Almost everyone who is paying attention will agree that the political situation in this country between the progressive Left and the conservative Right is becoming desperate. Families and friendships are being sundered over political differences. The differences represented are existential and encompass radically opposed views of what this country stands for and where it is or should be going. There is no middle ground upon which members from opposite sides of the question can build a workable compromise. The stakes have become all or nothing.
The last time this happened, between the views of the Northern abolitionists and the Southern slaveholders and states’ rights advocates in the 1950s, the only conceivable result was dissolution, secession from the Union, an attempt at a parallel slaveholding government in the South, and ultimately a war to bring the seceding states back into the Union. When the issues are existential and are believed to encompass the survival of one side or the other, when there is no middle ground or possible compromise, then breakup and/or civil war becomes the only answer—terrible as that may be.
Some would say that the “cold civil war” over political and cultural differences—which has been going on in this country for the last dozen or so years and perhaps started as far back as the 1960s—has already grown hot. In the past month, we’ve seen what are supposed to be “peaceful protests” in various cities (Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland) meld into violent riots and attacks on both city and federal properties both there and in other cities (Richmond, Austin, Oakland) in a spreading conflagration. Now the Department of Homeland Security, a recent addition to the federal government based on earlier terrorist activity, is supposedly fielding agents to protect federal buildings and round up the people attacking them. To me, this looks like insurrection. This looks like the earliest stages of an armed conflict.
The supposed “Second Civil War” that is being shouted in various novels, blogs, and memes right now—including some of mine—is not going to look like the first Civil War of 1861-65. Here is why.
First, the nature of war and the weapons used to fight it have changed drastically in the last 160 years. The Union and Confederate armies were composed of foot soldiers who marched in relatively tight formations and fired muzzle-loading muskets, supported by muzzle-loading cannon and men on horseback scouting ahead of the marching armies. The fastest means of communication was the telegraph wire, usually strung along railroad rights of way. But armies in the field away from the rail lines had to rely on a man riding a horse and carrying a handwritten message. The armies themselves could only meet on suitable ground, a defined battlefield, and usually tried to outflank an opponent to reach their own objective, or ambush an opponent to keep him from reaching his objective. This was all two-dimensional and—except in punitive expeditions like Sherman’s March to the Sea—paid little attention to strategic operations against civilian objectives.
As we’ve watched the progress of war from marching brigade lines to the immobilized trenches of World War I, through the mobile armies of World War II and Korea, to the Air Cavalry in Vietnam, and finally the village and urbanized insurrections of Afghanistan and Iraq—all with the background of a nuclear exchange in the offing—we know that a modern war on the continental United States will not be anything like the first Civil War. What would Lincoln and Grant not have done if they had helicopters and F-16s, let alone the threat of atomic weapons? A civil war today would probably not even be about taking and holding territorial objectives, especially if the war was not preceded by states seceding from the Union. It might be more like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, all about winning “hearts and minds” and punishing insurrection. It might be neighbor against neighbor, with the frontlines drawn between cities and suburbs, neighborhood against neighborhood, like the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
Second, the looming civil war might well not be one of secession and recapture. Between the first Civil War and today, the nature of our governments at both the state and federal level has also changed. During the 1860s, the state governments were relatively strong, and the federal government was relatively weak. The federal government, at least at the start of the war, was small and funded mostly by customs duties, tariffs, excise taxes, and some direct taxes. There was no national income tax—but neither were there immense federal programs and outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; transportation projects associated with the Interstate Highway System, along with control and regulation of rail and air travel; educational standards and directives, backed up by grants and benefits; environmental projects and regulations; financial audits and controls, including the Federal Reserve and its management of the economy and the money supply; and the thousand other things we depend on the federal government to provide today.
Whether the current “Red States” in the central part of the nation secede from a Union dominated by the “Blue States” along the two coasts and the upper Midwest, or vice versa, one group is going to be left with all those federal programs, along with the Federal Reserve and responsibility for all those Treasury bonds and the federal debt. Maybe everyone in the part of the country that secedes will be comfortable with giving up their Social Security and Medicare contributions and future benefits, all that highway and education money, and everything else we’ve come to rely on the federal government to supply. Maybe forgoing their share of the looming federal debt would be compensation enough. But rewriting those funding and social service obligations under a newly conceived and authored Constitution and code of laws would be a gamble for most people. Some—especially those with much to lose under a new interpretation of the tax code—might think twice about giving up the devil they know for the one that has yet to be born.
And then there are the pesky details of what would become international transactions. For one side or the other, the companies and networks we all expect to function smoothly—the internet and its cloud computing resources, the U.S. Postal Service and delivery services like FedEx and UPS; distribution networks like Amazon and eBay; communications services AT&T and Verizon; farming, food processing, and distribution companies that keep the rest of us supplied with flour and bread, vegetables, chicken, beef, and Hostess Twinkies; the electric power pools and their system exchanges; control and security of interstate air travel and railroads; oil and gas transmission pipelines, to name a few—all will all be tossed into a cocked hat and distributed variously between two different countries. Some of these functions will continue smoothly under international agreements. Others will become fragmented, prizes to be pulled apart in the interest of benefiting one party while hurting the other.
Any way you look at it, our country—the whole United States—has become far more interconnected and centrally governed, less regional and local, less independent, than it was 160 years ago. A breakup into Red and Blue, if that is even the correct dividing line anymore, would be far more difficult to pull off, and even more difficult to operate in two halves—especially if the Blue halves were physically separated by a big Red chunk in the middle, with borders, tariffs, and travel restrictions going both ways—than the country that divided in 1861.
All of this is food for careful thought before we embrace the Civil War Meme and start picking sides.