Sorry, Democrats: Civil War isn’t likely — even if you’re trying to provoke one
by Steven F. Hayward
New York Post, January 7, 2022
A second Civil War in the United States is unlikely.
Let’s set the scene: American democracy is said to be under threat from a political party that questions the legitimacy and outcome of a presidential election, that incites and justifies lawless “insurrectionist” actions and undermines American democratic institutions and processes, threatening the continued existence of the Constitution itself. If this state of affairs continues unabated, experts claim, the United States might well lapse into a second Civil War, as argued in Barbara F. Walter’s new book How Civil Wars Start.
Yes — that’s a pretty good description of the Democratic Party. You were expecting something else around the anniversary of Jan. 6?
Let’s do the checklist. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll in 2017 found that 67% of Democrats and 69% of Hillary Clinton voters said Donald Trump was not a legitimately elected president, and Hillary herself told CBS News that Trump was not a “legitimate president” because he stole the 2016 election. Three years of contentious and debilitating investigations into what we now know was a phony Democrat-created story followed. But now that Republicans make similar claims about an anomalous election, liberals have caught a case of the vapors and say it is a “threat to democracy.”
And about that “insurrection”: Would that be the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters praised with that term? What about the violent riots of the summer of 2020, which leading Democrats and much of the media called “mostly peaceful” and the legitimate voice of the people despite billions of dollars in damage and dozens of deaths from the violence? Maybe they were just following the lead of Baltimore’s former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who declared during that city’s 2015 riots that “we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”
As for the Constitution and long-established democratic processes, which party is it that argues for wholesale changes to the Constitution? That wants to pack the Supreme Court? That wants to jettison century-old rules of the Senate to make it a purely majoritarian body? Admit new states to tilt the partisan balance in Washington? What changes to the Constitution are Republicans demanding exactly? A balanced-budget amendment is about the only one — hardly a regime-shaking idea.
A certain consistency deserves to be noted here. Trump was not the first Republican president to face “The Resistance” from Democrats. It was, after all, the refusal of the Democratic Party to abide by the results of a free election in 1860 that led to our first Civil War, so why change modes now?
The hysteria among Democrats over the shambolic riot at the Capitol a year ago reveals not only the hypocrisy of the left but also its deep insecurity, ideological hollowness and what psychologists call “projection,” that is, attributing to others what is going on in your own mind.
Democrats can take a patronizing attitude toward the violence and destruction from the far left because it does not take the far left seriously, while at the same time sympathizing with the far left to some extent out of liberal guilt. But a single outburst of lawlessness from the right, foolishly tolerated if not encouraged by President Donald Trump, shakes liberals to their core not simply because it is so unexpected but because it controverts their core theory of the universe.
If you think that you are on “the side of history” but events don’t cooperate with this lazy progressive narrative, you will be pitched into an existential crisis. This outlook cannot abide the fact that we have lived in a 50/50 nation for nearly 30 years now and are likely to continue to be closely divided for a long time to come. Progressive leftists cannot understand or accept this (or any) level of dissent.
The point is: The true intolerance in America resides overwhelmingly on the left today.
The left’s concern trolling over a potential civil war can be seen as a sequel of their obsession with what should be called “coup porn” over the events of Jan. 6. Recall that the cities that boarded up their downtowns before the 2020 election feared violence from Democrats if Trump had won, as indeed occurred after the 2016 election.
The foolish Jan. 6 mob action allowed the left to flip the script and project their own toleration of violence onto Republicans, though as usual the impulse to hyperbole has taken over. If Jan. 6 hadn’t happened, the left would have had to invent it. Now it is going to become the left’s Saint Crispin’s Day for decades to come.
Barbara Walter, perhaps the chief civil war re-enactor of the moment, confesses to being “really happy” on Jan. 6, telling the London Times recently that “this was the gift that America needed to wake up because those of us who were sounding the alarm had been getting nowhere with it.” A gift? More like a grift for the left.
How exactly the QAnon shaman and other unarmed rioters could have ever succeeded in preventing Joe Biden’s accession to the presidency on Jan. 20, or “toppling the Constitution,” has never been seriously explained, which may be one reason not a single person arrested for Jan. 6 acts has been charged with insurrection or sedition.
As coups go, it was pathetic: There were no seizures of radio and TV stations, detention of officials, control of transportation and armories or other hallmarks of a real coup. Never mind that America’s separation of powers and federalism — features of American government that the left generally dislikes and wishes to replace — make a traditional power-grabbing coup nearly impossible to succeed.
That the electoral vote count proceeded later in the day on Jan. 6 testifies to the resilience of American democracy, not its fragility.
The giddy talk of civil war trivializes our divisions, which are real and deep. It is hard to maintain a sense of common citizenship when we increasingly see each other as utterly alien. But projections of a new civil war are overwrought. For one thing, we lack the sectional geographical divide that was central to our actual Civil War and a single, central issue over which compromise became impossible.
Walter predicts something more like guerilla war instead of a real civil war with localized terrorist acts. (Once again we can draw on the violent history of the new left in the 1960s for a precedent — another case of leftist projection.)
It is more likely that Americans will continue the accelerating process of self-sorting. Americans are moving in large numbers to states more congenial to their political and social views (mostly from blue to red states) or forming enclaves within red and blue states.
Some of the ideological divides can be ameliorated by reinvigorating federalism: Let Vermont be Vermont, and let Idaho be Idaho. The possibility of “terrorist acts” that Walter predicts would be diminished substantially through reinvigorated federalism.
Of course we know who is against this: the very same people warning of a civil war. If a new civil war does come, it will be on account of the intransigence of the same party that started the first one.
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.