Why I Keep Thinking about a 2nd Civil War


“There never was a good war or a bad peace.”  – Ben Franklin

It is a blessing and a curse of being a social animal that we are often aware of what the other social animals around us are thinking. If online activity is any indication of what people are thinking, then things are not great. Every day for the past year, I have found that the most viewed essay on this site, by far, has been something I wrote in 2019 about who would win a second civil war in the United States.

Perhaps I am giving this too much attention. But maybe not. A significant percentage of Americans have been deeply worried and/or angry for a while. In an October 2020 poll, 61% of people agreed with the statement: “I’m concerned that the U.S. could be on the verge of another Civil War.” Another Yougov poll from the same time found that 56% felt that the country would see “an increase in violence as a result of the election.” A smaller poll from December reported that 71% of Trump voters and 40% of Biden voters believed “we are headed into a civil war or significant upheaval.” (Upheaval and civil war were not defined, however).

When I play the scenario out in my head, I think the possibility of another civil war is remote, at least not in the sense of replicating the original one. Although there has been chatter about secession in a few states (Texas, Wyoming), this has little momentum. And while there are certainly regional political differences, they do not fall along neat boundaries akin to northern and southern states. There is no Mason-Dixon line. Rather, the main divide seems to be urban-rural, within states rather than between them.

Yet even within states and within counties, there is plenty of political variation. While many counties voted overwhelmingly for either Biden or Trump in 2020, most were not very lopsided. According to one analysis, fewer than 600 out of roughly 3,000 counties (excluding Alaska, for some reason) voted over 80% for either candidate. 

Alternative ways of looking at the 2020 political divide in the US. On the left, the percentage of vote for Biden and Trump by county. On the right, results by population size. Source.

The bottom line is that any civil war scenario does not lend itself well to one region versus another, or red states versus blue ones. Perhaps that is a good thing, hopefully a deterrent and a reminder that any conflict would be sectarian and local. Neighbor would be pitted against neighbor, with a decent chance that political violence could come to our own doorsteps. For the sake of peace, the best scenario would be if everyone had nonviolent personalities and philosophies. In the absence of that, another motivation for peace is simple self-preservation. If there is some segment of society that someone really dislikes and would rather go away or be buried, it is impossible to ignore the likelihood that the rubble would fall on everyone’s heads should someone choose to pull the temple down.

But there are other forms of political violence besides all out war. Two weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security warned of a “heightened threat environment” from domestic violent extremists. Another report declared that extremists want to “blow up the Capitol” when Biden addresses Congress. Terrorism expert Dr. Martha Crenshaw wrote in the New York Times today that the greatest danger going forward is “small groups or even individuals who are attracted to violence, well armed and motivated to act out of ideological conviction, commitment to defending a shared identity, and fear of irrelevance.” From there, she warned that government retaliation or overreach could possibly lead to an “endless spiral of violence generated by radicalization and counter-mobilization.” We’re nowhere near that now, but it’s telling that we even have to think about that scenario.

Sectarian violence is possible in any society, of course. Ethnic and political conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and the Central African Republic have been fought along those lines. Even here, in the American Revolution, allegiances were intermingled geographically, and families sometimes splintered according to whether their sympathies rested with Loyalists or Revolutionaries (Lee 2007). In addition to the conflict between the British and Continental armies, vigilantism during the Revolution was also a real danger. Lee (2007) listed several instances of ordinary civilians who were forced to take loyalty oaths or were ostracized, fined, or jailed. Some were humiliated and pushed out of their homes – sometimes naked – or even hanged for espousing allegiance to the wrong side. Many people had their property burned, plundered, or confiscated by their neighbors.

There were efforts to curb such brutality, as British and American leaders on both sides recognized that vigiliantism was not conducive to winning hearts and minds. Still, atrocity is an inherent component of war. During the Revolution, stores, mills, churches, barns, shops, even entire towns were burned to the ground throughout the country. Armies confiscated food from civilians and generated waves of refugees. To take just one example, roughly 10,000 of Boston’s 16,000 citizens were forced to flee to the surrounding area during the American siege of the British garrison there. Similar scenarios have taken place in wars throughout history. 

 

So What?

Why am I dwelling on this? I’ve been researching, writing, and teaching about the health effects of war for a while (Clarkin 2019). If there’s one overarching lesson that I’ve learned, it is that as much as people know about the horrors of war, I think many still underestimate how truly harmful it really is. It is not a scalpel that can remove some unwanted segment of a population. It is a wildfire. The former war correspondent Chris Hedges noted that war is often “sanitized” and mythologized, adding that “If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be harder to embrace the myth of war.” By looking at the full effects of war, we then have a better understanding of whether this is something we might wish to avoid. The arms control scholar Milton Leitenberg estimated that in the twentieth century alone, between 136.5 and 148.5 million people died in various wars, with an additional 89 million killed at the hands of repressive governments (Leitenberg 2006). A recent paper in The Lancet estimated that, globally, ten million children under the age of 5 died as a result of war between 1995 and 2015 (Bendavid et al. 2021).

And mortality is just the tip of the iceberg. For those who survive, there are myriad other negative repercussions from war, some of which last for decades or generations: injury and bodily trauma, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, diminished trust, depleted resources, inflation and economic collapse, the guilt and moral injuries from betraying one’s moral core, forced displacement, separated families, sexual trauma, ecological destruction, razed farmland, starvation, contaminated water, broken trade networks, infectious diseases and epidemics, destroyed roads and hospitals, lost education, shattered communication links, chronic diseases, epigenetic changes, shorter children, delayed maturation, etc.

So, when I see the continued interest in something I wrote about a second civil war almost two years ago, I feel obligated to remind people how bad things could get. I don’t know everyone’s motivations for Googling this topic before arriving on this site. It could be simple curiosity, but it could be fear, anger, or possibly eagerness. If you saw the search terms that people used to find this site, you’d see that the overwhelming majority pertain to who would win a civil war. Some examples are more partisan: “can the left win a civil war?”, “would the south win a civil war today,”  “civil war 2020 would the blue lose or win?”, “could red states defeat blue in a civil war,” etc.

It’s not a perfect sample. WordPress and Google have increased privacy standards, so I do not see as many search terms readers use to find this site compared to years ago, but some still filter through. Below is a word cloud of all the terms people have used to find this site over the past year (I know word clouds are out of style, but they have the advantage of being quickly readable). Anyway, you can see the pattern. Still, if we tally up all the costs of a potential civil war, then asking who would “win” seems like a perverse joke. Right now, we are winning the war simply by not fighting one.  

Word cloud of search terms used to find this site over the past year.

 

Role of Social Media?

Aside from war’s consequences, it’s also vital to address causes. I think it’s important to remember that while all wars are unique and should be understood in their own terms, a recurrent feature is that they don’t just spontaneously happen. Rather, the war effort is built over time, fomented and manufactured through conscious effort, recruiting others to the cause through persuasion, manipulation, fear, resentment, and/or pretense.

People have pointed to social media as a means of mass influence today. To gauge shifting interest in this topic, I used the Social Media Analysis Toolkit (SMAT) to download weekly data on use of the term “civil war” from several platforms over the past two years. In the graph below, I also included the number of views on my original post about who would win a second civil war in the U.S. I don’t have good weekly data on this site going back that far, so I used monthly figures instead. I also used the natural log (ln) to transform the raw data in order to make the scales more comparable. This was necessary since some platforms had many more users than others (ex. Twitter), and I was more interested in shifting patterns than the absolute numbers. Finally, I annotated the graph with important events in the U.S., some of which could be reasonably associated with spikes in use of the term “civil war” online. We can see spikes, either in anticipation of or in response to: Trump’s impeachment, the mass shooting in El Paso Texas, the George Floyd protests, Election Day, and the Jan 6th 2021 insurrection at the Capitol.

Use of the phrase “civil war” since Jan 2019 on various social media platforms [weekly data from SMAT] and this blog [monthly results]. Annotations are possible relevant current events (footnotes are at the bottom of the essay).

Consistent with these patterns on social media is the fact that guns and ammunition have also been in high demand, fluctuating along with the news. Prices for several calibers climbed all year, with the biggest spike occurring after the violence at the Capitol on Jan 6th (animation below). Americans purchased 23 million guns in 2020, easily surpassing the 13.9 million bought in 2019 and the previous record of 16.6 million in 2016. The LA Times reported that unlike previous years, the buying spree in 2020 included demographic groups that were not typically thought of as gun owners, including large numbers of Black Americans, women, and people who identify as politically liberal. This stemmed from a number of reasons, including the pandemic, high unemployment, fear of police being defunded or disbanded, but also anxieties around possible political violence and social instability.  

These analyses of social media and ammunition prices are imperfect. Still, I think it’s plausible that the online discourse around civil war was related to contemporary events. On my own site, I can see from a more fine-grained graph on the civil war post that views increased soon after specific events: a Trump supporter killed in Portland, the Breonna Taylor verdict, Trump claiming Democrats were trying to steal the election, etc.

Views on my site peaked after Jan 6, 2021 and remained high for more than a week. The good news is that views have since plummeted, which I interpret as a sign that interest in the topic of civil war seems to have waned. But this could always increase again in the future.

The real tragedy – and the reason I keep writing about this – is that for many Americans the idea of a second civil war has a recurrent magnetism to it, a mental template that people revisit whenever there is a sign of things going poorly. It’s hard to deal in counterfactuals, but I wonder if the first civil war had not occurred if people today would use it as a model of possibility instead of something else. Perhaps our imaginations might turn to other, less extreme and more successful, nonviolent possibilities when we perceive that things are not heading in our preferred direction.  In any case, if you found this blog today using search terms along the lines of “who would win a civil war in 2021,” the best answer is: the people who avoided one.

References

Bendavid, Eran, Ties Boerma, Nadia Akseer, Ana Langer, Espoir Bwenge Malembaka, Emelda A Okiro, Paul H Wise, et al. 2021. “The Effects of Armed Conflict on the Health of Women and Children.” The Lancet, January. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00131-8.

Clarkin, Patrick F. 2019. “The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict.” Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (1): 423–42. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011208.

Lee, Wayne E. 2007. “The American Revolution.” In Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Early America, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 31–69. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Leitenberg, Milton. 2006. “Deaths in War and Conflicts in the 20th Century.” 29, 3rd edition. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep05360.pdf.

__________

Footnotes to the social media graph

  1. “Highlights From The Mueller Report, Annotated” https://www.npr.org/2019/04/18/708965026/highlights-from-the-mueller-report
  2. “Why now? The moments that moved Pelosi and House Democrats toward impeachment.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/25/why-now-moments-that-moved-pelosi-house-democrats-toward-impeachment/?arc404=true
  3. “Michigan GOP congressman says Trump’s conduct impeachable” https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/18/justin-amash-trump-impeachable-mueller-1332780
  4. “What’s inside the hate-filled manifesto linked to the alleged El Paso shooter” https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/08/04/whats-inside-hate-filled-manifesto-linked-el-paso-shooter/
  5. “President Donald Trump impeached by US House, 3rd in history” https://apnews.com/article/d78192d45b176f73ad435ae9fb926ed3
  6. “A Timeline of Covid19 Developments in 2020” https://www.ajmc.com/view/a-timeline-of-covid19-developments-in-2020
  7. “George Floyd Protests: A Timeline” https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-protests-timeline.html
  8. “North Carolina Police Chief Fires Three Officers Over Racist Comments Caught On Tape” https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/25/883358818/wilmington-n-c-police-fires-three-officers-over-racist-comments-caught-on-tape

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