Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The latest take on the recent riots and protests is that our political “cold” civil war is turning hot. The political polarization of recent years is now turning increasingly violent, with each side hunkering in its hardened silos and elevating the threat-level to DEFCON 1. The coronavirus and its attendant hysteria have increased this sense of dread and apocalyptic angst. That’s why, the pundits tell us, we the people are “yearning for normal,” a longing that will help determine the outcome of the presidential election.
This fear is overblown. We’re mistaking an availability error––the fallacy of coming to conclusions based on what is most recent and first comes to mind––for a more probable reality. But that doesn’t mean that we are not facing serious political danger in the coming months.
There are several reasons why a civil war is unlikely. First, we live in a world saturated with news and images 24/7, skewing our sense of reality. Moreover, information is refreshed in seconds and accompanied by dramatic visuals. Way back in 1962 Daniel Boorstin was decrying how the image became the reality, or what he called “pseudo-events,” a “thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life.” That world of images has become the world, crowding out all the other real data and events that define our daily existence. In such a world it’s easy to jump to improbable conclusions.
And images love the drama of conflict and violence. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the television newsroom cliché puts it. Additionally, these images typically lack a larger context. They are framed, often intentionally, to heighten the emotional drama at the expense of accurate understanding. Such events are perfect for creating the “propaganda of the deed,” as the old anarchists put it, the promotion of political ideology through emotionally charged, usually violent images. So powerful are these images that they can create a seeming reality.
Consider how the disturbing images of George Floyd’s brutal treatment by a callous cop––the latest in a series of such encounters that are actually rare between policemen and unarmed black males––has created a pseudo-reality in which white cops systematically murder unarmed black men. This is one of those manufactured “crises” that the left is not letting go to waste, but exploiting in order to leverage tragedy into political power––in this case, replacing the president and taking back the senate.
But couldn’t such a volume of manipulated images and their attendant duplicitous commentary spark a civil war? Anything can happen, but the transient nature of such events like the riots, and the short attention-spans of most viewers, argue against it. It’s unlikely the current civil unrest will persist over the next four months until election day. And the more the images fill our screens, the more possible a backlash arises among ordinary Americans who don’t cotton to vandalizing and destroying small businesses, or killing innocents, or defunding police departments.
Next, we forget how parochial the political class, whence comes most of the commentary predicting a civil war, really is. Those of us who are immersed in politics forget that the majority of voters and normal people are not as invested or even interested in the daily fluctuations of opinion. They’re busy trying to make a living and raise their kids, or hanging out with their friends and families, or enjoying entertainment. Even among registered voters, polls consistently reveal that opinions on issues are very different from those of the punditariat. For example, in recent years, catastrophic global warming has obsessed commentators, mostly on the left. But this issue repeatedly ranks near the bottom of issues voters are concerned with. More recently, the sympathy for defunding the police among political and media elites is much lower than the 64% of people opposing it.
With 154 million registered voters in the U.S., then, it’s very difficult to know what issues will motivate them come election day. We learned this in 2016, when the political class and its hired pollsters failed to take seriously Donald Trump’s chances of winning. It was a repeat of the mythic quote from film critic Pauline Kael, “I don’t know how Nixon won, nobody I know voted for him.” But the actual quote is just as revealing of the elite’s political parochialism: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are, I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes in a theater I can feel them.” Not as punchy as “smelly Walmart shoppers,” “bitter clingers,” and “basket of deplorables,” but the sentiment is the same.
Such a disconnect between the opinions of the political class and American reality does not suggest enough of a broad and passionate consensus necessary for an actual civil war involving mass violence. A revolution can be started by a committed minority: In 1917, 10,000 Bolsheviks seized power over a country of 126 million. But most of those millions were poor and dispossessed, and had lived most of their lives under an autocrat. In a rich, participatory democratic republic such as ours, with regularly scheduled elections and divided powers, such a feat is more difficult.
But what about our Civil War, which killed over 700,000 Americans and sowed the seeds of regional and racial strife still with us today? That was a different world in 1861, when regional differences were more distinct, political identities more local, and experience with weapons and fighting more widespread than today. When we watch on our screens the well-nourished, leisured protesters, looters, and vandals, we don’t see the kind of young men who did hard physical labor from an early age, who were familiar with disease and early death, and who knew how to handle firearms. There were no snowflakes in the 1860s.
Indeed, apart from opportunistic thugs and felons, the bulk of the “troops” who would comprise one side of some civil war are pretty much denizens of the young comfortable classes. Their disruptive and violent behavior is happening because governors, mayors, and police chiefs have over the last decade sent the message that they will not respond with mind-concentrating force in order to restore order and hold rioters accountable. On the contrary, they encourage and validate the kids’ behavior with their words and their deeds like kneeling in solidarity with overgrown petulant teenagers. It’s hard to imagine one of these snowflakes in a maelstrom of violence like Shiloh or Antietam.
Also don’t forget, as Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter reminds us, that one side of this imagined civil war already has most of the guns––perhaps as many as 300 million, with 60 million more having been sold just in the last few months. And which side do you think most soldiers, veterans, and police officers––the citizens most highly trained in the use of firearms––would take in such a civil conflict? The woke soy-boys and “resistance” posers of Chazistan, whining about the “homeless” people stealing their food, and begging for donations of vegan meals?
Finally, the “looming civil war” meme reflects the old “bipartisan divide” or “polarization” complaint regularly trotted out by commentators disturbed about how “nothing gets done” and “problems aren’t solved” by politicians who won’t “reach across the aisle.” In fact, as James Madison reflects in Federalist 10, this country was born in factional strife created by the great diversity in settlement patterns, denominational strife, attitudes to democracy, and distinct economic interests, folkways, mores, customs, and tastes. These “factions,” which are not anomalies to be corrected but “sown in the nature of man,” as Madison wrote, are why we ended up with a government of divided powers and checks like the sovereignty of the states. And despite the progressive century-long weakening of those mechanisms for preventing the concentration of one faction’s powers at the expense of others’ freedom, they still work well enough to forestall the mass mobilization of factions necessary for civil war.
That a civil war is unlikely, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t dangers ahead. The Dems have suffered decades of disappointment in their desire to “fundamentally transform America” into a socialist state. After the euphoria of Obama’s mediocre two terms, the success of a political outsider from a bare-knuckle commercial world alien to most of the postwar political class has addled with resentment and rage the Democrats and NeverTrump Republican quislings. They are doubling and tripling down on the left’s mantra “by any means necessary,” even to the point of endorsing socialist and utopian policies––eliminating carbon-based energy, forgiving $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt, free college tuition, and even defunding the police––that are political poison for a majority of Americans. And they have pinned their hopes on a corrupt serial groper and grifter not even in control of his mental faculties.
All of which should presage an overwhelming victory for Trump. But let’s not be hasty. In just a decade this country has changed in ways unthinkable 20 years ago. Trump has had to face not just the Democrats, but the universities, the media, the entertainment industries, and amoral corporations throwing in with the “woke” mob, no doubt to cultivate brand loyalty. And he’s had to battle so-called conservatives so blinded by resentment and wounded self-love that they can’t see how disastrous a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been, or a Joe Biden presidency will be, for everything true conservatives hold dear––unalienable rights, political freedom, a vigorous civil society, and personal autonomy.
Civil war? Unlikely. A radical transformation of the United States from a government of, by, and for the free people, to a regime of, by, and for the illiberal technocrats and their dependent clients? That’s a much more possible outcome, and one worth worrying about.