Strong rhetoric and violence on both sides of the political spectrum are reaching a fever pitch…
Is the United States on the brink of a new civil war?
According to Newsweek magazine’s polling, a third of all Americans think such a conflict could break out within the next five years, with 10% thinking it “very likely to happen.”
Plenty of experts agree. Back in March, State Department official Keith Mines told Foreign Policy magazine: “It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.” He rated the odds of a second American Civil War breaking out within the next 10-15 years at 60%.
October’s awful events — pipe bombs sent to leading Democratic politicians and supporters, the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh — have only amplified these fears. “We are now nearing a point comparable to 1860,” my Stanford University colleague Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote in the National Review.
The historian Niall Ferguson, another Stanford colleague, suggested in The Sunday Times of London that if someone were to design a “Civil War Clock” comparable to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock,” the designer would probably now be announcing that it is “two minutes to Fort Sumter.”
Ferguson himself is more upbeat, thinking that “the time on the civil war Doomsday Clock looks more like 11.08 than 11.58.” It seems to me, though, that all these speculations are deeply misleading — so much so, in fact, that the main thing they illustrate is how not to use the past to understand the present.
Similarities, differences and broad patterns
There are certainly some striking similarities between the American political scene in the late 2010s and that of the late 1850s. Both periods saw extreme polarization over issues of intense economic and emotional importance. At both times, the country divided geographically, with more urban and educated regions leaning one way and more rural and less educated regions the other. In both periods, highly partisan media inflamed passions, sometimes brazenly peddling “fake news”; and at both stages, the country was recovering from a severe financial crisis.
It is all very alarming — but that does not put us minutes away from Fort Sumter. In the nearly four years that I have been writing columns for Stratfor, I have repeatedly drawn attention to a distinction that logicians like to make between “formal” and “relational” analogies. A formal analogy involves finding similarities between a case about which we know a lot (such as what happened in the United States at the end of the 1850s) and one about which we know less (such as what is just beginning to happen in the United States at the end of the 2010s), and extrapolating from them to variables that cannot be observed in the less well-known case — concluding, here, that if polarization, sectionalism, financial problems and political violence produced civil war in the 1850s, they will have the same result in the 2010s.
The problem with formal analogies is, of course, that no two cases are identical. The modern rage over globalization and its discontents does not come close to the moral intensity of the 19th-century arguments over slavery, while the consequences of the 1857 financial meltdown were nowhere near those of the 2008 collapse.
Even more striking, the forms of political violence in the two periods are very different. The 1850s experienced nothing like last month’s pipe bombs, the 2017 shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise and three others or the 2011 shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others; and the 2010s have seen nothing like U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks’ near-fatal 1856 attack on Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate, let alone the “Bleeding Kansas” insurrection of 1855-56 or John Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
The devil is in the details, which means that differences are just as important as similarities when we try to learn from the past. But how do we weigh up the pros and cons of comparisons? This is where the second kind of analogy comes in. Rather than cherry-picking convenient similarities and either ignoring or arguing away inconvenient differences, relational analogies begin from broad patterns in multiple well-known cases and proceed by understanding how a less well-known case fits into the larger structure. So, rather than wringing our hands over how much 2018 resembles 1860, we should be looking at how civil wars began in a wide range of different contexts, and then asking how well the late 2010s fit into that pattern.
Sufficient and necessary causes
The most obvious point is that the polarization/regionalism/financial crisis/political violence package is not just shared by 1850s and 2010s America. It was also common in many other eras that ended in civil war.
The English Civil War of 1642-51, for instance, was preceded by decades of comparable disturbances. The population split into “court” and “country” factions (nowadays more familiar as “Cavaliers” and “Roundheads”). Each had its own geographical base and religious affiliation, with High Church Royalists and Puritan Roundheads literally ready to mutilate and burn each other over their differences.
Distrust of institutions was even worse than in 2010s America: Royalists accused Parliamentarians of blasphemy and corruption, while Parliamentarians replied that Royalist corruption was even worse, and was magnified by the royal court’s sexual deviance and willingness to sell the country to foreigners. Throughout the 1630s, financial crises paralyzed government and political violence mounted. Pro-Parliament mobs murdered bishops and besieged royal favorites in their mansions, and, in the 17th-century equivalent of sending anthrax spores through the mail, a leading Parliamentarian received a package containing a rag soaked in pus from the sores of a plague victim. He suffered no ill effects — then as now, biological terrorism was difficult to do well — but within a year, the two sides would fight their first pitched battle.
The Roman Republic provides another classic case. In the 50s B.C., the political elite was deeply divided between what Romans called populares — men such as Julius Caesar, who presented themselves as champions of the masses — and optimates such as Pompey the Great, who claimed to stand for virtue, tradition and the nation as a whole. Webs of patronage and debt bound much of the population to one faction or the other. Escalating financial crises ruined cities and regions, and entire provinces lined up behind strongmen who claimed to be able to save them — Gaul with Caesar, Italy with Pompey. Politicians fortified their homes against mob violence, street gangs regularly stopped elections from being held and assassination became almost commonplace. The civil wars that began in 49 B.C. would leave millions dead.
However, although England and Rome provide alarming formal analogies, things get more complicated as soon as we start looking for relational analogies. While the polarization/regionalism/financial crisis/political violence package regularly leads to civil war, it does not always do so. In Rome, for instance, the package was in some ways even more prominent in the 130s B.C. than in Julius Caesar’s day. Tiberius Gracchus, usually seen as the first popularis politician, tried to cancel the debts of poor farmers and redistribute elite properties to them. A constitutional crisis ensued, splitting the ruling class. To conservatives, Gracchus seemed to be rallying the impoverished peasants of Etruria against Roman urban interests to make himself king. In political violence going far beyond Brooks’ assault on Sumner, a meeting of the Roman Senate in 133 B.C. ended with conservatives breaking up the wooden benches on which they sat and using the pieces to beat Gracchus and 300 of his followers to death. Twelve years later, his brother Gaius also died in political violence over much the same issues. Yet civil war did not erupt in either case.
Similarly, following Henry VIII’s break with the Roman church and dissolution of the Catholic monasteries in the 1530s, England experienced just as much polarization, regionalism, financial crisis and political violence as it would in the 1630s. However, it did not tip into civil war, although it came close. The United States was arguably almost as divided and haunted by political violence in the 1960s as in the 1850s, yet it too escaped civil war. We can only conclude that the polarization/regionalism/financial crisis/political violence package was not a sufficient cause for civil war in Rome, England or the United States.
Nor was it a necessary cause. In Rome and England at least, civil wars broke out in the absence of polarization, regionalism or financial crisis (although political violence is, by definition, always part of civil war). In A.D. 69, which became known as “The Year of the Four Emperors,” multiple civil wars convulsed Rome, but they were driven almost entirely by generals’ ambitions to seize the throne. Similarly, between 1135 and 1153, England was torn apart by such severe civil wars that the period came to be called “The Anarchy.” The violence was so extreme, one chronicler recorded, that “Men said openly that Christ and his saints slept”; yet the polarization/regionalism/financial crisis/political violence package was largely absent in the 1130s. A royal succession crisis and fragile state institutions were all it took.
The polarization/regionalism/financial crisis/political violence package that 2010s America shares with 1850s America can be present without leading to civil war, and civil wars can break out without the package being present. We can only conclude that these forces are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for civil war. The dark prophecies of a second Civil War within the coming decade might well be nothing more than bad scholarship.
It’s the Army, stupid
So, the obvious questions: Why do the polarization/regionalism/financial crisis/political violence package and civil war sometimes go together and sometimes not, and will they go together in America’s short-term future?
Fortunately, the answer to the first question was worked out long ago, by the Roman historian Tacitus. Looking back on the Year of the Four Emperors some 50 years after the event, he recognized that “Now was divulged the secret of the empire — that emperors could be made elsewhere than Rome.” What he meant by this was that although the empire’s political institutions were all concentrated in the city of Rome, if the armies out in the provinces decided to intervene in the political process, they always had the final say. Rome lurched into civil war in 49 B.C. because Caesar and Pompey each had armies to back their political ambitions. It did so again in A.D. 69 because no fewer than four rivals found themselves in this position. It did not lurch into civil war in 133 B.C., though, because its mighty armies remained aloof from politics.
England stumbled into civil war in 1642 because it had no standing army at all. When relations between the Royalists and Parliamentarians broke down, each could safely set about raising its own armed forces with no fear that Leviathan would intervene and stop them. This was Thomas Hobbes’ central point in his 1651 masterpiece Leviathan; only a powerful government with terrifying armed force can scare people straight and deter them from using violence to pursue their own ends. Things had been even worse in 1135, because in addition to there being no strong central army, dozens of barons had their own private armies, which they gleefully unleashed on rivals. In the 1530s, by contrast, despite the mass uprising in defense of Catholicism known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, the barons largely remained loyal to Henry VIII and civil war was avoided.
When relations between Northern and Southern states broke down in 1861, the United States had more in common militarily with England in 1642 than with any of the other cases discussed here. It did have a professional army, but it contained just 16,367 men, and 179 of its 197 companies were stationed west of the Mississippi, so far from the initial areas of fighting as to render them irrelevant. In any case, one in five of the U.S. Army’s officers promptly resigned their commissions to join the Confederate states and thousands of noncommissioned men simply deserted and followed them. The government in Washington effectively had no army to enforce its will, and both sides — like King Charles I and the English Parliament in 1642 — had to set about raising forces almost from scratch.
Nothing could be less like the United States’ position in 2018. It has the most powerful and professional armed forces the world has ever seen, and there is absolutely no doubt about their loyalty to the legitimate government or commitment to the principle of civilian command. American soldiers, sailors and airmen do have political opinions, but they currently can be relied on to put their duty first. The United States therefore has far more in common with Rome in 133 B.C. than with any of the other cases. Even if U.S. senators start killing each other with chair legs, the armed forces will not take sides, other than to implement orders — so long as the orders are legitimate and legal — from their elected commander-in-chief.
When we look at the recent civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, or at places such as Egypt where civil war has been averted, nothing matters so much as the stance and strength of the armed forces. We have to conclude that the American Civil War Doomsday Clock does not stand at two, or even 52, minutes to midnight. The very idea is ridiculous. So long as the armed forces remain true to their highest traditions, it will not matter how angry the American people get or how badly their politicians behave. There will be no second Civil War.