Opinion

How close is America to a new civil war?

It's not inevitable. Maybe not even likely. But it's still worth debate.

With the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection looming later this week, analysts and pundits have put the worst-case scenario for the American future on the table for public debate and discussion: Is the country coming unglued? Are we approaching the point where self-government becomes impossible? Will political violence break out again, this time spreading beyond our capacity to contain it?

Is the United States careening toward a second civil war?

Canadian novelist and commentator Stephen Marche is among the most confident of the pessimists. In an excerpt from his new book published in The Guardian, Marche points out that hardly anyone foresaw the outbreak of the original American Civil War, even as the conflagration was breaking out at a military installation on the South Carolina coast.

It's the same today, Marche claims, with the right becoming militarized in response to the widespread delegitimation of American political institutions. Those "structures of power" no longer adequately represent the views of the majority, and Republicans are ready to substitute "the politics of the gun."

Writing in New York magazine, author Jonathan Chait adds an additional layer to the story of institutional rot. Just as the Republican Party at first opposed former President Donald Trump's candidacy and nomination in 2016 but eventually rallied around his presidency, so its leading officials initially responded to the violence on Capitol Hill a year ago with outrage but eventually retreated to excusing or even offering a backhanded defense of those who stormed the Congress and the man who incited them to do it. Republican officeholders might not explicitly endorse overturning democratic elections, but they clearly don't think the attempt is anything to get too worked up about — at least, not if the head of their own party is the one behind it.

That could well lead to a replay of the events of Jan. 6 during a future election, and on a vaster scale. But, as The Week's own Noah Millman argues in The New York Times, there's no guarantee that Republicans will be the party to initiate extralegal actions.

Believing the threat comes solely from the right leads many Democrats to put their faith in a legislative solution to the danger of civil unrest — usually through the reform of election laws. But in truth there is no such legislative solution, Millman claims, because "the deepest problem threatening American democracy" is "the profound lack of trust in the legitimacy of the opposition."

We saw Democrats reject this legitimacy in 2000 and to some extent again in 2016, while the GOP went even further in 2020. The suspicion is mutual, and, as long as it stays that way, we run the risk of a buckling system and the outbreak of violence in response.

Yet that doesn't mean a civil war is inevitable or even likely. In a long essay in Vox, Zack Beauchamp reviews a wide range of scholarship and case studies of democratic breakdown across the world in attempting to think through possible scenarios for the American future. They range from the U.S. muddling through its troubles without much change to the outbreak of several forms of political violence to the rise of outright authoritarian government to something much more like an actual civil war.

Many scholars consider the risk of a civil war to be remote, and I suspect they're right. But these recent pieces by Marche, Chait, Millman, and Beauchamp are still worthwhile, because a remote possibility that's extremely bad is still worth attempting to forestall.

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