The American Conservative’s Michael Vlahos, earlier this week, had some interesting thoughts on the possibility of a second Civil War. Excerpts, with my comments, follow.
A Georgetown Institute poll finds that two-thirds of us believe we are edging closer “to the brink of a civil war.” Yet Americans cannot properly analyze this “gathering storm.” We lack a framework, a lexicon, and the historical data (from other civil wars) to see clearly what is happening to us.
Here is a quick template for how we might more usefully decipher how this nation gets to another civil war. It is arranged as a short series of questions: 1) What is civil war? 2) Why do political-constitutional orders sometimes breakdown, rather than simply transform in response to change? 3) How is violence essential to constitutional and political resolution? 4) How close is the U.S. to such a break down, and its consequences?
My thoughts: 1) A civil war is two factions fighting for control of one nation; and yes, I’m aware that what we call the Civil War, wasn’t. 2) I think it’s likely inevitable, when you have two factions (we call them parties) competing for control, that eventually friction will build to the point of open hostility. 3) I don’t know that it’s essential, but Thomas Jefferson thought so. 4) I suspect something bad will happen in the next 50 years.
Now, the article on these four points; I’ll just give you a few words and let you read the rest:
What is civil war?
Civil war is, at root, a contest over legitimacy. Legitimacy—literally the right to make law — is shorthand for the consent of the citizens and political parties to abide by the authority of a constitutional order. Civil war begins when this larger political compact breaks down.
Why do some constitutional orders breakdown rather than transform?
Our political stability has depended on the tenure of periodic “party systems.” Legitimacy flows from the give and take of a two-party relationship. American party systems have had dominant parties or states.
Violence is the magical substance of civil war. If, by definition, political groups in opposition have also abandoned the legitimacy of the old order, then a successor constitutional order with working politics cannot be birthed without violence. Hence violence is the only force that can bring about a new order. This is why all memorable civil wars, and all parties, enthusiastically embrace violence.
How close is the U.S. to such a breakdown—and its consequences?
American constitutional order has not broken down, yet. Constitutional legitimacy still rules. Recent tests of legitimacy confirm this. A presidential impeachment in the 1990s did not lead to conviction in a trial, nor did anyone expect it to. The Supreme Court decided a contested presidential election in 2000, and the decision was everywhere accepted. 2016, in contrast, was bitterly accepted. Yet even the relentless force to depose the president that followed, through a special prosecutor, was spent by the spring of 2019.
Yet if these are tests of robust legitimacy they are hardly reassuring. A daily torrent of unfiltered evidence suggests that our constitutional order is fissuring before our eyes. That we have skirted constitutional crisis for the past quarter century is no reassurance, but rather an alarm of continuing erosion. Each new test is yet more bitterly contested, and still less resolved.
So, not too different than my preliminary thoughts. But here’s the part that I find worrisome:
The issue here is not “What if?” but rather, “What then?” It is not about the authenticity of conflict scenarios, but rather about how contingencies we cannot now predict might bring us to a breaking point, and the breakdown of legitimacy.
Already, warring sides have hardened their hearts so that they will do almost anything in order to prevail. The great irony is that their mutual drive to win—either to preserve their way of life, or make their way of life the law of the land—means that the battle has already become a perverse alliance. Today they refuse to work together in the rusting carapace of old constitutional order. Yet nonetheless they work shoulder-to-shoulder, together, to overthrow it. For both sides, the old order is the major obstacle to victory. Hence victory is through overthrow. Only when constitutional obstacles are toppled can the battle for light and truth begin.
Here’s where I part ways with Mr. Vlahos. I don’t see any “battle for light and truth” resulting from such a conflict. I can see only the end of my country, the end of a nation that has been a beacon of freedom. Some kind of tyranny or dictatorship will be the likely result; either that, or utter anarchy. The best we can hope for is a balkanization, with several smaller countries arising where a superpower once stood. This will result in a global power vacuum – and who will step into the void? Russia? Not likely; they are a dying giant. China, perhaps?
Any civil war will be fought among us, in the fields, the streets, on the highways and in the neighborhoods of our country. It will be brutal and deadly, and it will be the end of the United States. Some folks on the right and on the left seem to think it would be a rebirth; it won’t. It will be a death. The death of our nation, and the death of a world of peace and order.