“But there’s no place in politics for violence — to threaten or carry out violence — and that’s where everybody has to take a stand. Whether it’s your supporters or somebody else’s…Sometimes it’s easy to call out the other side, but you’ve got to call out your own side, too, and I think that’s something where they could definitely pick up the pace.” —Steve Scalise, Republican (Louisiana) and a recovered victim of a politically motivated shooting
Let’s start with the good news. We are not currently in a civil war in the United States.
Over the past few years, pundits and editorialists have wondered whether this country might be heading toward a civil war, on the verge of one, or even already in one. Others have written that, yes, we’re currently in a civil war, but only in a non-violent, metaphorical sense (in other words, not a war at all).
In 2017, the Los Angeles Times referred to such stories as “bait-and-switch” because they compare political polarization to war and because they juxtapose clashes between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators as indicative of where the country is overall. Two years ago, Vox referred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhut recently wrote that such talk of civil war is too blithe and over-the-top, and people aren’t giving the topic the seriousness it deserves.
It is true that talk of civil war is often overdone. According to the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research (UUDPCR), a war is defined as having “at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” By that definition, the U.S. is clearly not in a war. However, we may be in a situation akin to a low-intensity conflict. The UUDPCR defines conflict as “at least 25 but less than 1000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Heat Map” of political violence, there were 46 incidents involving extremist murders, terrorist plots or attacks, or extremist shootouts with police. Altogether 54 people were killed in these incidents, which crosses the 25-death threshold. Tragically, 23 of these victims were killed in one horrific incident, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist who was intent on killing Hispanic people.
There are usually limits to using rigid definitions for something as complex as conflict and war. First, the cutoffs of 25 deaths and 1,000 deaths are arbitrary. The same number of deaths would be more impactful in a smaller country than in a larger one, so perhaps a rate of death might be more appropriate than a simple tally. Also, according to UUDPCR standards, such attacks in the US may not apply toward “conflict” because most were carried out by lone actors, not by formally or even informally organized groups. In addition, several U.S. incidents in the ADL Heat Map involved individual extremists who were involved in domestic incidents or robberies which may not have been politically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.
However, there are reasons to worry. For one, it’s not just pundits who invoke civil war rhetoric. Several public officials have casually flirted with the idea, going back years. In 2012, a Texas Judge made headlines when he predicted that if President Obama was re-elected there would be “civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. We’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington-Concord take up arms and get rid of the guy.” In 2016, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said that bloodshed might have to occur if Hillary Clinton were elected. Members of Congress have either “joked” (Iowa’s Steve King) about civil war, or mentioned it either regretfully or possibly a veiled threat (Texas’ Louis Gohmert). Before his impeachment trial in September 2019, President Trump tweeted (quoting megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress): “if the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office… it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” And this year, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted that the military should be used to restore order against protesters who got out of line and that they should give “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” Some have pointed out that if taken literally, “no quarter” would be a war crime.
It is hard to find comparable rhetoric coming from elected Democrats. There are examples of former attorney general Eric Holder saying that when Republicans go low that Democrats should “kick ‘em.” He added that he wasn’t advocating anything inappropriate or illegal, just to be politically tough. In 2018, Hillary Clinton said that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.” It is true that left-wing zealots have engaged in extreme violence against Republicans, such as Steve Scalise, who was shot while practicing for a Congressional baseball game. Most recently a left-wing mob beat a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin named Tim Carpenter. On social media, there are several examples of random people fantasizing about guillotines for the wealthy. However, I cannot find an example of a Democratic official invoking the possibility of civil war.
The drumbeat of civil war talk may not be constant now, but it is persistent, adding to a climate of fear and resentment. Last week, Scott Adams, author of the “Dilbert” comic strip, wrote that if Joe Biden is elected to the White House, “there’s a good chance you (Republicans) will be dead within the year,” adding that “Police will stand down” and “Republicans will be hunted.”
There is evidence that such speech is not sterile. Susan Benesch, Director of the Dangerous Speech Project, noted how integral speech is in paving the way for atrocity, and how all people are potentially vulnerable to it. For example, David Yanagizawa-Drott (2014) found that in Rwanda, villages with better radio reception to the infamous Hutu-controlled Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) were exposed more to incitement to violence against the Tutsi minority. Overall, he estimated that nearly one-third of the violence perpetrated during the genocide could be attributed to the broadcasts, which repeatedly dehumanized the Tutsi. While Rwanda is an extreme example, it illustrates the importance of rhetoric in stirring up animosities and creating a path toward actual violence.
In the U.S., ABC News compiled a list of several instances where President Trump seemed to be inciting violence (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” telling followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!; LIBERATE MINNESOTA!; LIBERATE VIRGINIA!,” saying he’d like to punch a protester in the face, etc.). He also retweeted someone who said “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” While many level-headed people take these as harmless examples of Trump’s overbearing personality, two of the hallmarks of dangerous speech are the influence of the speaker (and the office of the Presidency is obviously quite influential) and the receptivity of the audience. And there have been dozens of examples of violence and threats where people have mentioned Trump’s name.
The National Mood
Eighty-seven years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” This seems to apply to today’s atmosphere. The ability to spread rumor, fear, and anger instantly through social media adds fuel to what could become an even more dangerous situation (there are also reports that some websites, like Facebook, have been profiting from groups that promote the idea of civil war).
Understandably, the national mood is not exactly unicorns and butterflies during what Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called “a perfect storm of distress in America.” We are currently undergoing not only a pandemic, but widespread unemployment, food insecurity, the George Floyd protests, occasional riots, increasing violent crime, a spike in gun sales, videos of excessive force by police and National Guard troops, several confrontations between groups on the political left and right, and even the high-profile assassination of a federal security officer by a member of the extreme right. The Pew organization reported in late June that most Americans feel angry (71%) and fearful (66%) about the state of the country, with only a minority feeling hopeful (46%) or proud (17%).
In 2018, political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe found that 9% of Republicans and Democrats believe that, in general, violence, is at least occasionally acceptable. However, when imagining an electoral loss in 2020, approval of violence increased to 13% for Republicans and 18% for Democrats. A June 15th poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 34% of likely voters believe the US will experience a second civil war in the next five years. The poll also found that Republicans were more likely to see a civil war as impending, though two years earlier the same polling organization found the opposite, with Democrats being more likely to feel that way. I’m not sure how much stock to put into such polls and the fine-grained differences between Democrats and Republicans; for example, some analysts find Rasmussen Reports surveys to be “mediocre.” What we can say with confidence is that tensions and fears are not zero.
Adding divisive rhetoric and other structural factors to the mix could prove combustible. As the former Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis wrote: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
In his 2016 book “Ages of Discord,” Peter Turchin provided a sober look at times of conflict, analyzing a wealth of data. He likened violence to an earthquake: pressures steadily build up in the earth’s crust, but when they are ultimately released is hard to predict. Similarly, there may be structural causes that predict violence within nations, but they can be sparked by a triggering event that is difficult to foresee. Years ago, Turchin predicted that 2020 would be a time of violence in the US, not because of the pandemic, Donald Trump, or the killing of George Floyd, but because of an array of structural factors that seemed to be tipping that way. These include declining wages, wealth inequality, declining health, national debt, immigration, overproduction of “elites,” declining trust, tax rates on the wealthy, declining optimism, and increasing sociopolitical instability. According to Turchin, many of these stressors have preceded other historical conflicts, and the US is on the “wrong” side for many of them.
Other researchers have highlighted different risk factors for civil wars, including: periods of regime change, and in “intermediate democracies” rather than harsh autocracies or coherent functioning democracies (Hegre et al). Unfortunately, there are signs that democracy in the US is declining. According to one metric, the US has fallen just (barely) out of the “full democracy” category into a “flawed democracy” one. In the recent round of primary voting, there were reductions in the number of polling places, particularly in cities with high populations of African-Americans, and there have been photos of long lines of people waiting for hours to vote (during a pandemic, no less). The Economist reported that in 2019, 29% of Republicans believed it would be appropriate for President Trump to refuse to leave office if he claimed the reason he lost was due to widespread illegal voting. And over 50% of Democrats thought it would appropriate for a Democratic candidate to call for a “do over” election if there was evidence of foreign interference in the election. So, tensions exist there as well, which have the potential to be exacerbated in November.
On top of all this, it is not just that people are fearful of the prospect of increased violence. Some individuals may actually desire it. In late May, Senator Marco Rubio said this about extremists on the left and right: “while they are ideologically opposed to each other … they hate the police, they hate the government, and they want this country to fall apart … some of them want a Second Civil War.”
However, while Senator Rubio placed equivalent blame on both sides of the political spectrum, the evidence suggests that the bulk of the violence comes primarily from one end. In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “racially-motivated violent extremists,” primarily white supremacists, were “unrelenting” and considered a “national threat priority.” He went so far as to place them “on the same footing” as threats posed to the country by foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS. In fact, the FBI has viewed right-wing extremists as the primary domestic threat since the 1990s.
Going back to the ADL “Heat Map,” between 2002 and May 2020 (the last updated month), there were 576 incidents involving extremist murders, police shootouts, or terrorist plots or attacks. When sorted by ideology, 116 were attributed to “Islamists,” 33 to left-wing perpetrators, and 426 to right-wing actors with various motives (anti-government, anti-abortion activist, white supremacist). It is reasonable to question how complete the database is; as it stands, it does corroborate Wray’s statement.
Daniel Byman at the Brookings Institute wrote that one of the goals of white supremacists is “accelerationism,” to foment further division through violence, setting off a series of events that will ultimately lead to conflict along racial/ ethnic lines. Basically, they want to create conditions to engage in ethnic cleansing. This was seen in the recent case of the three police officers in Wilmington, North Carolina who were fired after they were recorded using harsh, racist language. One was gleeful about the prospect of a civil war, even genocide: “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them (expletive)” blacks. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” He added that he wanted to “wipe them off the (expletive) map. That’ll put them back about four or five generations.”
Trying to reading others’ intentions is difficult under even normal circumstances. It is even more difficult when enveloped in what Robert McNamara called the fog of war, as “war is so complex, it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all of the variables. Our judgment, our understanding are not adequate, and we kill people unnecessarily.” McNamara’s words, spoken at the end of his life, were a reminder of the need for humility. One of the hallmarks of human beings is that we are all equipped with what psychologists call “a theory of mind.” That is, we understand that other people have thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Basically, we are all amateur mind-readers. However, we read others’ minds very imperfectly, and we anticipate and react to not to what they think, but what we think that they think. Interviews with members of different “fringe groups,” such as the “Boogaloo” movement, suggest that individual members have a range of motivations, from true believers to hobbyists who think the idea of civil war is absurd. Acts of violence are sufficient evidence that there are enough true believers to be a danger to the public for some time.
Perhaps Santayana’s adage “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it” should have a corollary: history sometimes has a gravitational field that pulls people to want to repeat it. And wars in particular are often romanticized. As Chris Hedges wrote, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Hedges distinguished between “mythic war,” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, revenge, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have otherwise struggled to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”
By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”
If there is hope, perhaps it resides in Santayana’s adage, that –with any luck– enough of us have learned, over and over again, that sensory war inevitably creates horrific conditions that kill and maim indiscriminately, not just the people we dislike or the people we think deserve to be removed. Furthermore, these costs to economics, infrastructure, and health (physical, psychological, and moral) can last for generations. This is particularly true for civil war, since all fighting is carried out on one’s home field. Most rational thinking people would like to avoid that and find another solution to problem solving. In his book, The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley once wrote that the soldiers in the trenches of WW1 learned that “mutual restraint is preferable to mutual punishment.” In other words, as bad as things are now, they could certainly get much worse.
Another hopeful thing we can cling to is that, as the Frans de Waal quote at the top of the essay suggests, most people just want to live their lives, preferring peace over war. While history is replete with examples of war and atrocity, it would be wrong to solely highlight that side of human beings without acknowledging our astounding ability for generosity, kindness, and cooperation too. As a species, we are genocidal altruists, equipped with a wide array of selfish and selfless behaviors that we deploy in order to fit our circumstances.
Furthermore, I think it helps to remember that people can change. Us’ can become thems and thems can become us.’ The divisions that we experience today can appear natural and inevitable, but history shows that alliances and friendships are constantly in flux.
And, it turns out that we may not be as divided as we sometimes believe. The organization Beyond Conflict wrote that “Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do. In short, we believe we’re more polarized than we really are—and that misperception can drive us even further apart.” That “pluralistic ignorance” could have some drastic consequences, when perception soften supersedes reality.
Finally, as Peter Turchin wrote in his book, we have a chance to quash a wider conflict before it starts, perhaps by addressing some of the structural factors that have often sparked discord in the past:
“We are rapidly approaching a historical cusp at which American society will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval. However, a disaster similar in magnitude to the American Civil War is not foreordained. On the contrary, we may be the first society that is capable of perceiving, if dimly, the deep structural forces pushing us to the brink. This means that we are uniquely equipped to take policy measures that will prevent our falling over it” (2016: 242).