Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears hanging on a wall in the first act, it must be used in the second act. In the same way, the line is dangerously thin between warning about a peril and creating an atmosphere that makes that peril possible. Ever since last year’s presidential election, the press and countless voices on social media have been worrying, ever more loudly and insistently, about a looming civil war.
The warnings come from both ends of the political spectrum, and Americans seem to believe them. But civil war is a rare and exceptional moment in the life of a civilization. We should be careful how we use such a term, lest fears of political catastrophe become self-fulfilling prophecies. In the rising intensity of the Internet’s teeming egalitarianism—controlled as it is by the self-appointed deities of Silicon Valley—American democracy has reached its double-sided fulfillment in the way social media can make collective fantasies real. And after whipping readers into a frenzy in the matters of Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic, the media are loath to lower the temperature.
Granted, you would have to possess an extraterrestrial complacency not to worry about America’s divisions. On one side are Trump’s ceaseless claims that the election was stolen, claims compounded by the unwillingness of many Republicans to counter his false assertions and denounce him for making them. Of course, in the months leading up to the election, one liberal media figure or liberal politician after another said that if Trump won, the country would cease to exist as a democracy. A patriot who believed such a thing might do everything he could to prevent such a calamitous outcome—just as a patriot who heard and believed Trump’s claims, made the very night of the election, that the election was stolen might rush to the Capitol building to defend his country. But the simple fact is that one judge after another struck down Trump’s legal efforts to prove fraud and overturn the election, and one attempt after another by Trump’s people to demonstrate the validity of his claims outside the courtroom failed.
On the other side, America’s divisions derive not from a fantasy that has displaced the facts but from polarizing facts themselves. Progressives and their liberal enablers have created a social-engineering machine now operating with incredible speed. It’s bad enough to believe that racism in America will be defeated by brainwashing white children into thinking that they are all racists, but when the country’s own attorney general designates as domestic terrorists parents who resist the indoctrination of their children, then we’re in an epistemological crisis.
Add up one progressive-sponsored assault after another on everyday life and it really does seem as if Americans are trapped between the Scylla of a revolutionary vanguard and the Charybdis of reactionary revolution. The sudden implosion of stable sexual identity; the replacement of “pregnant woman” with “pregnant person”; the shaming of any person, no matter how decent or well-intentioned, who blanches when faced with the elimination of gas stoves and gas-propelled cars; the anathematization of work: a web of illusions about an election on one hand, a web of delusions about human nature on the other.
But is an epistemological crisis the same as finding ourselves on the brink of civil war? We might see through the more hyperbolic claims of division to find our way to some obvious and consequential bonds. The often-heard claim, for instance, that Americans essentially live in different countries is a disconnection from American reality—a product of, to borrow a term from intellectual historian Arthur Lovejoy, a “climate of opinion” that sees portents of civil war everywhere. Someone in Vermont is just as likely to be listening, say, to country and western music as someone in Texas; you would quickly lose count of all the Honda CRVs bearing Black Lives Matter decals, on the one hand, and those with MAGA stickers, on the other. If the country ever comes together as one, the point of unity will probably be a large cheese pizza.
All Americans share in certain existential features of American life. And that is the point: an epistemological crisis is not the same thing as an existential one. Arguments around the Thanksgiving table are not existential emergencies; neither are intellectual disputes between spouses, lovers, colleagues, and friends. If we all had the same perspective on reality, we would all suddenly fall silent. But we talk, all the time, and our talk consists of a case being made for one version of reality over another.
An existential crisis is another matter. In 1860, people in the North and South dressed differently, spoke differently, and behaved differently, right down to the most trivial detail. And even if a wealthy landowner in the North and one in the South both spent the evening listening to a recital of Beethoven string quartets, one would ride home past free laborers and the other past black slaves. That is a radical difference not just in moral and spiritual existence, but in conceptions of labor and economy. No such spiritual and material differences prevail between Americans today.
The conditions for a civil war simply do not exist. Since civil war is only one step removed from revolution—if the South had chosen to overthrow the American republic rather than to secede from it, that would have been a revolution—the conditions for a civil war must resemble those for a revolution. That is to say, each side has to have an army behind it; each side has to be prepared to wage war. For a war to begin, classes must be divided, not just by culture but material circumstances. Vast segments of the population must feel socially disenfranchised, materially deprived, and on the verge of being not merely displaced by other groups but eliminated by them. Such violent class conflict existed in both the South and the North in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Competition for wage labor, for example, was one reason that blacks seeking work at cheaper wages were sometimes murdered by whites in the North even as the Civil War raged on.
America has always teemed with conflict among various social groups. In our time, however, the invocation of a second civil war has served both as a fashionable concept and as a demagogic strategy to divide in the name of fighting for unity. Its invocation is less a prediction or warning than an expedient tactic: call it the Civil War Strategy. Barack Obama deftly invoked the illusion of deep division to construct himself as the great uniter; Trump incites strife in the apparent hope that it will become real. This is how an expedient political strategy becomes a serious and somber prediction that, by sheer repetition, starts to make itself a reality. It is like driving a 1958 Chevy spewing black smoke into a pristine wilderness to warn everyone who lives there about climate change.
Regardless of which political side wins three years from now, Americans should remove the flush of fever from their rhetoric. They should keep the rifle hanging on the wall and allow the next act in American political life, whatever it is, to be a peaceful one.