Let’s not invent a civil war – twin cities

“How Civil Wars Start,” a new book by political scientist Barbara F. Walter, was quoted everywhere in the days surrounding the anniversary of last winter’s riots at the Capitol. New Yorker’s David Remnick, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, and my New York Times colleague Michelle Goldberg all relied on Walter’s work in essays that discussed the possibility of the United States standing on the brink of an abyss, with many years of civil strife ahead.

The book begins with a story from the fall of 2020: the kidnapping conspiracy against Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, hatched by a group of right-wing militants who opposed Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions. Fortunately, the FBI “was on them” and thwarted the plot – but the alleged kidnapping conspiracy, Walter claims, is a warning of worse to come. Periods of civil war “often start with guards like these – armed militants who take violence directly against the people.”

However, here’s a skeptical question: When we say the FBI was “on” for the plots, what does that mean exactly? For at the moment, the government’s case against them is a remarkable mess. Fourteen men have been charged with crimes, based in part on evidence allegedly provided by at least 12 confidential informants – meaning the FBI had almost one informant involved for each accused.

And according to reports from BuzzFeeds Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger, one of those informants, an extremely colorful convicted criminal named Stephen Robeson, appears to have been a crucial instigator of the plot. He is alleged to have used state funds to pay for meals and hotel rooms, urging people to “divert their anger at governors who imposed COVID-19 restrictions” and “to plan violent acts against elected officials and to acquire weapons and materials for bomb making “. , “and aggressively followed up, calling potential plotters” almost every day. “

Robeson’s role has become enough of a headache for the prosecution, in fact, that they recently dismissed him, declaring that he was in fact a “double agent” (meaning triple agent, I think) who betrayed his obligations as an informant by trying to destroy evidence and trying to warn one of the accused conspirators prior to his arrest. Prosecutors had already ruled out testimony from an agent leading one of their key informants, likely because he spent much of 2019 trying to set up business for his private security firm by proclaiming his FBI case.

We’ll probably find out more about all of this when the case comes to court, but for now it’s reasonable to wonder if Whitmer’s future kidnappers would have been prepared to go all out with their waking fantasies without any encouragement from the US authorities. .

And that doubt, in turn, can reasonably be extended to the whole theory of the looming American Civil War, which presupposes something that has not yet been fully proven – a large number of Americans who are willing to actually put their lives, not just their Twitter- rhetoric, in line with the causes that currently divide our country.

Taken together, the academic and journalistic literature on the divisions of America provides a reasonably accurate description of increasing American divisions. The country is definitely more ideologically polarized than it was 20 or 40 years ago; indeed, with the decline of organized Christianity, one can say that it is also more metaphysically polarized. We are more likely to hate and fear members of the rival party, more likely to sort ourselves into ideologically homogeneous communities, more likely to be deeply skeptical of public institutions and more likely to have conspiratorial beliefs – such as the belief in , that Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election – it undermines the fundamental legitimacy of the opposition party’s government.

At the same time, the literature suffers from a serious liberalist bias problem, a consistent naivety around the left and the roles of the center in the deepening of polarization. For example, in the Bush and Obama eras, there were many views on the dangers of “asymmetric polarization” – the supposed ideological radicalization of Republicans relative to Democrats. For most of the 2010s, however, it was clearly liberals who moved much faster to the left, while Republicans largely remained seated – and yet the dangers of that kind of asymmetry receive much less expert attention.

Likewise, the drama of protest politics in 2020 is often analyzed in a way that minimizes the revolutionary symbolism of left-wing protests – the iconoclasm and the overthrown statues, the chaos around federal buildings and the White House, the eagerness to rename and rewrite – and focuses intensely on right-wing reaction and treats conservative counter-reaction as if it emerges from the reactionary ether rather than as a cyclic reaction.

The second bias in the Civil War literature is against two related forms of exaggeration. First, an excessive emphasis on what Americans say they think, rather than what (so far, at least) they actually do do. It is quite true that if you just look at poll data, you see a lot of beliefs that seem to allow not just occasional protests, but some form of persistent revolt. This includes not only Trumpist stolen election theories, but also popular beliefs about recent Republican presidents – that George W. Bush had prior knowledge and allowed 9/11 to happen, or that the Russians manipulated the vote to place Donald Trump, their cat’s paw in The White House.

However, an overwhelming majority of people who have those kinds of beliefs show no sign of being radicalized into actual violence. Despite all the talk of liberal “resistance” under Trump, the characteristic left-wing reaction to the Trump administration was not to join Antifa, but to mobilize to elect Democrats; it required the bizarre conditions of the pandemic and the shutdown and the spark of the George Floyd assassination to turn anti-trumpism into national protests that actually turned violent.

Despite fears that on January 6, a “Hezbollah wing” of the Republican Party would give birth, there has been no major right-wing extremist follow-up to the event, no dramatic increase in the visibility of the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, no campaign. of anti-Biden terrorism. Instead, Republicans who believe in the stolen electoral dissertation seem mostly excited about the prospect of beating Democrats in the intervening period, and most believers do the extremely characteristic American thing of running for local office.

This has given rise to another liberal fear – that these new officials could help accelerate a constitutional crisis by refusing to do their duty in a close election in 2024. But that fear is an example of the second problem of exaggeration in the impending civil war literature, the way in which the target items seem to shift when questioning the notions of Fort Sumter or 1930s Europe.

Thus we are told that some form of major democratic collapse is likely to be “absent a radical development” (as Beauchamp puts it); that we are already “suspended between democracy and autocracy” (as Remnick writes); that “the United States is nearing an end,” and the only question “is how,” to quote the beginning of Stephen Marche’s new book, “The Next Civil War.” But then it turns out that the most obvious danger is an extremely conditioned danger, involving a cascade of events in 2024 – a very specific kind of election result, followed by a series of very high-risk, unusual radical choices by state legislators and Republicans. senators and the Supreme Court – which are worth worrying about, but not at all the most likely scenario, let alone one that is somehow structurally inevitable.

In the same way, we are first told that “civil war” is on the way, but then it turns out that the term is used to mean something other than an actual war, that the relevant analogies are periods of political violence like the Irish problems or Italy’s “Year of Lead.” And if you then question whether we are destined to reach that point ourselves, you may be informed that the civil war is in fact practically here already – because, writes Marche, “the definition of civil strife begins with twenty-five deaths before for a year, and acts of anti-government violence killed more people than that annually in later 2010s.

Those kinds of allegations seem to me like a ridiculous language abuse. The United States is a huge empire with more than 330 million people, where a handful of uninhibited people will commit deadly crimes at any given time. And we are also a country with a long history of sporadic armed conflict – mob violence, labor violence, terrorism and riots – intertwined with the normal course of our policies. If your definition of civil war suggests that we are always just a few mass shootings or violent protests off the edge, then you have no definition at all: You just have a license for eternal alarmism.

I’m very aware that I’m always a columnist, making some version of this quiet argument, sometimes for a mistake. So I want to emphasize that the problems that underlie the Civil War hypothesis are serious problems, the division in our country is significant and dangerous, the specific dangers associated with a resurgence of Trump in 2024 are completely real.

But there are also plenty of opposing and complicating forces, and the overall picture is really complex – at least as complex, let’s say, as the informant-filled plot against Whitmer. And as with that conspiracy, it’s worth asking if the people who see a potential uprising lurking everywhere see a danger rise all by themselves – or in their alarm help invent it.

Give a Comment