That honor now goes to Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, then Canada.

This is an absurd claim, given that Trump lost an election in 2020 and control of offices large and small, state and local continued to be determined by completely legitimate, often high-turnout elections. . If we are no longer a democracy, no one has bothered to tell the candidates or the voters.

Trump’s attempt to undo his 2020 loss was a disgrace and a black eye for the country, but no one with any real authority went along with his plan. While he will have more sympathetic state officials in place in 2024 if he runs and loses again, it will still be an insurmountable political and legal challenge for them to ignore a democratic outcome in an election conducted in accordance to state laws.

There is no doubt that it is corrosive for Trump to undermine confidence in our elections, and he is not alone. Democrats haven’t quite embraced his victory in 2016 even if they haven’t tried to overturn it, and they’d be even more reluctant to do so if he — or another Republican — wins in 2024.

There is indeed a violent fringe on the right, and as the Supreme Court prepared to overturn roe deer, the left has engaged in protests at judges’ homes and vandalized anti-abortion pregnancy centers. All of this may be a sign, not of impending civil war, but that a 40-year period of extraordinary civil peace may be unraveling and giving way to a type of conflict that has not been unusual in the world. American history.

More recently, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the United States experienced a spasm of political violence – assassinations of major political figures, burning of large parts of towns, and radical underground groups carrying out bank robberies and bomb attacks. There were thousands of bombings in the 1970s. An FBI official called San Francisco « the Belfast of North America ».

We still have a long way to go before we return to anything approaching this level of routine violence. Of course, it must be assiduously avoided – even if this dismal situation would be nothing like Shiloh, and not a civil war.


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