Since the election of Donald Trump and the events of his presidency, political discussion in the US has circled the drain of dystopian speculation. The US, we are told, is gripped by irremediable political polarisation that augurs the death of democracy. “I can’t say this more clearly,” Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times in September 2020. “Our democracy is in terrible danger, more danger than it has been in since 1861.” Published in the wake of the riotous invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, books by the journalist Stephen Marche and by the scholar Barbara Walter respectively contrive scenarios for how civil conflict is likely to unfold, and scour the planet for characteristic features of civil wars emerging “on our own soil”. Endorsing this work in the Financial Times, Edward Luce attests to the “alarmingly persuasive case that the warning lights are flashing redder than at any point since 1861”.
Political analysis in these times of rolling economic and public health crises, and of heightened political risks and threats, is difficult to assess in a fair, clear-minded way. Combining fabulation and fact, and presenting loose prognostication in an idiom of predictive science, it often defies the most cursory sense of historical context and complexity. This work invites blithe dismissal or vigorous assent, gaining traction upon current discussion by bidding up worst-case scenarios, implying that only a fool or miscreant could ignore the warnings. Such arguments achieve greatest success when they ratchet the common sense of rising polarisation. The genre of civil war fantasy, Marche observes, “is almost exclusively right-wing.” Now gentle reader, please enjoy my book filled with fanciful scenarios of the imminent civil war that you will need to anticipate to stop it happening. If pornography is a perverse prophylaxis for sexual indulgence, these criers of our interregnum invite similar frisson, incitement and passivity at the scenes they conjure of civilisation’s demise.
When people toss around references to 1861, they are referring to the great “bellum” (“war”) that organises all of US history into two distinct “before” and “after” periods. This industrial-scale armed slaughter killed 2.5 per cent of the US population, still the largest mass casualty war in American history. So it is important to establish a sense of proportion. The US is a large, impossibly diverse country. At this moment in its history, it is probably no less difficult to govern effectively than it would be to divide into well-organised camps battling for supremacy, precinct by precinct. The conventional red-blue election maps not only distort the marbled grain of US political contention, but also much of the ordinary, if grudging comity of everyday life in a society where most people work, day in, day out, with others to make their lives liveable. The consequences of the staggering loss of life from the pandemic will unpredictably affect our politics for years to come. That reliable bellwethers of elite, middlebrow common sense now imagine that the US is on a path toward a civil war is a good indicator that we are in the presence of a shallow or hyperbolic reading of our predicament.
That said, the turn to civil conflict directs us to some crucial questions. The idea of war among people who acknowledge their enemies as members of the same political community tells us something significant about the societies in which we live. Use of this concept, as the historian David Armitage suggests, generates contests over its proper meaning and disagreements about the character of social conflict itself: is it a riot or revolution, an insurgency or a reactionary backlash, a protest or a criminal action? Walter and Marche try to add a veneer of objectivity by employing the minimalist, low-threshold definition of civil war as “major armed conflict” resulting in more than 1,000 fatalities per year. But given that US police forces kill approximately 1,000 people per year, it might be fair to say that the country already subsists in a state of low-grade civil war. The recurrence and scope of popular protest, including rioting after the killing of Michael Brown and George Floyd by police in 2014 and 2020 respectively, lends credence to this suggestion: in the zones of precarity where many people dwell, impoverished, unsheltered and overpoliced, civil war is ongoing.
[See also: The new era of American darkness]
Complicating matters further, interpreting the meaning of the actual US Civil War is an aporia at the heart of America’s politics. Historical interpretation of the meaning of the “antebellum” period remains contested by what we call the left and the right, where it is alternatively understood as beginning in 1619, with the start of racial slavery in America, whose baleful legacies continue today; or in 1776, with the compact of self-governing republics whose founding constitutional design is supposed to transparently constrain all positive law. Similarly conflicted is interpretation of the postbellum politics of an industrialising nation and its reformed constitutional order, whose centralised state, racially inclusive citizenship, extensions of immigration and naturalisation and substantive due process rights have been repudiated by political opponents on the right ever since. From certain intellectual and partisan standpoints, the Civil War either settled nothing of consequence, or never really ended.
How, then, should we assess the idea that the US is devolving into a period of more sustained factional conflict that is likely to worsen? Partisan animus is real, and politically consequential; thresholds for civic violence and police abuse in US society are shockingly low relative to other rich countries. The US accounts for almost 40 per cent of total global military spending, the single largest component of federal discretionary spending, and more than the total amount of discretionary expenditures on civilian health, transportation, housing and education. The country has sustained military conflict around the world for the past two decades, and throughout a history of continental expansion, hemispheric dominance and global military intervention. The US manufactures and exports most of the world’s arms and contains more privately owned guns than people. Mass shootings at concerts, schools, churches, mosques and synagogues occur with regularity, often betraying a resurgence of racist and nativist animus behind a veil of individual madness.
Perhaps these long-standing features of US society and government policy should make us even less sanguine about the prospects of avoiding descent into armed civil conflict. One of the more prevalent concerns, for example, is the infiltration and exfiltration of US military and police forces by white supremacists and far-right organisations, as well as the cultivation of links between armed militia and vigilante groups and mainstream Republican politics. There is ample evidence that this occurs, and is perhaps even on the rise. At the same time, few commentators who dwell on these matters consider the metastatic growth of the US military, carceral and border-security apparatus over the past four decades, or the existence of massive, death-dealing US arms industries that flood the country and the world with weapons with little dissent or fanfare. How should we weigh the size and political stability of these consensually validated institutions of organised violence against the dramaturgy of polarisation and civil war?
That civil war talk invariably enters into speculation about the dispositions, loyalties and competency of the national security state may be one of its most telling contradictions. Walter begins her book with an account of an alarming militia plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020. “That a kidnapping attempt by a group of far-right extremists is a sign of impending civil war may strike you as preposterous,” she admits. “But modern civil wars start with vigilantes such as these – armed militants who take violence directly to the people.”
Her first instinct may well have been correct. Of a number of conspirators who were involved in surveillance of the governor’s home as a prelude to the kidnapping idea – 13 of whom were arrested – at least four were either FBI agents or government informants later accused of inciting and helping to organise the otherwise hapless plotters. The case against the alleged ringleaders fell apart (though you would not learn that from reading Walter’s book). US security professionals who once strategised about stopping “terror” or starting the next US war overseas are now preparing for counter-insurgency at home – and this may be more suggestive of the deeper, more long-standing pathologies of a national security state that generates insecurity by design than the potential for civil war in the US.
The tendency to treat political struggles and disagreements as forms of conspiracy is not only a polarising feature of the current moment, but also, paradoxically, a stabilising one. American political development over the past several decades has not merely been divided into opposing camps, around, for example, questions of race and gender equality, reproductive rights, or gun ownership; it has also been locked into a dynamic of partisan competition that encourages threat inflation, yielding important contributions from both parties to expansively coercive institutions, in the name of collective security. From the early Cold War, US partisanship revolved around which party was better prepared to fight communism, leading to covert actions, proxy wars and full-scale military invasions, culminating in a disastrous, immoral war in Vietnam. By the 1970s, this morphed into a question of which party was tougher on crime – a policy orientation that delivered a regime of mass incarceration unprecedented in world history. The attacks of 9/11 raised the question of which party would keep the American “homeland” safe from foreign predators, leading to two more decades of fruitless war in the Middle East and west Asia, and a deportation delirium that has swept up millions. What if the banal revelation at the end of the US wars on communism, crime and terror is simply that Americans are their own worst enemies?
The spectre of civil war might be better understood as a metaphor for waning confidence in the (liberal) US empire. The breakdown of the “rules-based international order” as a regulative ideal is part of an attrition of what Raymond Geuss has called the “sheltered internal space of… Homo liberalis” fashioned during the post-1945 golden age of American pluralism, rising affluence, increasing tolerance and expanding civil rights. The “Great Society”, the name that was given to the effort to institute social democratic liberalism inside the US, and the civil rights revolution that made the country a formal multi-racial democracy for the first time in its history, was its high watermark. With the war in Vietnam raging, and the protests of impoverished black residents and rising crime roiling American cities, however, President Lyndon Johnson concluded that the US now faced a “war within our own boundaries”, before abdicating instead of pursuing a second full term. Americans have been talking about civil war ever since.
In these same years, a conception of politics as civil war by other means captured the imagination of the modern US right on its ascent to power. The politician and GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater laid down the gauntlet in the 1960s with a famous declaration that “extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”. Ronald Reagan was his successful heir, rising to the presidency while declaring himself a “state’s righter” against an overweening federal government. Shrinking the welfare state would go hand in hand with expanding the carceral state: “running up the battle flag”, as Reagan put it, against a feral, drug-abusing, black “underclass”. In 1994, forging the first GOP majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in four decades, Newt Gingrich made these inner war analogies explicit. Our politics is a “war [that] has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars”, he argued. “While we are lucky in this country that our civil wars are fought at the ballot box, not on the battlefield, nonetheless, it is a true civil war.” Trump’s “American carnage” was something of a belated echo.
The modern GOP has avidly fought Gingrich’s version of civil war at the ballot box and in the courts, leveraging counter-majoritarian institutions and using the individual states as laboratories for reactionary politics: advancing model legislation against public regulations; periodically mobbing local school boards; gerrymandering congressional districts; undermining public unions; funnelling federal spending on health, welfare and police via block grants to maximise state discretion; defending a right of foetal personhood that trumps a woman’s right to bodily autonomy; making it more difficult to register to vote and to cast a vote; stimulating white revanchism and moral outrage against expressions of public disorder and anti-normative behaviour at every opportunity.
In the process, they successfully captured the commanding heights of the judiciary, and have now successfully rolled back landmark, 50-year-old national civil rights gains: striking down federal voting-rights protections, ending a national right to abortion and overturning legal protections for criminal suspects in police custody. Winning two of the last five national presidential elections with a minority of the popular vote, and deploying the Senate filibuster during periods in the congressional minority, the GOP has pursued civil war by other means as a well-honed and effective strategy.
In the face of this challenge, it is difficult to judge the Democratic Party as anything more than a feckless, mildly recalcitrant partner. Over the past 40 years, it has alternatively sought to ratify, in gentler tones, GOP-driven projects and demands to lower corporate taxes, get tough on crime, end welfare as we know it, expand the ambit of deportation and sustain open-ended military authorisations. It has sought to placate vulnerable constituents with forms of symbolic recognition and modest regulatory action, often undergirded by weak executive authority and moral sentiment. It is the undeniably saner and more constructive of the two electoral options Americans are forced to choose between. But it also operates an effective pincer movement against alternatives further to the left that seek to transform skewed imbalances in the power of capital and labour, police authority and public safety. When constituents choose to fight, for example, against police abuse, or for labour rights, Democrats are missing in action, or else warning against unpopular opinions that will awaken the monster on the right. Forever counselling that we choose the lesser evil, they have instead grown habituated to living with the fox inside the chicken coop.
One of the biggest challenges facing political analysis in the US today is to sort through the distortions of cynical politics, a hypertrophied security state and a degraded information ecology. Much commentary now succumbs to a vicious feedback loop that links inflated threats and viral mobbing on social media, to party operatives and opportunistic pundits trolling for outrages to serve as campaign fodder for the next election. A right-wing grievance factory (embodied by outlets like Fox News) stokes fears about a loss of status and order resulting from attacks on racial hierarchy, normative sexuality and gender roles, and traditional emblems of authority like the police. Meanwhile liberals and progressives warn of fascism descending, but struggle to distinguish between what is merely impolitic and offensive, and existential dangers or genocidal threats.
The GOP leverages judicial and state-level power to a construct a future built on decentralised despotism, while progressives seek to leverage the powers of surveillance capitalism and federal policing authorities to forestall a right-wing insurgency that won many of its most substantive victories long ago. The right sees itself as representative of a true national majority whose patrimony has been stolen by globalists and the beneficiaries of artificial rights. Leftists and progressives present a more plausible appeal to the thwarted potential of an urban, multi-racial majority. Yet, they govern via rear-guard administrative rule-making tailored to fractioned constituencies, rather than fighting for a politically ambitious agenda to redistribute political power and material resources to the non-wealthy multitude.
What we see is less the play of two parties to a civil war, than two parties locked in an attritional struggle over an increasingly predatory state. If history is any guide, the likely outcome will be continued governmental incontinence and societal decay. What is apparent at the end of a long arc of right-wing ascendancy and progressive neoliberal policy-making is the shape of a long interregnum, defined by a series of fanciful and failed solutions to the denouement of US capitalism’s post-war golden age.
The essential truth of this era was not occulted – at least at the outset: “The standard of living of the average American has to decline”, the Fed chair Paul Volker intoned in 1979 as he embarked upon monetary policies that would crush high inflation and with it the last vestiges of organised labour. “I don’t think you can escape that.” The hoped-for restoration of corporate profitability that would trickle down, the mastery over diminishing petroleum resources captured by despotic powers, and the political management of declining standards of living has defined the task of elite governance in the US ever since.
The results speak for themselves. We might characterise the last two and half decades in the world’s most affluent states – and the US in particular – as a period of crisis compression and rising fatalism. The onset of the millennium did not bring about the apocalypse foretold by Y2K fantasists, but yielded instead to slow rolling catastrophe with endemic features. We are people stalked by periodic financial collapse, destructive weather events, immanent civic violence and airborne death. Region-wasting hurricanes, tsunamis and wildfires are the backdrop to daily life on our warming planet. Riotous mass protests against governing authority expose the illegitimate face of ostensibly democratic forms of rule. Americans who learned to bowl alone, faced rising mid-life mortality, self-medicated with opioids, got locked up and gunned down in the old de-industrialised urban core, struggled to make rent, stockpiled guns, trolled for the next Columbine, Sandy Hook or Uvalde in the suburbs and hinterlands, in turn conjured Trump as a kind of perverse mirror. The promise to “Make America Great Again”, unlike Obama’s enjoining “Hope and Change”, or even Bush’s dream of “A New American Century”, represented a conscious involution – a not entirely inadvertent mockery of the pretensions of those prior idealistic schemes, confirmation that the liberal patrimony has been spent. It is the darkness of this vision that has given rise to a cottage industry of criers warning of impending civil war.
From across the political spectrum, a characteristically American politics of anticipatory fear has served up a long, dismal record of misdiagnosing fundamental problems and prescribing toxins as cures. Luxuriating in anxious expectation of the next catastrophe, it defers the more daunting fight to salvage a democracy of common purpose and shared flourishing from one that is already broken.