Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Can We Drop the Silly Idea That America Is “Heading For a Civil War”?

The idea distracts us from the class war we’re actually in, and is a deeply misleading framework for understanding the real risks we face.

I am sure you have heard someone you know comment that they think the United States is heading for a civil war. There are plenty of news articles and op-eds with ominous warnings that “the US edges closer and closer to civil war” (The Guardian) and that there is “an alarmingly persuasive case that the warning lights are flashing redder than at any point since 1861” (Financial Times). A widely-discussed book, Barbara F. Walter’s How Civil Wars Start, purports to quantify the risk using the tools of political science, saying that (as the New York Times summarizes), “the United States is firmly within the ‘danger zone’ of a ‘five-point scale’ measuring factionalism and a ‘21-point scale’ measuring a country’s ‘polity index,’ where a full autocracy gets a -10 and a full democracy gets +10.” Stephen Marche, author of The Next Civil War, says the country “is already in a state of civil strife, on the threshold of civil war.” Marche’s book is based “upon sophisticated predictive models and nearly two hundred interviews with experts—civil war scholars, military leaders, law enforcement officials, secret service agents, agricultural specialists, environmentalists, war historians, and political scientists.” The book opens: “The United States is coming to an end. The only question is how.”

Marche is a novelist, and while his book is intended as a serious work of analysis drawn from those “sophisticated predictive models,” he mostly uses the techniques of dystopian fiction to try to scare the bejeezus out of his audience. A representative passage, taken from one of his various speculative scenarios about how the next U.S. civil war will start (this one about a conflict between a rogue sheriff and the U.S. military): 

“The morning will be a harvest of ashes. Bodies litter the banks of the river. Panoramas of the bridge and the town reveal shattered corpses and craters, a quiet rural town turned into the kind of battleground scene remembered from military adventures in the Middle East. A photo captures a severed hand in the street. An orphaned child wails in a whirl of dust. The army loads bulk groups of prisoners into buses for processing in a small POW camp in the neighboring county, under the watch of cameras at a distance. CNN mourns the death of a unified country. Fox News mourns the death of liberty. Factual descriptions of the battle are indistinguishable from the conspiracy theories that light up the internet with fantasies of imminent white genocide, Chinese infiltration of the Fifth Army, Jewish cabals, the nefarious influence of the CIA and other governmental agencies, alien invasions, stories of angels coming to the aid of the Sheriff, strange beams of light illuminating the battle. The horror overwhelms; the hunger for revenge grows with what it feeds on. The slaughter bolsters the righteousness. There is no collective mourning, only panicked preparations and fury.”

Walter’s book, too, contains descriptions of the specific way the next civil war might start: 

“In the United States, one could imagine the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, and the Oath Keepers eventually forming an alliance. (Rebel groups in civil wars frequently join forces, if only temporarily.) The new unified group might then decide to sign a peace deal with the federal government, guaranteeing no future gun control legislation and a significant reduction in immigration—or any set of terms that would be acceptable to a majority of the group’s supporters. By definition, the most radical anti-government and white supremacist groups would be left out of this deal because no compromise would help them achieve their ultimate goal: the establishment of a white ethno-state. Their only recourse would be to try to scuttle the deal. And the best way to accomplish that would be to trigger a civil war.”

Who would be on the other side of this war? Armed leftists, apparently. On the other side might be “armed groups, such as the Socialist Rifle Association—which is dedicated ‘to providing working class people the information they need to be effectively armed for self and community defense’—and the Not Fucking Around Coalition (NFAC), a Black nationalist militia group that supports self-policing and firearms training in Black communities”: 

“Whether or not the United States will find itself in a security dilemma depends on whether those on the left—liberals, minorities, city dwellers—decide they should also arm themselves. There’s some evidence that this is already starting to happen: The loose affiliation of left-wing activists known as antifa, who define themselves in opposition to fascism, nationalism, and racism, have grown more active in the past few years. In the spring of 2017, for example, antifa launched hammers, pipes, and homemade explosives at alt-right protesters in California…”

Now, I am not certain whether Antifa members “launched hammers, pipes, and homemade explosives” at alt-right protesters (Walter appears to take the claim from an article that itself attributes the claim to the Washington Post, although the linked Post article contains no mention of hammers and explosives and instead says Antifa had “homemade shields,” “sticks,” “pepper spray,” and “water bottles.” The distinction may appear small, but if the effort is to scare people about Antifa, there is a difference in the lethality of explosives and sticks, and Antifa members tend to be more likely to get in fistfights or throw vegan milkshakes on people than to plot bombings—albeit with the occasional exception.) But either way, an intelligent person interested in carefully assessing the likelihood of a new civil war will ask whether these are a series of unrepresentative anecdotes or whether the Socialist Rifle Association really seems like it’s going to be party to a major war anytime soon.

I’ve previously noted, in critiquing the way the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) discusses “hate groups,”1 that the threat of particular groups is often unclear because their membership numbers are not reported. The SPLC lists the number of groups but not how many people are in them, and in doing so keeps us from understanding how widespread the phenomenon we’re seeing really is. If a new civil war is going to break out between “extremist” groups, it would help to know how popular these groups are. Antifa, to me, appears to be pretty limited in their reach. Their antics make the news, but they seem to be most active in Portland, and marginal everywhere else. I’m even a little skeptical of how influential the scary right-wing extremist groups are. Walter, for instance, cites the example of the “Boogaloo Bois,” saying that while “it’s not clear how the Boogaloo Bois plan to achieve their goals,” “what is clear … is that they can turn out in force.”

Is that clear? I’ve never seen more than a handful of them photographed at any given time, and I’ve never seen one in the flesh personally. With their combination of Hawaiian shirts and heavy weaponry, they are certainly a newsworthy spectacle whenever they do show up. But we have to wonder whether they are being sensationalized.

Don’t get me wrong: I think armed right-wing groups are very scary and could well commit serious acts of terrorism in the future. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the various mass shootings perpetrated by white supremacists (Charleston, Buffalo, El Paso, Pittsburgh) are all the proof we need that there is a serious threat from those who hold far-right views. But notably, the most serious deadly acts so far have been by individual mass murderers, not organized groups. The Oklahoma attack was a sign that right-wing extremist violence was a real threat, but it didn’t prove that America in 1995 was on the brink of civil war. 

In fact, Walter seems at one point to concede that when she argues America is close to civil war, she isn’t really arguing that we’re close to the kind of event that comes to mind when we think “U.S. civil war.” 

“When we in the United States think of civil war, most of us think about our country’s first Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. We picture officers on horseback, and blue- and gray-clad infantrymen charging each other on enormous battlefields. We see in our minds the photograph of President Lincoln at Antietam, consulting with officers outside a Union tent in his long coat and stovepipe hat. Or we remember Pickett’s Charge, commemorated in paintings, when a mass of Confederate soldiers attacked a wall of Union soldiers on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. We think of bodies littered upon empty fields. We think of muddy embankments and cannons. … But to think this way—to think of civil war only in these terms—is a failure of the imagination. That’s because civil wars look entirely different today. Those who wage war against their governments in the twenty-first century tend to avoid the battlefield entirely; they know they will almost certainly lose in a conventional war against a powerful government. Instead, they choose the strategy of the weak: guerrilla warfare and terrorism. And, increasingly, domestic terror campaigns are aimed at democratic governments. … If America has a second civil war, the combatants will not gather in fields, nor will they wear uniforms. They may not even have commanders. They will slip in and out of the shadows, communicating on message boards and encrypted networks. They will meet in small groups in vacuum-repair shops along retail strips, in desert clearings along Arizona’s border, in public parks in Southern California, or in the snowy woods of Michigan, where they will train to fight. They will go online to plan their resistance, strategizing how to undermine the government at every level and gain control of parts of America. They will create chaos and fear. And then they will force Americans to pick sides.”

One could go along with Walter and say that it’s a “failure of imagination” to think of the U.S. Civil War when we talk about a U.S. civil war. But if the thing that Walter is predicting will happen doesn’t match the popular understanding of a “civil war,” perhaps that means “civil war” is not in fact the right descriptor at all. Perhaps the term just confuses us. 

In fact, I think it does worse than confuse us. I think it actively misleads us about the problems we face. For one thing, it implies a kind of centrist view that “left-wing extremists” and “right-wing extremists” form two competing sides. In reality, as I’ve noted, the serious threat of domestic terrorism comes from the right, as law enforcement agencies themselves acknowledge. In order to fit the facts into an “impending civil war” narrative, we have to draw a kind of false equivalence between white supremacist terrorism and the small contingent of armed leftists like Redneck Revolt, which Walter notes “have shown up at protests to protect minorities and at gun shows, flea markets, state fairs, and NASCAR races to try to counter recruitment into white supremacist groups.” 

It’s very much possible that in the near future we will see more horrifying white supremacist terror attacks. But that’s not “civil war,” and I think the “civil war” situations that people envisage are implausible speculative fiction. For one thing, they forget the crucial fact that most Americans aren’t very interested in politics. This is often called a politically divided country, with “partisans” sniping at each other. In fact, it is a country where most people are not very active participants in the democratic process, and a huge number don’t even show up to perform the very minimal task of casting ballots in elections. (Not that I can blame them too much, given the choices they’re usually offered.) 

The real threat I see is that an energized right, who are active participants, will seize control of as many institutions as they can, and impose a hideous theocratic agenda. Will there be large-scale violent resistance to this? I doubt it very much. Instead, as our public sector is eroded (schools privatized, inequality exacerbated), I think we’ll just see a kind of sad feudalistic society develop, where the poor are too busy trying to survive to care about politics and the tiny number of rich people live in luxurious armed compounds. (That already describes much of the contemporary U.S.)

The idea of a “civil war” seems to assume that the “red versus blue” culture war is the most important divide in American politics. While I certainly find the Republican agenda disturbing and think Jan. 6 was a demonstration that the right will probably try to eliminate democracy altogether if it threatens to erode their power, I don’t look out at this country and see a nation of “partisans” ready to go to war with each other. I see a lot of people being crushed by working too hard, getting sick, and being threatened by climate disaster and warfare. I do not think it’s very responsible to make big prophecies about the long-term future of the country, but of the risks we face, I don’t think “civil war” is an accurate or helpful description of any of them. Those who take this idea seriously tend to be those who think “partisanship” is the problem we face, and it would be nice if we went back to The Good Old Days Where Everyone Got Along. As the Atlantic noted, Marche makes some incredible statements like, “A decade ago, American stability and global supremacy were a given … The United States was synonymous with the glory of democracy … a president was once the unquestioned representative of the American people’s will. … [Congress was] the greatest deliberative body in the world.” Now that’s imaginative fiction.

The civil war framing misleads us about what our problems are. It’s not going to be Antifa versus Proud Boys in the streets. Instead, there’s a class struggle between those who own the country and those who work, and there’s a political struggle over whether the right will succeed in diminishing our democracy and turning all of our remaining public assets over to the aforementioned owners of the country. In a sense that’s a war, and a civil one, but nothing is illuminated by a framework that encourages us to see our neighbors as enemies who will soon be taking up arms against us. It’s the right that want people to fear and hate others who share their same interests, and we on the left need to focus on uniting people around our shared commitment to building a future worth living in. 

  1. I use quotes because the category is poorly defined. It was only in 2020 that the SPLC finally removed black nationalists from its Hate Map. 

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