It will soon be more than one hundred and fifty years since the end of the American Civil War and the nation is once again seemingly irreparably divided. Extreme partisan politics between Republicans and Democrats has created what the President himself has called “a poisonous political climate” that has gridlocked Washington, polarized the electorate and reduced political debate to nothing more than petty mudslinging and ad hominem attacks. Is America merely going through a troubled time or, as some right-wing commentators have been claiming for years, is the country on the verge of a second civil war?
To be clear, American politicians and pundits of all stripes love to rhetorically invoke the specter of the country’s most traumatic conflict whenever the left and right appear to be at a particular impasse. Newt Gingrich, for example, famously declared a civil war “at the ballot box” in 1987 following Robert Bork’s failed Supreme Court nomination. After Bush’s 2004 re-election victory, historian Simon Schama called the country the “Divided States of America” and observed that: “Not since the Civil War has the fault line between its two halves been so glaringly clear.” In 2013, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin warned that the Tea Party was creating a situation “every bit as dangerous as the breakup of the Union before the Civil War.”
Perhaps the most notorious allusion in recent years came from Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2009 when, in an unwise bit of political posturing, he said that his state had the legal right to secede if it chose to do so. Perry’s comments, which he quickly denied making, garnered widespread ridicule across the country, not least because secession is unquestionably illegal and unconstitutional according to Texas v. White (1869).
That is not to say, however, that there are not concerning parallels between the American political landscape today and that of the early 1860s. In recent decades, moderates on both side of the aisle have been weeded out and an undeniable “us vs. them” mentality has permeated all political spheres. Much like Lincoln’s open opposition to slavery, President Obama’s stance on moral issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and Second Amendment rights, has only served to widen the gulf between the two sides. This growing divide has been further heightened by partisan news and new media outlets devoted to towing their respective ideological lines.
Not surprisingly, many Americans are losing faith in and even growing openly hostile towards a federal government and political system that they feel is no longer working in their best interests. According to a 2013 Pew research poll, only 19% of Americans trust the federal government and 53% openly believe it threatens their personal rights and freedoms. This antipathy towards Washington is further evident in the alarming rise – a 37% increase since 2014 alone – in antigovernment right-wing paramilitary groups like the 3 Percenters and the Oath Keepers. During the recent Oregon Standoff, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes warned authorities that his organization was preparing for “civil war” should the situation get out of hand.
But as concerning as these problems are, there are also major differences between the America of today and that of the early 1860s that preclude political divides, no matter how wide, from devolving into an internal armed conflict.
For one, the territorial battle lines between progressives and conservatives are not neatly drawn along state and regional lines like they were during the Civil War. It was only because the Confederacy encompassed such as large, rich, and above all, ideologically homogenous swathe of the country, that it was able to form its own government and raise armies to fight the North. Today, political, ethnic and religious demographics can vary tremendously from county to county, not just region to region. The last federal election results showed that the primary geographical political divide nowadays is between urban and rural communities, with the latter generally voting Republican and the former Democratic. Even then, neither side can claim such an overwhelming majority of support in an area large or distinct enough to form a powerbase for a potential rebellion against the government.
Another question to ask is that if a second civil war were to arise, what would be the central issue motivating Americans to fight and die in huge numbers? Slavery, the reason behind the Civil War, was an issue unlike any today in terms of the sweeping influence it had over the Southern way of life. It was ingrained in the Southern culture, justified by many Christian churches in the South, and it was most importantly the foundation of the Southern economy. While it is true that slave owners were a minority, the majority of the South’s wealth was based on the value of its four million slaves and the lucrative fruits of their forced labour. Most white Southerners aspired to slave ownership and all lived in fear of slave rebellion. Given how essential slavery was to the Southern way of life and identity, it is no surprise that it was considered an institution worth defending to the death. Arguably no issue in American politics today, no matter how profound, is potentially as inciting.
Finally worth considering is that the identity of the United States is no longer as inextricably linked with the concept of the Union as it was during the early 1860s. Lincoln captured the sacredness with which the bond between the states was viewed in his inaugural address when he spoke of the “mystic chords of memory” and “better nature of our angels” that he predicted would hold it together. When South Carolina seceded in December of 1860, the whole country rang with the news that the “Union is Dissolved” and restoring it proved the primary reason why Northerners enlisted to fight.
Nowadays, the notion that the nation would be dissolved if one state or region were to leave seems absurd to say the least. In a recent Fox News poll, 19 percent of respondents said that they would willingly vote certain states out of the Union if they could do so. When, following Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, thirty states filed petitions to secede with the White House, most Americans responded with scorn and mockery rather than concern and outrage. Many political commentators, like those at the Washington Post, even ran editorials outlining the benefits to the rest of the country if certain states were to leave.
In 2012, Small Wars Journal magazine, published a fictional essay titled “Full Spectrum Operations in the Homeland: A ‘Vision’ of the Future” which sketched out a scenario for how a second U.S. Civil War might arise in the year 2016. In the piece, a small group of right-wing militants “motivated by the goals of the ‘tea party’” seize government buildings in a rural down, setting off a chain of events that culminate in a mass civil uprising. This past January, much of what the scenario predicted ended up playing out at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. However, unlike in the paper, the militants’ cause failed to rally widespread support, public officials from both sides of the aisle condemned their actions, and the American public was barely distracted from the drama of the presidential race. The incident arguably proved that for the vast majority of Americans, the idea of armed revolt is an absurd thing of the past. Though Newt Gingrich’s ballot box civil war may be fiercer than ever, an actual violent civil war will never again happen in the United States.