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Is America Heading for a Second Civil War?

 Is America Heading for Another Civil War?           Gerry OShea

A few months ago three retired military generals warned about the prospect of a breakdown of the American system of government after the 2024 presidential election. They fear that in a contested result “some might follow orders from the rightful commander in chief while others might follow the Trumpian loser  - - -  and a military breakdown could lead to civil war.”

In a recent poll conducted by the Institute of Politics in Harvard, 35% of voting-age Americans under 30 place the odds of another civil war at 50% or higher.

Instability and cynicism have permeated the political system in the United States. Collective suggestion far outstrips individual conviction in choosing party affiliation.

 In repeated surveys around 70% of Republicans still believe that Donald Trump won the presidential election. The former president’s top lawyers, led by Rudy Giuliani, claimed widespread fraud in the November contest. They went before more than sixty judges asserting this position, but they could not produce any evidence to bolster their allegation, so the cases were dismissed without even a hearing.

Still, Mr. Trump is saying that the election was stolen, a claim that has the same connection with the truth as someone announcing that Martians will attack us with bows and arrows on St. Patrick’s Day! Shockingly, around fifty million Americans seem to believe this outlandish tale of imaginary fraud and this Big Lie is poisoning the body politic.

 In a survey conducted by the University of Virginia, 52% of Trump voters and 41% of Biden supporters “somewhat agreed” that the country should be divided in two with either red or blue states negotiating departure from the union.

Barbara F. Walter in her highly-regarded new book “How Civil Wars Start” identifies three factors that predict which places are most likely to descend into civil conflict. She introduces what she calls a “polity score” which rates countries on a scale from +10 to – 10. If a country is deemed high on the plus side, it indicates a functioning system of government where people power provides the dominant ethos.

On the other hand, the lower one goes on the minus measurement the more autocracy looms. If a country’s score dips to the bottom of the negative side, we are describing life in North Korea or recalling Hitler’s Germany.

If, however, a country is in the middle, with a rating somewhere between +5 and -5, the experts have devised a new term to cover that situation, anocracy. These places, scoring to the left or the right of 5, are much more likely to end up in a civil war than either well-established democracies or functioning autocracies.

The second factor revolves around what Ms. Walter calls factionalism, which arises when political leadership is tied closely to ethnicity, race or religion rather than to ideology. She expresses this divide as “politics going away from the common good of the country as a whole, to one in which citizens care only about members of their own group.”

The third troubling delineation she names as “group downgrading,” which points to a dominant group’s loss of status. This classification has a strong tendency to generate conflict not just because of political defeat but, more significantly, as a result of perceived status reversal.

The United States has a polity score of +5, the lowest in living memory. Ms. Walters’ assessment of the current state of democracy in the United States is perplexing and worrisome: “We are a factionalized anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage, which means we are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.”

The generals quoted earlier seem to imagine forces representing the two sides, dividing largely along party lines. This remains a distant possibility, but the Walter book rejects the idea of any equivalence with two armies facing off over the Potomac as happened in the 1860’s. Instead, she predicts a conflict akin to the Troubles in Northern Ireland with occasional serious guerilla-style outbreaks that continue over many years.

The bullying tactics and violent behavior seen during the attack on the Capitol on January 6th last year are surely symptomatic of a malfunctioning society. The rioters wanted to lynch the vice-president who escaped with his family to a guarded room in the building that symbolizes American democracy. This was an attempted coup d’etat which brave police officers barely thwarted.

The recent truck protests in the Canadian border and in Ottawa provide another example of this kind of bellicose activity that seriously disrupted normal commerce in those areas. This negative behavior which lasted over a week was supposedly in support of the anti-vaccination campaign, but Canadian and American trucking companies and the unions representing the drivers disavowed the agitation and bemoaned the resulting diminution of earnings by workers and their employers.

Confederate and QAnon banners were seen throughout the protest, and a cache of arms was confiscated by police in Alberta.  Law-enforcement sources suggest that the whole effort was partly funded by far-right American groups using the emotion generated by the anti-vaxxers to create economic chaos.

After Putin’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine former president Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, cheered on by Tucker Carlson, lauded the Russian leader for his strength and “genius” while President Biden was rallying support for strong condemnatory actions by the West. It is hard to believe that the country is divided about such a clear battle between good and evil.

What is behind this extreme repudiation of the status quo by a big bloc of the citizenry? What is their grievance against society? Are there policies that could be changed that might alleviate the situation?

Historically, such belligerent actions are rooted in deep dissatisfaction with the economic system. The growing inequality in American society where the wages and standard of living of poor and middle-class workers have remained stagnant during a time of exuberant economic growth could be seen as a legitimate source of disaffection. However,  these troubling issues were never even mentioned by the January 6th rioters.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former adviser who has spoken glowingly of the truckers’ revolt – as have Senators Cruz, Johnson and Hawley - states that thoughtful, logical arguments are not a strong driving force in motivating people. Instead, he posits the significance of tribal allegiances combined with issues that stir the blood rather than engage the brain.

For instance, some people are angered by reports about problems caused by transexuals using school bathrooms or the teaching of some “liberal” books in the classroom. Rhetoric about elites dominating American culture always draws loud applause. Sadly, emotional proclamations nearly always trump rational discourse and, as Bannon asserts, they feed the tribal instincts of nativism.

We don’t fully understand the political dynamics at play in America in our time because the huge number of alienated people remains completely baffling. Are we heading for some kind of implosion driven by bubbling anger, resentment and grievance that we have never experienced before? That seems likely.

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


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