Protesters display clenched firsts towards the police after an altercation turned violent between protesters and police moments earlier in the 1300 block of G St. in Washington, DC. in 2018 (Mike Jordan/BPE)
The United States is at a crossroads with elections, racial injustice, COVID-19, and now a raging Ukraine/Russia war that has divided political parties on the best way to handle Vladimir Putin’s threat of nuclear annihilation.
We are fighting ourselves on so many battle fronts that it might take a war in Europe to unite the country much like what 9-11 did when flags decorated the streets and highways and so many stood proud to be an American.
But 9-11 seems just a distant memory. A recent poll by The COVID States Project found that nearly a quarter of Americans think that there are times when it is acceptable to commit acts of violence against the government.
A Zogby poll released last year found that nearly half of likely U.S. voters-46%-said they think it is possible that the country could have another civil war.
But is it too late for the U.S. to come together. Consider all that has happened and still happening on the streets:
- President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Their failed attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, eventually resulted in at least seven deaths and caused injuries to hundreds,
- Heated arguments over whether COVID-19 vaccines, and masks are really safe and effective,
- Facts vs. fiction: The attempt by some to discredit what are considered to be objective facts,
- Divisions over race and how to address police killings of unarmed African-American men,
- Black Lives Matter vs, Blue Lives Matter,
- Fox News vs. CNN,
- Violent protests over whether to preserve or do away with monuments associated with America’s past;
- And a widening gap between the haves and the have nots.
How did we get here? And is America headed toward another civil war?
“It’s not necessarily something where people are going to be walking the streets with semi-automatic weapons. But there is a philosophical-ideological conflict about the core tenants of this country that touch on matters of race, economy, class, and even religion,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told Baltimore Post-Examiner.
“And it really is the thing that begins to set up for a later conflict that could be much more violent. What we saw on January 6 was a small expression of that,” Steele added.
Steele, a fierce critic of Donald Trump, said much of the blame for the dysfunctional political discourse lies with the former president.
“When the leadership fundamentally fails to lead and capitulates to the fears and the lies and the other things that are out there, you get where we are. And what happens is it becomes this weird turning point where the inmates begin to run the asylum: QAnon, white nationalism. These elements of society begin to dictate the terms of engagement and people begin to believe those narratives in a way that they would not have before.”
Steele said the nation’s political divisions are even worse than they were in the 1960s.
“This is not that. Because then, even when there was disagreement, there was not this putrid hatred of your neighbor….You had liberal and conservative leaders who understood the narrative around civil rights. Even if their approaches were a little bit different. Even if they disagreed with LBJ’s Great Society programs or they embraced or did not embrace Richard Nixon’s affirmative action efforts.”
What causes a civil war?
It has been more than 150 years since the end of the American Civil War but there is still occasional chatter about secession-mostly in Texas-and the possible break up of states based on differing ideologies and identities.
Whether it be white supremacists’ desire for an ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest or wealthy townships in Atlanta and Baton Rogue seeking to break away from those cities-the concept it still same: large subsections of Americans want to live among those who look and/or think like they do.
And the pandemic has seen those divisions metastasize with half of the country supporting mask mandates and related restrictions and the other half taking more of a hands-off, “don’t tell me what to do,” kind of attitude.
Joseph Loconte, Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said there are four general warning signs that a civil war is about to break out: growing political alienation, significant anxiety among policy and opinion makers about a lack of national cohesion, widespread violence and civil disobedience, and a vast cultural divide.
Loconte said those warning signs were evident in the lead up to both the French Revolution and the American Civil War.
“If differences seem unreconcilable, you are set up for some kind of civil unrest and civil conflict.”
Loconte said America’s strong constitutional framework makes the prospect of another civil war rather remote.
“One really important thing that we have going for us is a very strong, robust, thoughtful, constitution. We have a strong constitutional order. We have the separation of powers. We have the principle of federalism. We have a constitutional system of government that really helps us to stay off of that dark path. We have the political tools in our hands to avoid anything like a civil war or routine civil unrest.”
Darrell West, Vice President of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, said political polarization and violence are signs that a civil war is about to break out.
“There usually are large, unresolved issues that fester and drive people apart. Political leaders are unable to deal with the tension and there is widespread mistrust of the opposition. When situations deteriorate, people arm themselves and have training exercises. At some point, there is a catalytic event that sparks violence and the civil war starts. This has been a common path for several historical civil wars and provide keys to watch in coming years.”
Jason Phillips, an Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University, agreed.
“Civil wars happen when one side believes that open conflict will achieve their ends and the other side is willing to fight to prevent that end from happening. Lincoln made this point in his Second Inaugural Address when he looked back on the beginning of the conflict. ‘Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.'”
Phillips said the political situation in the mid-nineteenth century differs from that of today because then “many Americans on both sides looked forward to warfare as a catalyst for progressive change,” whereas now, despite unprecedented polarization, “warfare has lost much of the romantic luster and religious appeal that colored how nineteenth-century society imagined conflicts and envisioned the future.”
But even though a second civil war is unlikely, it is nevertheless still possible, Phillips said.
“In the U.S., one side would need to become an aggressor that believes they can accomplish more through a civil war than they can through a culture war. The January 6 insurrection was a terrifying development in that regard, but it became a new, albeit alarming, topic for debate in our culture war instead of the opening salvo of a second civil war. Many violent events preceded the Civil War, so it’s possible that history could repeat itself, but I think Americans are more comfortable resuming the culture war.”
But James Glass, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said the warning signs of a second American civil war are already emerging.
“Stephen Marche’s fascinating speculative exercise on ‘the next civil war’ sadly has more than a grain of truth in it. The growth of armed militias, websites, podcasts, dark web sites, suggest that violence may be, in its growing acceptance by the right wing of the Republican Party as ‘American as cherry pie’ as H Rap Brown said way back in the sixties. January 6, the Republican National Committee’s recent endorsement of violence as’ legitimate political discourse’ suggest that democracy and liberalism may be in for a tough slog over the next few years. The fact that millions of Americans now seem to endorse violence as a legitimate form of political discourse in a democracy should have all of us wondering what comes next in the future of American political life. What is happening now makes Watergate look like a ‘walk in the park.'”
Where is the country headed?
Trucker convoys threaten to go on strike over vaccine mandates and the teaching of critical race theory in schools.
Urban professionals who are vegan, drink Starbucks, ride bicycles and are likely secular. Rural and small town Americans who like to hunt, drive pick-up trucks and regularly attend church.
The two demographics could not be further apart politically or ideologically.
Still, Tom DeLuca, a professor of political science at Fordham University in New York City, said he does not believe the nation is headed toward a civil war.
But DeLuca did say the political situation is still nevertheless extremely perilous.
“This is still a very far cry from “another civil war” in which well over 600,000 died out of a population of a little over thirty million. But it is dangerous, especially with all the weapons available, and could be part of a prolonged era of instability.”
DeLuca put the situation into historical context.
“The polarization has ebbed and flowed but certainly reached peaks at various points in the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies with the heights of the peaks getting higher. I think people sometimes forget how much vitriol there was during the Clinton presidency for example, and how hard the right worked to delegitimize Obama, the first Black president.”
Adria Lawrence, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that while “deepening political polarization is a threat to American democracy,” the likelihood of widespread violence is minimal.
“The erosion of democratic practices does not tend to directly prompt armed conflict. Fears of civil war are understandable when the public is divided, but a divided public is not one of the main risk factors for civil violence. Indeed, disagreements, even deep and polarizing ones, are very common in many kinds of settings, whereas armed conflict is rare. Disagreement is politics itself. The question is whether there are peaceful ways to revolve disagreements and institutions that prevent the emergence of armed actors.
“The United States lacks many of the factors that led to armed conflict in other countries. It is a state with high military capacity and many resources and we tend not to see sustained armed violence in high resource states. For the United States to come to the brink of violence, there would need to be some kind of trigger – a shock to the system that goes beyond political and social disagreements. If the government engaged in repression of citizens, for example, or an external country posed a more acute threat to internal stability, those factors are associated with a higher probability of armed conflict,” Lawrence added.
Hyper-partisanship in government
Bush v. Gore. Obamacare. The rise of the Tea Party. The Freedom Caucus. The Progressive Caucus. The Squad. The Russia probe. The impeachment of Trump. Hatred for political opponents.
Where did it all begin? How does it all end?
Former Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat who served in Congress from 2007-13, said it is almost impossible for moderates like himself to remain relevant in national politics.
“Congress is now at the point where working with the other side is a capital offense. If you are seen as willing to compromise, your own party will run a primary against you. This won’t change until lawmakers know that their thoughtfulness and moderation will be rewarded, rather than punished, at the ballot box in the primary election.”
Former Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, served in Congress from 1995-2006. During much of that time President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were at each others throats over regulatory issues such as taxes and welfare reform.
But as ugly as those battles were, today’s are much nastier, Ney said.
“I think the civility is different. I am seeing members go at each other in ways that we really did not have at that particular time… We had more civility in prison with each other than they do in Congress.”
Ney said the lack of civility in Congress is merely a reflection of the state of the nation.
“We are beyond polarized as I have never seen before…Go to family dinners and you see polarization over vaccines, over Pelosi, over Trump, and over Biden. Like I have never seen before.”
But former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis said both parties are not equally to blame for the intense polarization.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party has changed all that much. The Republicans are a whole different story. I don’t know where they are headed, but they have basically become a Trump cult. Where that takes them is anybody’s guess.”
Is the media to blame?
America is now at place where political preference often dictates what we watch and read.
If you are a big city liberal chances are you read the Washington Post or the New York Times and watch CNN or MSNBC. If you are a conservative, chances are you read the Washington Times and watch Fox News or Newsmax.
And all of these mediums feature a good deal of commentary.
Gone are the days when news anchors like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley simply gave it to you straight.
So, what impact does this have on society and civil discourse?
Dan Gainor, Vice President of Free Speech America and Business for the Media Research Center, said the mainstream media is partly responsible for increased political polarization.
“They do not try to be neutral or fair. They push a leftist agenda on every issue and in every election.”
Gainor said social media platforms and big tech also share some responsibility for polarization.
“More people have the ability to express their views and hardcore views used to be rewarded with added followers. Now, Big Tech severely restricts free speech online — almost entirely on the right.”
Still, as bad as things are, America is not as divided as it was during the 1960s, Gainor said.
“The 1960s were filled with rioting, political violence, a presidential assassination, and two other major political/social figures also assassinated. Throw in the Cold War and near nuclear war and yeah that was a tenser time.”
The debate over vaccines
In the 1950s Americans scrambled to get the newly-developed polio vaccine.
There was no debate about possible minute side-effects, vaccine efficacy, or government mandates.
The vaccine was available and that meant you got it.
Today the scenario and related discourse is decidedly different.
Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat and COVID-19 survivor, said it is outrageous that anyone would use politics to cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines.
“I never thought that that would ever happen. It has happened nowhere else in the world. Everybody else is clamoring to get the vaccine…It is insanity that this has become political. And the people who are out there putting political hate on it, they are vaccinated. It is craziness.”
Trone likened the changing on attitudes on vaccines to how congressional Republicans pivoted in their response to the events of Jan. 6.
“Total denial that this insurrection day happened…Everybody was on the same page that day. And then, literally within a week, all of them backtracked.”
Michael Caputo, who served as chief spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services during the final year of the Trump administration, said he was surprised to learn how many of the president’s supporters were hesitant to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
“We expected high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the African-American community and the Native American community…We never expected the Trump supporters to have nearly the same level of hesitancy as the African American community. We never saw it coming…We expected Republicans to have the same level of vaccine hesitancy as they had prior to Trump.”
Caputo said his job as department spokesperson was to address that issue “head-on” and help encourage the general public to start getting vaccinated.
Caputo clarified that he is triple vaccinated and thinks vaccines work but that he opposes vaccine mandates and believes most Trump supporters probably subscribe to that way of thinking.
“I believe the problem with public health communications today is that the United States government never took into account a plan to overcome the spread of misinformation on the internet…With misinformation ruling the day, I do not know how you go back on it. Because we lost the handle on the thing when we did not acknowledge that people have the Encyclopedia Britannica in their pocket.”
Caputo said political polarization has been exacerbated by social media.
“It has been a slow burn. The left has done what they have been doing very successfully. The Republican Party has been asleep. And when social media woke us up, we found ourselves in a situation where one of the solutions to what we saw as the radicalizing of the left was to radicalize ourselves to the right. And because of that, there is now what appears to be an intractable division between the parties.”
Caputo elaborated on that point.
“I listen to both Joe Rogan and Sanjay Gupta. And I make up my mind. The problem we have in the United States is that the public health communicators have lost the handle… The handle is gone. And now what do we do?”
What is the solution?
The country may be more divided than ever before.
But can we move forward?
If so, how?
“We have to stop vilifying our political opponents,” Loconte said.
“We have to stop treating them as if they are a cancer or a virus on the body politic. That language has to stop. And you need people of good will on both sides of the political aisle to draw those lines,” he added.
DeLuca said making the political system”more democratic” might help.
“A decisive electoral defeat of Trumpism would also help…Next is a slow slog of more victories than defeats (for example, Liz Cheney surviving in Wyoming), effective governance (getting Covid under control, etc), effective leadership at all levels, the public tiring of the vitriol and hate and demanding better, the media doing its job to inform, and political courage.”
Good news on the horizon?
Despite intense division, Americans have always found a way to come together in times of crisis.
And as bad as things are now, they are are nowhere near as bad as they were in the years leading up to the civil war, said Justene Hill Edwards, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia.
“It is important to keep the history of the Civil War in perspective, specifically the moments that led to Lincoln’s election and South Carolina’s secession in 1860. The major difference between the political conflicts of the 19th century and the state of our politics now is that there was one major issue that drove the north and the south apart in 1860-61. That issue was slavery. I cannot overstate how important slavery was to American political discourse in the antebellum period. Slavery defined so much of American life between 1820 and 1860. Though the convergence of the Covid pandemic, the election of 2020, and the global focus on racial violence with the Black Lives Matters movement seems unprecedented, it is not.”
“And in many ways, the history of American politics is the history of political debate, polarization, and conflict. To be active participants in a representative democracy like the one that has evolved in the U.S. requires political dissent. That is the nature of American politics. What’s important, and what American history has shown us, from the era of the Civil War, to the women’s rights movements, and the long Civil Rights movement is that citizens must agitate for political change. This democracy cannot survive without it,” Edwards added.
Bryan is an award-winning political journalist who has extensive experience covering Congress and Maryland state government.
His work includes coverage of the election of Donald Trump, the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions-as well as that of the Maryland General Assembly, Gov. Larry Hogan, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bryan has broken stories involving athletic and sexual assault scandals with the Baltimore Post-Examiner.
His original UMBC investigation gained international attention, was featured in People Magazine and he was interviewed by ABC’s “Good Morning America” and local radio stations. Bryan broke subsequent stories documenting UMBC’s omission of a sexual assault on their daily crime log and a federal investigation related to the university’s handling of an alleged sexual assault.