Thoughts on America's Cold Civil War
What's the endgame for this period of social division and strife?
America is in a period of Cold Civil War. Yes, the backlash from the failed coup attempt of 1/6 caused most Republican leaders to denounce violent insurrection, and even forced Trump to back down (at least, for a moment). But hopes that this will finally be the point where “the fever breaks” and the Right acquiesces to majoritarian electoral democracy seem overly optimistic. For example, a YouGov poll on 1/7 found that around half of Republicans approved of the coup attempt:
And a Morning Consult poll found that the same percentage of Republicans blame Joe Biden for the attack as blame Donald Trump:
Meanwhile, right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh endorsed the coup attempt, likening it to the American Revolution.
So there’s a substantial fraction of the political Right — representing tens of millions of Americans — that’s all in on civil strife. The “fever” has not broken. In my mind, the next questions to ask are:
Why is the Right increasingly extremist and intransigent?
How should the Left (broadly defined) respond to this extremism and intransigence?
What are the likely outcomes?
I certainly can’t claim to be an expert in any of this; there are some topics I have specialized knowledge in, but politics and civil unrest are not among those topics. Nor am I a neutral observer — I obviously think the people who stormed the Capitol and put Congress to flight in an attempt to overturn a free and fair democratic election are the Bad Guys, both for what they did on 1/6 and for the larger principles they represent.
Furthermore, there are a number of important topics I’m not even going to cover in this post. For example, I’m not even going to touch on extremism on the Left (I’ll talk about that in future posts; for now, suffice it to say that I’m more worried about it than I used to be, but far less worried than I am about extremism on the Right). Nor am I going to spend much time litigating the actual ideological issues involved; that would be the labor of a lifetime.
Instead, I’ll just think out loud about the three questions above.
The Right feels overloaded with threats
There’s a popular theory that people on the political Right are more sensitive to fear or disgust than people on the political Left. That’s the kind of theory that’s very hard to prove, and probably too broad to be useful anyway. But in the case of America’s Cold Civil War, it’s obviously true that the Right’s threat perception is just off the charts right now. The reasons for this are:
1) Demographic change. Much of the Right is afraid that the decreasing percentage of White people in America will result in a status decrease for White Americans as a group (the Right tends to view this as anti-White discrimination, while the Left tends to view it as the justified loss of privilege). Many are also afraid that Hispanic and Asian Americans, who both tend to vote Democratic on average, will politically submerge the Republican party and lead to the implementation of liberal or leftist policies. Both of these fears have precedent in American history; in the 1800s, some Protestants were afraid that Catholics would literally genocide them, and Whigs and Federalists both feared that immigration represented the importing of votes for the Democrats. But race adds to this basic pattern, because it links changing demographics to Black-White race relations, which has always caused the bitterest divides in American politics. Bluntly, many on the Right are afraid that in a majority-minority America, either Whites or conservatives or both will be the odd man out.
2) Cultural change. Wokeness, or whatever you want to call it, has changed American society in the past few years. It’s not a new phenomenon — a similar movement before the Civil War was actually called the Wide-Awakes, and the whole movement has its roots in Protestantism (I’ll write a post about this at some point). But it comes and goes in waves, and the 2010s were a big wave. As @tznkai and others have pointed out on Twitter, the Right in the 2010s lacked cultural power but possessed political power (thanks to the Senate and the Electoral College). Fearing that corporations and universities and the media and America’s other institutions were all going woke, the Right struck back in the only sphere where it felt it still had an advantage — electoral politics. But the election of November 2020 — and the subsequent Dem victories in the Georgia runoffs — took even political power away from the Right. That ramps up the feeling of helplessness, and with it, a sense of threat.
So the Right is baring its fangs in large part because it feels cornered, powerless, and in imminent danger of doom. Right-wing media, of course, feeds this threat perception as much as it can, because pumping up fear gets clicks and listeners and viewers and ad dollars. Some of these media outlets denounced the coup attempt of 1/6, but they have played an integral part in feeding the fear that lies behind the putsch’s 45% Republican support.
In any case, it should be obvious that the Right has worked itself into an absolute lather over the idea that their country is falling, and is basically trying to bare any teeth and claws that it feels it has left. Up to and including the embrace of fascism.
“We’ve got the guns”
Having lost both cultural power and political power to the (broadly defined) Left, much of the Right will start to think about the one advantage they still possess — guns. It is a truism accepted by many on both the Left and the Right that the latter are the ones “with the guns”. I hear this phrase over and over from people on both sides of the political divide:
…and so on.
This idea has its roots in reality. About half of Republicans report owning guns, but only about a fifth of Democrats:
This is true despite a recent wave of gun purchases by Democrats.
Obviously, the scenario that everyone has in mind here is an all-out civil war in which neighbor battles against neighbor — maybe something like the apocalyptic race war depicted in The Turner Diaries or envisioned by Charles Manson. In that sort of war to the hilt of all against all, gun ownership might matter a lot.
That’s an incredibly unrealistic vision, of course. In reality, the U.S. Military would be the decisive victor in any all-out civil war. People like to tell themselves that insurgencies can overcome modern militaries, but they’re wrong — the Syrian insurgents lost, the Iraqi insurgents lost, the Yemeni insurgents lost, ISIS lost, Boko Haram lost, Al-Shabaab lost, the Algerian insurgents lost, the Philippine insurgents lost, the Malaysian insurgents lost, the Burmese insurgents lost, the Naxalites lost, the Tamil Tigers lost, the Baloch insurgents lost, the Chechens lost, the Dagestanis lost, ETA lost, the FARC lost, the Shining Path lost, etc. etc. etc. (Even the Viet Cong failed to overthrow South Vietnam; it was North Vietnam that won that war!) You have only to look at a list of wars on Wikipedia to realize how common insurgencies are, and how overwhelmingly often they lose. There are countries like Lebabon where an armed faction has enough heavy weapons and military training to be able to outmatch the regular army; America is not one of these.
The U.S. Military has the actual guns, and as long as it maintains good order and discipline, any insurgency will lose. But in fact, the National Guard, the FBI, and other security services would almost certainly defeat and dismantle any moderately sized rightist insurgency, even without having to call in the troops.
(Furthermore, it’s far from clear that the Right would win a war even without the military. Gun ownership is one thing, but the Left has an overwhelming majority of young people on its side, and it’s very hard for an army of old guys to defeat a force 25 years younger than them. It’s not as hard as you might think to get guns into the hands of young people, and there are definitely experienced gun nuts on the Left who could train them quickly. But this is a silly thing to think about, since, as mentioned above, the U.S. Military actually are the ones with the guns, and would win any civil war.)
The problem is that many on the Right think that they’ve “got the guns”, and this feeds dangerous delusions of rebellion. The fantasy of an armed right-wing populace facing off against a helpless, disarmed liberal populace whose only weapon is moral shaming on Twitter naturally encourages an escalation of violent force. As long as the Right thinks they have the guns and the Left doesn’t, they’ll keep feeling the urge to push and escalate and disrupt.
So what should the broadly defined Left — Democrats, liberals, and leftists — do about this threat?
People on the Left who have guns should protest with them
About one out of five self-identified Democrats already owns guns. That’s a substantial fraction. But because right-wingers protest with guns a lot, and people on the Left do not, this fraction simply isn’t very apparent or visible. That feeds the myth that the Right “has all the guns”. Even if liberals all ran out and bought guns, the Right wouldn’t know they had bought them.
People on the Left who already have guns need to display them more — at least, in the red states and purple states where these protests are allowed. The NFAC (Not Fucking Around Coalition), a group of Black gun owners, shows how this can be done. In July, when the NFAC marched in Louisville, KY in July to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, they far outnumbered the rightist militias who came out to counter-protest. Of course, armed protest has its dangers — three NFAC militia members were injured when one accidentally discharged a weapon.
But this kind of protest is important in order to dispel the pervasive, dangerous myth of an armed Right facing off against a disarmed Left. In addition, it may encourage stricter gun control measures — armed protests by the Black Panthers led Republican-dominated California to implement strict gun control laws in the late 1960s. Once gun control comes to be seen as bilateral disarmament instead of unilateral disarmament, Republican constituencies may be more amenable to curbs on guns.
Bilateral disarmament often works, as evidenced by the success of U.S.-Soviet arms control treaties in the 80s. And what worked for the Cold War will probably work for the Cold Civil War too.
The Left needs to realize that it’s The Establishment now
But remember, an American insurgency isn’t actually going to be fought with individually owned guns. It’s going to be insurgents vs. security services, as we saw with the coup attempt of 1/6 (this is also true of any leftist insurgency). Thus, the liberals need to get the security services on their side.
In principle this is possible, since liberals have proven adept at gaining control over institutions. And 1/6, combined with Trump’s antics, should have made it clear that the Right demonstrates a far greater threat to national security than any lefties attacking courthouses in Portland. Already, the FBI and the intelligence services have turned strongly against Trump, Trump is very unpopular with the U.S. military (especially with the officer corps), and both active-duty officers and retired ones expressed support for the George Floyd protesters and for Joe Biden.
So, progress is being made on this front.
But the first line of defense against rightist insurgency is the police, and co-opting the police will be a wrenchingly difficult thing for liberals to do. It was only a few months ago that the Left itself launched the biggest series of protests in American history, protesting against police brutality and racism. A culture of violent authoritarianism is prevalent among many U.S. police departments, and racism is of course common as well. Who could forget the images of police beating up peaceful protesters in city after city? Who could forget all the videos of cops shooting Black people?
The conviction that the cops are on the side of rightist insurgents runs deep on the Left. There was a widespread rumor that the Capitol police opened a barrier to let the MAGA rioters into the building on 1/6. It was later debunked, but the quickness with which the belief gained credence speaks to the deep distrust and hatred of police among many liberals. Similarly, it was widely asserted that the cops were being gentle with the insurrectionists. That may have been true at first, but the night after one police officer was killed, the D.C. cops treated the MAGA people very roughly.
In other words, American police are willing to enforce law and order against rightist insurgents. When a rightist woman wailed that “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots,” she was just discovering this fact.
This does NOT mean, of course that the Left should abandon the fight to stop police brutality and racism. In fact, replacing police forces that view their mission as quelling Black people with forces that protect and serve all of the citizenry will be very helpful for the fight against rightist violence.
But what it means is that Democrats and liberals need to stop seeing themselves as the insurgency. This is not the 1970s anymore. Liberalism has successfully taken over institution after institution, and now the Presidency and Congress too. And when you take over the country, you have to act like it. We need law enforcement to punish the coup plotters severely if we don’t want to encourage future attempts.
How does this all end?
It doesn’t, of course; as Dr. Manhattan says in Watchmen, nothing ever ends. There will continue to be a Left and Right in America, and they will continue to argue and oppose each other and dislike each other. Forever.
But the Cold Civil War as we now know it may end. That will happen when both the Right and the Left realize and accepts that America is, and will continue to be, a functional multiracial democracy. In addition to the steps I listed above, there are some encouraging factors that may help hasten the end of this terrible era of unrest.
Racial depolarization is one. In the 2020 election, Trump lost White suburban votes but GAINED votes among Hispanic and Asian voters (and even a little bit among Black voters). That’s bad news for leftist and liberal ideology in the long term, since it suggests that a demographically driven permanent majority is unlikely. But it’s a glimmer of good news for the end of the Cold Civil War, because hopefully it will make the Right realize that they are not in imminent danger of demographic doom. Anything that reduces the Right’s maxed-out threat perception is good.
It will also be easier to end the Cold Civil War if Republican leaders start calling for it to end. There are a few encouraging signs on this front. Mitch McConnell and many other Republican leaders explicitly denounced 1/6 as an “insurrection”, and Tom Cotton has shown the GOP a way forward by positioning himself firmly in opposition to the coup attempt. The GOP is not going to drop its love of public order, but a leadership that views law-and-order ideology in racially and ideologically neutral terms would go a long way toward disabusing Republican voters that an actual civil war is in the offing. (Of course, denouncing and disavowing Trump, his attempted election theft, and the Republicans like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who supported that attempt would help a lot.) Republicans need to retreat, retrench, regroup, continue cultivating nonwhite Americans, and wait for the Dems and the Left to overreach so they can stage a comeback. To do this, they need to expel the Trumpists, insurrectionists, and alt-righters from their ranks.
Finally, Americans may simply get exhausted. Peter Turchin, who believes he can predict waves of social unrest (and who successfully predicted the Cold Civil War back in 2010), incorporates exhaustion into his model, and thinks the peak of unrest will come sometime in the early 2020s. Past waves of unrest in the 1920s and 1970s killed a lot of people and scared the heck out of many more, but ultimately never toppled the nation or caused civil wars.
So I think we’re in for some more years of the Cold Civil War. Cold wars aren’t like hot wars — they don’t end with a bang. But if we hold firm, I think we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the late 2020s.
Once upon a time I would argue that your fears were overblown (last weekend), but those damn crazy mob insurrectionists went and proved me wrong.
On the optimistic side, I think there is a whole lot of people disowning Trump right now on the right. It will take a while, but I think this will filter down to the all but the craziest of crazy people.
The culture wars will continue unfortunately. Polarization will continue... I blame social media bubbles and the their amplification affect.
I am super happy that all the Social Media companies blocked Trump. I hope its a life time ban. I want to marginalize him as much as possible... deflate his dangerous rhetoric. Let him fade into obscurity or go to jail.
I personally am disgusted with Republicans, which sucks because I was reflexively conservative. It will be a long long time before I vote Republican (Actually, I have skipped voting for the last two Federal Elections).
I guess I am center left right now... I wish there was a party for me. I do own guns (yes, I own an AR and AK), but carrying them to rallies is just rude and asshole-ish. I keep them locked up unless target shooting or zombie apocalypses.
The problems with the Republicans are pretty obvious right now and on display, but I suspect the Democrats are going to have their hands full in the next couple of years.
If the Republicans really fade as a viable alternative, the divisions of the left will become more prominent. The educated suburban middle class and the defund police crowd aren't going to play nicely forever.
I actually think Biden is the best choice right now to get us through the next four to eight years.
I am just so worn out on the last four years. I just want to walk around without a mask, without MAGA hats, and without worrying about pronouns. I just want to be friendly with strangers, eat Tacos, and work on my cars.
On a side note... you need to do one of those prediction posts.
Noah, good piece. You mention, but I think you underplay the significance of the fragmentation of the media, and the existence the coordinated, closed circle of right wing propaganda channels that create an alternate reality for 30-40% of the country. I don't see any way the division in our country crests and subsides with this in place, and I don't see any path for it to ameliorate or disappear either. Would love more thoughts on this...