Since the election of Donald Trump and the events of his presidency, political discussion in the US has circled the drain of dystopian speculation. The US, we are told, is gripped by irremediable political polarisation that augurs the death of democracy. “I can’t say this more clearly,” Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times in September 2020. “Our democracy is in terrible danger, more danger than it has been in since 1861.” Published in the wake of the riotous invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, books by the journalist Stephen Marche and by the scholar Barbara Walter respectively contrive scenarios for how civil conflict is likely to unfold, and scour the planet for characteristic features of civil wars emerging “on our own soil”. Endorsing this work in the Financial Times, Edward Luce attests to the “alarmingly persuasive case that the warning lights are flashing redder than at any point since 1861”.
Political analysis in these times of rolling economic and public health crises, and of heightened political risks and threats, is difficult to assess in a fair, clear-minded way. Combining fabulation and fact, and presenting loose prognostication in an idiom of predictive science, it often defies the most cursory sense of historical context and complexity. This work invites blithe dismissal or vigorous assent, gaining traction upon current discussion by bidding up worst-case scenarios, implying that only a fool or miscreant could ignore the warnings. Such arguments achieve greatest success when they ratchet the common sense of rising polarisation. The genre of civil war fantasy, Marche observes, “is almost exclusively right-wing.” Now gentle reader, please enjoy my book filled with fanciful scenarios of the imminent civil war that you will need to anticipate to stop it happening. If pornography is a perverse prophylaxis for sexual indulgence, these criers of our interregnum invite similar frisson, incitement and passivity at the scenes they conjure of civilisation’s demise.
When people toss around references to 1861, they are referring to the great “bellum” (“war”) that organises all of US history into two distinct “before” and “after” periods. This industrial-scale armed slaughter killed 2.5 per cent of the US population, still the largest mass casualty war in American history. So it is important to establish a sense of proportion. The US is a large, impossibly diverse country. At this moment in its history, it is probably no less difficult to govern effectively than it would be to divide into well-organised camps battling for supremacy, precinct by precinct. The conventional red-blue election maps not only distort the marbled grain of US political contention, but also much of the ordinary, if grudging comity of everyday life in a society where most people work, day in, day out, with others to make their lives liveable. The consequences of the staggering loss of life from the pandemic will unpredictably affect our politics for years to come. That reliable bellwethers of elite, middlebrow common sense now imagine that the US is on a path toward a civil war is a good indicator that we are in the presence of a shallow or hyperbolic reading of our predicament.
That said, the turn to civil conflict directs us to some crucial questions. The idea of war among people who acknowledge their enemies as members of the same political community tells us something significant about the societies in which we live. Use of this concept, as the historian David Armitage suggests, generates contests over its proper meaning and disagreements about the character of social conflict itself: is it a riot or revolution, an insurgency or a reactionary backlash, a protest or a criminal action? Walter and Marche try to add a veneer of objectivity by employing the minimalist, low-threshold definition of civil war as “major armed conflict” resulting in more than 1,000 fatalities per year. But given that US police forces kill approximately 1,000 people per year, it might be fair to say that the country already subsists in a state of low-grade civil war. The recurrence and scope of popular protest, including rioting after the killing of Michael Brown and George Floyd by police in 2014 and 2020 respectively, lends credence to this suggestion: in the zones of precarity where many people dwell, impoverished, unsheltered and overpoliced, civil war is ongoing.