A cliché is haunting America — the cliché of a second civil war.
“America is currently fighting its second civil war,” conservative columnist Dennis Prager declared in January. “Is a Second Civil War in the Making?” the left-wing website Alternet asked a few months later. In March, Foreign Policy polled various national security figures on the likelihood of a new civil war; the panel put the chances at about 30%. Now the New Yorker has posed the same question to several Civil War historians, who replied with ominous comments such as, “It did not happen with Bush v. Gore in 2000, but perhaps we were close. It is not inconceivable that it could happen now.”
Not inconceivable? That’s a low bar. It’s certainly possible to imagine America returning to the violence of the 1960s and ’70s, and beneath the overwrought language, that’s what some — though not all — of these civil war prophets seem to have in mind. But a near-future war with two clear sides and Gettysburg-sized casualty counts is about as likely as a war with the moon.
These “new civil war” stories frequently take a bait-and-switch approach. They invoke the violence at demonstrations like the rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, where a man reportedly sympathetic to Nazism drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman. In the same breath, they discuss the broad divisions separating “red” America from “blue” America. If you flip quickly between small violent clashes and big political disagreements, those big disagreements will look bloodier.
But that’s an optical illusion. The polarization between alt-right fascists and antifa leftists is not the same as the polarization between Republicans and Democrats. It isn’t even the same, though there is more overlap, as the polarization between the people at a Trump rally and the protesters outside. (For all the much-publicized moments of violence in last year’s presidential campaign, the vast majority of both the pro- and anti-Trump crowds were peaceful.)
The division between ordinary Republicans and Democrats has itself been overstated. Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued compellingly that the rise in red/blue polarization is mostly limited to the political class: politicians, activists, donors and the like. In those cases, he wrote in a paper published last year by the Hoover Institution, surveys and other data “capture our intuitive understanding of the concept of polarization: the middle loses to the extremes.” But the political class is pretty small — about 15% of the country, Fiorina estimates.
Outside that world, people tend to hold a patchwork of beliefs that don’t always fit easily into categories like “conservative” and “liberal.” It is not at all unusual for public opinion to simultaneously shift leftward on one issue (say, health insurance) and rightward on another (guns). Those red/blue maps may seem to show a nation divided against itself, but by using just two colors, they obscure an enormous variety of opinion.
And while the country is filled with reliable Republican and Democratic voters, much of that reliability reflects what political scientists call “negative partisanship.” Put simply, that means their votes are driven less by love for one party than by fear and hatred of the other one. In the last election, a large share of Donald Trump’s support came from people who did not like him but found the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton more terrifying; much of Clinton’s support came from people whose position was the exact opposite.
The atmosphere that produces negative partisanship can fuel a paranoid loathing of the other party’s members. In its most concentrated form, it can drive people to aggressive violence. This is the sort of ill feeling that pundits invoke when they talk about a new civil war.
But that atmosphere also means that the two purportedly warring sides don’t command as much loyalty as those red/blue maps imply. Think back to last year’s election again. Both of the big parties were shaken by insurgent candidates, and one was unable to block the insurgent from winning. With both major parties picking their least popular nominees in recent memory, third-party and independent candidates had their strongest showings since Ross Perot’s campaigns. And this time, unlike in Perot’s day, the third-party vote wasn’t dominated by one popular personality.
For only the fourth time since 1916, two alternative candidates — Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party — earned more than 1% of the presidential vote nationally. Yet another candidate, independent Evan McMullin, captured 20% of the ballots in Utah. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even running, still got enough write-ins to claim nearly 6% in Vermont. Even in the electoral college, seven voters couldn’t bring themselves to back their parties’ nominees and instead cast write-ins. And as usual, millions of people stayed home. American politics are structured in a way that naturally tends toward two-party rule, but many Americans are clearly chafing at those constraints.
That’s not a nation of would-be warriors. It’s a nation of would-be deserters. What if they started a second civil war and nobody came?
Jesse Walker is books editor of Reason and author of “The United States of Paranoia.”