It’s popular these days to talk about the potential outbreak of a second Civil War. I’ve not been immune to that sentiment — I’ve probably used that language in the past. When you’re passionately involved in politics, it’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of the problems emerging before the country. It’s even easier to spot in every headline the possibility of underlying ugly trends breaking out into something far uglier.
But the truth is that our constant talk about a second Civil War is making a second Civil War more likely.
Yesterday, Victor Davis Hanson, an author I greatly admire, wrote a piece at National Review talking about the outbreak of a second Civil War. Hanson writes:
We are now nearing a point comparable to 1860, and perhaps past 1968. Left–Right factionalism is increasingly fueled by geography — always history’s force multiplier of civil strife. Red and blue states ensure that locale magnifies differences that were mostly manageable during the administrations of Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, and Clinton.
He attributes this factionalism to globalization, high tech, campus radicalism, illegal immigration, and the intersectional politics of Barack Obama. I agree with a lot of his analysis of the problems facing the country, particularly when he suggests that we have lost our spiritual and religious moorings. But one of the problems with calling for a revival of civility, reason, and values-laden thinking while warning of a second Civil War is that war inherently dismisses civility, reason, and values.
My friend Dennis Prager similarly talks about a second American Civil War. He wrote last year, “we are fighting for the survival of America no less than the Union troops were in the First Civil War.” And, of course, Dinesh D’Souza has a new film, Death of a Nation, coming out in which he compares Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln; in the trailer, D’Souza says, “Democrats smeared [Lincoln], went to war against him, assassinated him. Now, their target is Trump.”
There is something in human beings that loves war, or at least the idea of war — the ideas of solidarity, existential purpose, bravery supposedly reified. War actually carries with it the worst of human activity: violence, brutality, cruelty.
Yet our politicians are constantly talking about wars: the war on poverty, the war on Christmas, the war on crime, the war on drugs. Jonah Goldberg has been quite forceful about the use of such language in his Liberal Fascism; such language, Goldberg argues, essentially states that “the experts and scientists know what to do…the time for debate is over.”
“The time for debate is over” is indeed the sense we get from the language of Civil War — we’re at a precipice, and all means necessary to averting defeat become appropriate. Thus, it’s unsurprising to see a new poll that shows that 40% of Republicans are either fine with Russian interference in elections to help Republicans, or don’t strongly object to it. After all, if it means stopping Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, you don’t get to choose your allies.
Similarly, on the Left, the aversion to casting out Antifa or radicals like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) who suggest physically confronting members of political opposition has been weak. When you’re fighting “fascists like Trump,” all options are on the table.
Now, there are real and important conflicts in America — over our future, our past, and our central principles. And no, blame shouldn’t be equally apportioned when it comes to the underlying conflicts that are dividing us: the Left’s increasing radicalism means that they want to use the federal government to cram down values in violation of basic liberties. But we still live in a country where rational conversation is possible, and where convincing others is a solution to real conflict. Suggesting that all gaps are unbridgeable merely makes the apocalypse more likely. Ironically, by talking about war, we encourage people to gird themselves for battle — not to return to decency in order to avert war.
So no, we’re not in the middle of a Civil War or about to fight one. We are in a time when conversation is more necessary than ever. And calling people to arms is a great way to prevent people from having those conversations.