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Imagine another American Civil War, but this time in every state: NPR


Trump supporters on the right argue with a counter-protester in Detroit on November 5, 2020.

David Goldman / AP


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David Goldman / AP

Imagine another American Civil War, but this time in every state: NPR

Trump supporters on the right argue with a counter-protester in Detroit on November 5, 2020.

David Goldman / AP

Not so long ago, the idea of ​​another American Civil War seemed far-fetched.

Nowadays, the notion has not only become mainstream, it suddenly seems to be everywhere.

Business intern released a poll in October 2020 saying that a majority of Americans thought the United States was already in the midst of a “cold” civil war. Then last fall, the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia released a poll revealing that a majority of people who voted to re-elect former President Donald Trump in 2020 now wanted their state to separate from the Union.

UVA data also showed that 41% of those who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 also said it may be now “time to divide the country.”

Researchers have found that these negative assessments of American democracy are especially prominent among young people. Last month, the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School released a poll that found half of Americans under 30 of voting age thought our democracy was “struggling” or “failing” . A third also said he expected there to be “civil war” during his lifetime. And a quarter believed at least one state would secede.

The more you hear that particular drumbeat, the louder it gets.

At the end of last year, the University of Maryland and The Washington Post produced a poll saying that a third of Americans believed violence against the government was “sometimes justified” – a belief they found even more prevalent among Republicans and independents. According to To postroughly 1 in 10 Americans shared this view in the 1990s.

Do people interviewed in all of these polls fully realize what these terms or their responses mean? Maybe not. Talking is often cheap, and pollsters can ask a lot of provocative questions in search of something interesting – or newsworthy.

What do people even mean by “civil war”? Suppose it wouldn’t be a throwback to the 1860s, when 11 Southern states left the Union and waged a four-year war to assert their right to do so and preserve the practice of slavery, which was around 4 years old. millions of African Americans in slavery. at the time.

The Civil War claimed the lives of at least 600,000 Americans and contributed to the deaths of several thousand more. It devastated the South economically and left most of those in the region who had been emancipated to a life of peonage and misery.

Moreover, he has done little to address the constitutional question of “state rights”, a problematic point in our national conversation since then. Prominent in the struggles for civil rights and the right to vote, it remains salient in the bickering over today’s mask and vaccine mandates.

State rights, always with us

The rights of states to go their own way on fundamental issues are also always at the forefront of the Supreme Court, where abortion rights are an immediate example. Texas and other states want to make the process virtually unavailable, while much of the country prefers access granted nationwide by the court. Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.

Imagine another American Civil War, but this time in every state: NPR

Biden and Trump supporters wave to each other as they argue as Trump supporters protest against election results in Detroit on November 5, 2020.

David Goldman / AP


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David Goldman / AP

Imagine another American Civil War, but this time in every state: NPR

Biden and Trump supporters wave to each other as they argue as Trump supporters protest against election results in Detroit on November 5, 2020.

David Goldman / AP

“We are already seeing a ‘border war’ with individual states passing major legislation that is significantly different from other places,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and William Gale, senior researcher to Brookings in Economic Studies, who wrote a pair of articles on the unraveling of America’s social and political fabric.

They note that conflict between entire states is not the only way civil war may emerge in our time, nor even the most likely. When and if the problem turns into violent confrontations between local citizens and federal agents, or between contentious groups of citizens, the confrontation could well take place much closer to home. As West and Gale write:

Today’s toxic atmosphere makes it difficult to negotiate on important issues, which has made people angry with the federal government and has helped create a win-win political approach. When the stakes are so high, people are ready to consider extraordinary ways to achieve their goals.

And what do these prudent scholars mean by “extraordinary means”?

“America has an extraordinary number of firearms and private militias,” they write. How many? They cite the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s estimate of 434 million firearms held by civilians in the United States right now. It would be 1.3 pistols per person.

“Semi-automatic weapons represent around 19.8 million in total,” they add worryingly, “resulting in a highly armed population with potentially dangerous capabilities.”

The New York Times recently reviewed How civil wars begin by political scientist Barbara F. Walter of the University of California at San Diego. In an interview with NPR member station KPBS in San Diego a year ago, Walter said the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was surprising but shouldn’t have been because we were watching “the decline. of American democracy since 2016 ”.

A specialist in international law, Walter adds: “The United States was once considered a democracy in its own right like Norway, Switzerland or Iceland,” she said, “and they are now considered a democracy. partial like Ecuador, Somalia or Haiti.

Draw different lines today

The geographic divisions of our time are different from those of the 1860s. We can still trace the original Mason-Dixon line that separated the regions of “free soil” from “slave states”, and there are still real differences in the land today. each side of this ancient demarcation.

But the most significant geographic separation in our society is no longer as sharp as North and South, or East and West. It’s the familiar divide between urban and rural, or to update it a bit: metro versus non-metro.

So a “blue state” like Maine has populated coastal counties that voted for Biden and sparsely populated inland counties that heavily opted for Trump, enough to give him a majority in one of the two congressional districts of the country. ‘State. Conversely, in the ruby ​​red state of Nebraska, a congressional district anchored in the city of Omaha opted for Biden.

This dynamic also appears in the most populous states, the first prizes of the Electoral College. In California, where coastal cities are known to be liberal, the Central Valley counties are much more conservative.

And in Texas, Biden carried the six largest subways in 2020, in large part because of their growing numbers of people of color. But most of the state’s 254 counties lie outside of these subways; in rural Texas, the Republican vote share is still the lion’s share.

That may change over time, but right now we are less a nation divided into 50 states than we are two nations both present in each of those states. Each is dominant in their own space and certain that this is the real America.

You can measure some of this geographic / demographic divide in the 2020 election results. Trump won in 2,588 counties spanning most of the nation’s landscape, as Republican candidates usually do. (That’s why we’re used to Election Night cards that are a stark red even though the popular vote is near or leaning toward Democrat.)

Biden, on the other hand, had just 551 counties, less than a fifth of Trump. But the counties transported by Biden had a total population of nearly 198 million, while Trump’s had only 130.3 million. That’s a difference of almost 68 million people. In other words, Biden won the counties that are home to 60% of the total population of the United States.

It’s hard to believe looking at a map on which Biden counties are dotted with blue dots on a sea of ​​red. But these blue dots are where most of the country lives. When you look at the top ten states by metropolitan percentage of the state’s total population, Biden took the top ten.

Trump has won a few downtown urban counties here and there, with a combined population of 4.7 million. Biden won the rest of this category with a combined population of 97 million. This is a ratio of 20 to 1.

Additionally, Biden Counties is where most of the population growth occurs. Less than a fifth of counties represent 77% of the Latino or Hispanic community and 86% of the Asian American community nationally.

Is civil war a self-fulfilling angst?

The forces of disunity are worrying to say the least. But does everything have to fall apart? Can we still center and retreat from the edge as we approach?

Irish time writer Fintan O’Toole issued a warning message just before Christmas in Atlantic, recounting some of his horrific memories of the “troubles” in his homeland in the late 1900s. Even then, he says, with all the provocations on both sides, “it never resulted in a full-blown civil war “.

We should not behave as if our divisions should force us to shed blood, he adds, because dwelling on such thoughts and making such predictions can bring this prospect closer to reality, even if it is aimed at do the opposite.

It makes sense, especially if you think that overthinking the unthinkable can turn into accepting the unacceptable.

And however you personally view the significance of what happened on January 6, 2021, we now know that nothing in American politics is unthinkable.


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