“Are We on the Verge of Another Civil War?” So asks The Nation, in a headline for an interview with David Armitage, the Harvard historian and author of the recent book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (Knopf, 2017). “Are We Nearing Civil War?” So asks the American Conservative, in a headline for a column by Patrick J. Buchanan, the several times presidential candidate and former speechwriter for Richard Nixon. Across the political spectrum, from left to right and in the center, too, the question is anxiously posed: whether familiar and longstanding trends like partisan polarization and raucous civic discourse are inexorably leading to a new and more dangerous phase of the confrontation—an actual civil war. Indeed, some analysts say we have already entered the stage of civil war. “American society has divided along unreconcilable visions of the good, held by countrymen who increasingly regard each other as enemies,” Angelo M. Codevilla declared in “The Cold Civil War,” an essay published this spring in the Claremont Review of Books.
Still, a “cold civil war” is not the same as a hot one. America is not, at the moment, engaged in a civil war involving sustained violence between warring parties. But that is not to say that we are not on the verge of such a conflict, and therein is the ripe question to ponder. A verge—the approach to an edge, beyond which there is a steep falloff—is easily, perhaps too easily, pictured. This seductive idea or feeling can be summoned by resort to a metaphor, like a cliff or a waterfall, suggested by our physical landscape. Poetry and painting abound with such ominous images, also evoked in countless symphonies of the romantic period. Think of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, the “hammer blows of fate,” as one critic called them.
Dramatic metaphors, though, are not of much help in determining whether America is actually on the brink of a civil war. To tackle this worrisome question, we must remove it from the temptation of cliché, invest it with context and place it in some useful frame, for calm scrutiny with a (necessarily) cold eye. Our resort, then, is to the wrinkled fabric of history.
On the very last day of 1860, the Rev. Thomas Smyth of the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, picked up his pen to write an old friend at a seminary in Pennsylvania. At this point in the seemingly endless sectional jousting between North and South, South Carolina, and only South Carolina, had seceded from the Union. The shooting phase of the conflict was not to begin for another four months, with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor. Smyth’s Northern friend was begging him to use his “great influence” to try to halt a spiral into violence: “. . . my dear brother, will nothing answer but a rupture of such sacred bonds—nothing but rolling back of civilization and Christianity in the land and in the world, by the most awful and interminable of Civil Wars?” It was hopeless, Smyth wrote in reply. The South required “a new birth,” a “new life and character,” he explained. “Blood must be shed! In an awful sense, without the shedding of blood there can be no peace, no atonement. Madness rules the hour. . . .”
If there is any historical reference point that can help answer the question of whether America, circa 2017, is approaching a ‘madness rules the hour’ moment, surely it is our first civil war. This is not to say that history repeats or even, with apologies to Mark Twain, that it so often rhymes. The particular bone of contention in the war that bloodied America in the 1860s was slavery—abolished, finally, over a mountain of dead bodies. Nevertheless, the months and the years leading to Fort Sumter can offer a window into today’s times.
A first parallel is that, just as the prospect of a civil war was a kind of talking point in the antebellum period—in newspapers and pamphlets, on the lips of soapbox speechmakers, in barroom conversation—so it has become in our times, often in the form of emotion-laden pronouncements on online media, the ‘soapbox’ of our era. “If Trump wins the nomination and then the White House. . . . It will be America’s Second Civil War. God, help our nation.” So wrote the Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith in HuffPost, eight months before the 2016 presidential election. A viral video of a citizen, at a town-hall meeting, publicly dressing down a Republican congressman, Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, as “the single greatest threat to my family” for embracing legislation to replace Obamacare, won applause on Facebook from a hard core Democrat who likened the confronter to a “modern day John Brown” delivering a “battle cry.” That would be the John Brown, the militant opponent of slavery, best known for his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859, intended to set off a civil war. Facebook also ignited on passage by the House of the bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare. “We need to riot,” given that House Republicans are “dedicated to the ruin, wreckage, agony and murder of tens of millions of us,” Ian of New York City declared on one thread. “The response should be we attack Congress.”
Mass democracies depend on robust debate for their functioning, and the temptation is to think of talk, even aggressive talk, as a therapeutic substitute for aggressive action, a safety valve for the release of pressure. But the path to the first civil war suggests otherwise. Incessant debate served to heighten passions, so much so that words came to be seen as deeply inadequate to the urgent imperatives at hand. “I am sick at heart of the endless talk and bluster of the South. If we are in earnest, let us act,” Charleston’s congressman, William Porcher Miles, a radical secessionist, said to his constituents at a town meeting in the summer of 1860. Charleston was the vanguard of the southern secessionist movement—nowhere in the region was there a greater eagerness to take on the North and nowhere was the idea of civil war discussed more intensively. The North tended to mock Charleston as all talk, no action—only for Charleston, in the end, to give the lie to that mockery.
A second temptation is to dismiss those who spew violent invective, and those who commit actual acts of political violence, as unstable—outliers on the mental-health spectrum, comfortably distant from the rest of us. “Look folks, crazies gonna crazy,” a commentator with the handle of Liberty Prime 117 said on Reddit, the online discussion forum, on the occasion, back in June, of James T. Hodgkinson, sixty-six years old, of Belleville, Illinois, opening fire on a group of Republican congressmen practicing baseball at a field in Alexandria, Virginia. The shooter had been a volunteer in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and had posted on his Facebook page the message that “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” But for Liberty Prime 117, a self-described conservative, that wasn’t the main issue: “Not every psychopath professing to be part of a certain ideology is the flag bearer of that group. Both sides need to learn from this. Political violence has no place in today’s society.”
Admirable as that sentiment may be, there is no reason to think that civil wars are started by men and women who fit some profile of normal mental health. A Chicago newspaper of John Brown’s time called him “mad as a March hare.” The author Tony Horwitz, in his 2011 book, Midnight Rising, on Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, observed that Brown “oscillated between periods of giddy, frantic activity and sloughs of despond that left him almost paralyzed. To modern eyes, this might suggest manic depression. So would Brown’s recurrent grandiosity. . . .” In South Carolina, as citizens became more fervent in their desire for a clash with the hated Yankee no matter what the consequences, they were said by skeptics of secession to have succumbed to “the contagion,” a disease of the mind. “South Carolina,” the Charleston lawyer James Louis Petigru wrote to a fellow Unionist in the state’s upcountry, “is too small for a Republic, but too large for an insane asylum.” He was thinking along the lines of a much talked about book of the era, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by the London journalist and songwriter Charles Mackay, a friend of Charles Dickens. Drawing on examples like the medieval Crusades, Mackay wrote of “seasons of excitement and recklessness” for “whole communities,” when “they care not what they do.” This closely fit with Petigru’s assessment of his state.
“Seasons of excitement” suggest an irrepressible mood, organic in nature. The Trump rallies of the 2016 presidential campaign had some of this flavor. “Lock her up!” the crowd chanted, seemingly bewitched by the prospect of seeing their despised nemesis, Hillary Clinton, behind bars. At a rally in Greensboro, N.C., an anti-Trump protester was shoved and then put into a headlock by a Trump supporter, who topped off his accomplishment by high-fiving Trump fans who took vicarious enjoyment from his feat. The unruly mood even infected children, as in the case of middle-school-age combatants, one wearing a Make America Great Again hat, duking it out on a school bus winding through the St. Louis suburbs. The “politically charged” ruckus, in the words of the mother of the cap-wearing 12-year-old, was over Trump’s proposed border wall.
Symbols, as ever, aggravate the passions. In the road to the first civil war, the meaning of the Revolutionary War was wrestled over. Was it a battle to forge an indivisible union, as Northerners were apt to think, or a rebellion to allow for the liberated colonies, the states in embryo, to exercise their own, possibly separate wills, as Southerners had it? Today, the first civil war is a symbol for the possible second. In protesting a decision by Charlottesville’s City Council to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park (newly renamed Emancipation Park, from Lee Park), white nationalists showed that they were willing and even eager to fight, beyond words, for their rancid world view. They brawled on the streets with counterdemonstrators, the violence culminating with a white nationalist plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of the counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring many others. President Trump at first seemed determined not to take a decisive stand on the dramatic events unfolding before his eyes and riveting the nation. He blamed “many sides” for “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence.” Not surprisingly, his dithering, James Buchanan-like response only exacerbated tensions.
Any fracas, from the serious to the slight, offers fodder for clashing camps to bait each other through their home-team media organs. In antebellum America, there was a constant back and forth between Horace Greeley’s abolitionist New York Tribune and The Charleston Mercury, the nation’s leading voice for secession. Their mutual antipathy was undoubtedly sincere and their barbs energized their respective readerships. There was no such thing as non-partisan media in this age—the point of owning a newspaper was to promote a particular view of the world and an agenda for action. Our current media landscape, in its fragmentation and gratuitous cross-firing, is acquiring much the same character. “I would almost feel sorry for them if they weren’t a bunch of evil, aspiring fascists who want to turn all of America into Evergreen College,” Kurt Schlichter writes of liberals on Townhall, a website for conservative opinion. “If we are free to loathe Trump, we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk,” Frank Rich writes in the dependably liberal pages of New York.
If one is “free to loathe,” then a casual meanness of treatment of members of the ‘other camp’ is a natural result. That pattern was evident in the lead up to our first civil war, as in the case of a widowed seamstress from New York City, confined to a dank jail cell in Charleston for months, merely for the ‘crime’ of harboring abolitionist sympathies. Even small incidents can be telling, as in the tossing of an egg at a lady in a fancy gown making her way by foot “in the heart of gentrifying Washington,” as she later wrote, to a Trump inaugural ball. The sticky yolk covering her face spurred her to tears, no doubt to the malicious pleasure of her hidden assailant, gratified at this petty accomplishment. Release.
Prolonged civil strife always produces a need for release—a longing for catharsis. The Rev. Smyth’s letter to his Northern colleague, exclaiming that “blood must be shed” in order to give the South “a new birth,” represented an especially intense yearning for catharsis—for the relief of pent-up frustrations held in check for so long they could no longer be suppressed. Catharsis, a kind of ritual purification, is a crucial concept for understanding the path to civil war, or maybe any war. Societies can stay under pressure for only so long—and then the lid blows off. A half century after America’s first civil war, Europe plunged into what became known as the First World War, a war between aggrieved neighbors. “War! What we experienced was cleansing, liberation and an enormous sense of hope,” Thomas Mann wrote from Munich in 1914.
By this standard, the strength of the urge for ‘cleansing,’ the distance to outright war does not seem all that near in America, 2017. Our frustrations may be intense but our spirit of charity is not yet spent. Violent rhetoric, while not unusual, is not really pervasive, and violent incidents of a clearly political content remain sporadic. We may liken incendiary figures among us to the fanatical John Brown, but in truth, no John Brown has yet emerged. White nationalists may be loud and spoiling for a fight, but they are few in number. Secession is mumbled about by rebellious sorts in Blue California and Red Texas but is no more than a fringe cause in either state.
Still, it may be that forecasts of a next civil war are simply premature. The march to the first civil war, after all, took decades to reach its destination and had its lulls and detours, its zigs and zags. So it could be with our trek.
Maybe We Are Simply Bored—Or Too Gloomy?
To be sure, the case can be made that, as much as anything, we are in thrall to the idea that we could have another civil war. What might that be about? A quirk of aesthetic taste is one answer. A certain dark enjoyment might be obtained from the contemplation of the spectacle of another civil war, similar to the frisson of watching a horror movie that we know, in the end, is a figment of the creative imagination, not something we expect to happen. This may be a perverse aesthetic, morally ungrounded, but so it goes with aesthetics. Before the first civil war seemed inevitable, the idea of such a conflict was a source of poetic fascination, the subject of overwrought verse. A stormy, Gothic experience of life is ever in pursuit of crackling tension.
Our current fixation with the specter of such a conflict also could be rooted in a condition of boredom, with politics becoming, in our affluent leisure society, ‘smart’ devices in hand, even strapped to the wrist, mainly a stab at stimulating our undertaxed glands. To pick a fight is one way to stave off ennui. “For many citizens, participation in politics is not motivated by civic duty or self-interest, but by hobbyism: the objective is self-gratification,” the political scientist Eitan D. Hersh writes in a recent research paper. Hersh argues that hobbyism of this type “presents serious problems for a functioning democracy, including participants confusing high stakes for low stakes” and “unnecessarily potent partisan rivalries.” A performer like Alex Jones, say, is little different than a sports talk radio host; it’s all theater for the rooters. On the day after the shooting at the Alexandria baseball field, Jones took one of his typical, fan-pleasing shots at liberals. “You kick off Civil War 2, baby, you’ll think Lexington and Concord was a cakewalk.” Such chatter might be seen as entertainment programming, a diversion, another way in which we Americans, per the prescient Neil Postman, are ‘amusing ourselves to death.’ His book of that title, published in the mid-1980s, was subtitled, appropriately enough, “public discourse in the age of show business.”
Then, too, the notion that we are headed for the nightmare of civil war is apiece with the American tradition, often overlooked, of cultural pessimism. America’s ingrained optimistic spirit supposedly is what distinguishes us from tragic-minded Europeans. Yet while it is hard to match Europe (think Spengler) in the department of dark musings, America in fact does have a native habit of pessimism, present at the dawn of the republic, waxing and waning over the decades. Jefferson at times displayed this melancholy sentiment, with his anxiety that the shift away from a society of sturdy yeoman farmers and artisans to wage-labor drudges would drain the democratic energies of the country. The brothers Henry and Brooks Adams, descendants of John Adams, spent the decades of the Gilded Age ruminating on the country’s political, economic and spiritual corruption, an American variant of “The Law of Civilization and Decay,” as Brooks named his book. The tome might have been called, he told Henry, “The Path to Hell.”
As it turned out, America emerged from the Gilded Age a global political and economic colossus, with vast reserves of patriotic spirit. Nevertheless, the feeling that tomorrow might not be as good as today, with yesterday best of all, persisted in some quarters. The band of Southern writers, including John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, responsible for the 1930 manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, not only condemned industrialism as an “evil dispensation” but also warned of an America that had “doomed itself to impotence.” That bleak mindset is back with us today. In asking whether we are nearing civil war in his recent piece for The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan was approximately on the same rhetorical ground laid out in his speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992, when he declared that America was in the midst of “a cultural war,” a “struggle for the soul of America.” For some prophets, the clock is always two ticks from the midnight hour.
Living With Each Other
The notion that we are merely in thrall to the idea of civil war, though, feels too benign. If only for the sake of prudence, it is probably a good thing for Americans to treat a new civil war as a plausible possibility. We can never know for sure whether we are headed for a cataclysm, until it arrives, but we can act, now, to lower the probability of such a catastrophe. A first step, anathema to the national political class and to entrenched partisans as well, is compromise, for example on health care, our most divisive domestic issue. Compromise on health care surely would drain the body politic of its most bilious juices. Immigration, also emotive, and inescapably a national issue, also begs for compromise.
But there is no need to try to seek compromise on all that divides us and to do so would likely add to our frustrations. Gun rights/control is probably an insoluble matter. In this respect, a second, more enduring step to avert civil war is the practice of tolerance, as in the mechanical engineering definition of the term—the deliberate allowance of variation in a system, knowing the parts might not fit easily together. The founders designed America’s fledging republic with this sort of tolerance in mind through the mechanism of federalism. Limited national government, usually considered, these days, a cardinal conservative value, can work for the Left as well—consider the leftward lurch of California, under Jerry Brown, on issues like climate change, in response to the control by Republicans of the executive branch and both houses of Congress. A healthy, stress-reducing spirit of tolerance would let California be California, Massachusetts be Massachusetts, Texas be Texas, Alabama be Alabama…Americans can migrate to the parts of the nation best suiting their political preferences.
It is tempting to extend this line of thinking to secession. If a constitutional, voluntary means for a state to leave the union can be agreed upon, might not secession, on these terms, reduce the risk of civil war? Probably not, as our experience with the first civil war suggests that secession can never be tidy, with the idea of secession, in itself, highly inflammatory. Federalism is not boundlessly elastic; tolerance has its limits.
The question of whether America is truly on the path to civil war may be answered by the 2020 presidential election. Two scenarios are easily conjured. In the first, our opposing political camps gear for fierce battle and intensify the strains from which we now suffer. The victor, whoever he or she is, is seen as illegitimate by the losing side. The ‘madness’ moment becomes less distant. In the second scenario, the center ground firms up and the triumphant candidate helps recover our balance and reason. The madness moment recedes. Given how things are going, this second possibility seems less likely. Brace yourself.