The Gumption for a Civil War?
Are we in a time of unprecedented political polarization?
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
This new year we’ve heard a lot of talk from the Left about another civil war just over the horizon. The partisan divide, as the argument from the Guardian goes, has worsened to the point that the “American political system has become so overwhelmed by anger that even the most basic tasks of government are increasingly impossible . . . The crises the United States now faces in its basic governmental functions are so profound that they require starting over.” The Right knows this, the Guardian warns, but the Left is mired in intramural quarrels. As John Sexton summarizes this argument, “We need to burn down everything (including the Constitution) and start over.”
Much of this melodramatic prophecy bespeaks the progressives’ anxiety over the coming November electoral backlash against their manifest political failures and arrogant assaults on our unalienable rights, from tyrannical covid mitigation policies, to blatantly racist, anti-American school curricula. And for over a century, progressive technocrats have thrived on existential crises real and imagined, the “moral equivalent of war,” as William James put it in 1906, that demands expanded government power and diminished citizen freedom. Prophecies of actual war reflect the progressives’ habit of using hyperbolic rhetoric to gin up the panic and fear that justify increasing the nanny-state’s aggrandizement of more power.
But such prophecies are unlikely to come true, if only because most of the American people don’t have the gumption to kill and die for much of anything. The young who usually do most of the fighting in war particularly are––with the exceptions comprising our armed forces and other young patriots–– unsuited for the suffering and sacrifice that real war exacts.
First, however, we should point out that the laments over our “polarization,” “partisan rancor,” and lack of “bipartisanship” as comprising a novel, dangerous crisis hurtling us to war, bespeak an ignorance of both history and the structure of our political order.
From its beginnings, our history has been marked by deep, often violent conflicts and divisions over what aims and goods we the people should value and pursue. The Founding era was a time of such stark divisions and conflicting ideologies. As many as one in five Colonists stayed loyal to England, some even fighting against the Patriots. The bloody 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina was fought against not the British, but Loyalist, with atrocities committed by both sides.
The decade between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention was also rife with political quarrels over what form of government should replace British Imperial rule in the Colonies, and how democratic the new state governments should be. In some colonies this fight drew blood. In Philadelphia in 1779, clashes between radical democrats and conservatives led to civic violence. Most notorious was the Fort Wilson Riot, when the home of future Supreme Court Justice James Wilson was besieged by radical militiamen. Six men died in the battle. In subsequent decades such political difference also exploded into violent insurrections like Shays’ Rebellion (1786) and the Whiskey Rebellion (1794).
The most consequential division was sparked by the passionate supporters and opponents of slavery, which in the decades before the Civil War led to violent incidents such as radical abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (1859), and the terrorist violence in “Bleeding Kansas” from 1855 to the outbreak of the war. And the Civil War cost 750,000 lives, and led to chronic conflict and violence over the status and rights of the freed slaves and their descendants––culminating in the Sixties which saw over a period of five years 159 violent riots, and resurfacing in the summer of 2020 with the BLM and Antifa mayhem incited by so-called “systemic racism” allegedly enabling the wanton murder by police of black men like George Floyd.
After the Civil War, division and violence still roiled American society and politics. As historian James McPherson responded to the exaggerated claims of partisan violence in 2020,
The country was probably more divided, and the potential consequences or the potential dangers . . . may have been even greater in the 1890s and the 1930s than they are now. The labor violence, the divisive rhetoric, and the rise of the Populists of the 1890s are examples much greater than anything we are experiencing today. In the 1930s, people were really talking about the possibility of following Germany, Italy, and other countries toward fascism, while others advocated following the Soviet Union toward some form of communism . . . . Several eras in the past . . . experienced far more divisiveness than we are going through right now.
Moreover, the Constitution was influenced by the disorder of the decade prior to its ratification, which confirmed the Founders’ pessimism about human nature and its diverse “passions and interests” that always seek more and more power. And given the diversity of the new states––in their mores, customs, old-country origins and cultures, resources, geography, economies, and most important, religions––factions would necessarily form to advance those diverse, often zero-sum interests and passions. The solution was a government that divided and balanced power, thus protecting the people from concentrated tyranny whether of the majority or the minority. Partisan divisions, then, are not a bug, but a feature of the Constitution, the primary purpose of which is to protect freedom, even at the cost of political inefficiency, partisan division, and rancorous conflict.
The idea of an imminent Civil War, then, ignores the role that factional conflict, most of it much worse than our current divisions, has played in American history––in 244 years resulting in just one actual Civil War.
Finally, the nature of our times makes a civil war much more unlikely than in earlier periods of violent conflict. We as a people live in a social and cultural world very different from the one before World War II, a consequence of the incredible increase in wealth, comfort, and leisure created in the postwar period. For example, the shift from living in small rural towns to suburbs lessened young males’ experience of hard physical labor, and of hunting and guns. This decline has helped to create the sensibility that demonizes firearms and empowers assaults on the Second Amendment. Or take the schools’ proscription of physical fighting among young males, the fruit of the two-bit pacifist bromide “violence solves nothing” that infects the schools with “zero- tolerance” rules that ignore the eternal reality of boys’ development into men .
These attitudes have fostered as well a quasi-pacifism that regards armed conflict as wholly evil, and a sign of retrograde thinking and “bitter clinging” to primitive mores. Given this shift to the juvenile thinking of John Lennon’s fatuous hymn “Imagine” and its “Nothing to kill or die for” doctrine, it’s hard to see where the Left could find enough warriors to fight this new civil war.
Then there’s the affluence, comfort, and leisure Americans have come to regard as unalienable rights the government should provide. As the covid crisis has shown, the tolerance for risk, discomfort, and suffering have declined into utopian expectations those before us knew were impossible. Only our age could create “snowflakes,” adults whose feelings must be protected from the slightest, most subjective injury; and whose expectations for success and happiness disregard the necessary role our own talents, virtues, hard work, and gumption play in achieving those aims––hence the demand for “equity,” the equality of result rather than the true equality of opportunity.
Indeed, these changes in mores became obvious in the Sixties with the resistance to the war in Viet Nam that demonized the military as the tool of neocolonial oppression. That’s why the military supported ending the “peacetime” draft and becoming an all-volunteer military comprising those, many from rural and small-town America, who still had those experiences, skills, and virtues necessary for creating an efficient fighting force. Unfortunately, these days the top brass in the Pentagon have become “woke” tribunes, imposing on their troops political propaganda like Critical Race Theory, and purging their ranks of imagined “white supremacists,” rather than focusing on improving the military strength and preparedness necessary to meet the growing challenge of rivals like Russia, China, and Iran.
The melodramatic prophecies of civil war are predicated on an ahistorical belief that we are in a time of unprecedented dangerous polarization that must end in violence. In fact, our whole history has been characterized by the factional partisanship that reflects the diverse “passions and interests” that are “sown in the nature of man,” as Madison put it, and so are not amenable to improvement. More important, we have created a generation of people whose intolerance for the tragic constants of the human condition leave them very unlikely to engage in violence. Even the rioters and looters of the summer of 2020 knew that sympathetic, or cowardly, civic leaders were not going to unleash the sort of mind-concentrating force that usually ends such violence, or even prosecute the majority of rioters they did apprehend.
The sort of bitter partisanship that has provoked these lurid scenarios of civil war is part of our national DNA. So too is the response to these divisions: the Constitutional order of divided and balanced government accountable to the people through regularly scheduled elections. And it is that order that frustrates the technocratic Left, and nourishes their fantasies of a civil war or revolution that will “start over” and bypass the Constitution’s checks on their tyrannical ambitions. Lucky for us that their generation doesn’t have the gumption for such a fight.