Can a nation so divided stand? Are we testing these days whether, as Lincoln said, this nation can “long endure?” Between a worsening pandemic, economic disparities, hyper-partisan politics, and vastly different and competing visions of reality and visions of this nation’s future, are we arriving at a breaking point…a critical mass?
We have been gripped in doubts on the election process, the intent of neighbors, and subject to a constant bombardment of partisan and often slanted, often baseless accusations that all get amplified through our connections and our live streams of the world.
Are we at a tipping point? Is civil war on the horizon? In this blog, we will examine the undercurrents in America, what makes a civil war, the causes of a civil war, and what you can do about it.
There are two distinct narratives in the United States today. Simple differences in opinion on how we might tackle an issue have been traded out for vast chasms in thinking that may not be able to be bridged. Issues about how we approach poverty, homelessness, foreign policy, and the like are no longer just policy differences in opinions and approaches. We might have seen this twenty years ago among Republicans and Democrats. They simply had different takes on the same issues. Now, though, they are diametrically opposed narratives with hardened belief systems that are supported and amplified through social media and main and alternate stream media and news. The Left sees the Right as Fascist and the Right see the Left as Communists, and the middle ground between the extremes grows smaller every minute and every hour. Discussions are shouting matches, and there is an unwillingness to either find a compromise or even to listen to opposing arguments. It seems that if you have a notion, no matter how whacky, you can probably find at least one credible looking source or group on the internet to support it. Any hopes that politicians might reach across the aisle and compromise on any issue is evaporating and devolving into partisan shouting matches and deepening divides.
Though there are several offshoots and variations of thinking, there are two clear extremes. The first believes that a cabal of pedophiles and Satan worshippers are out to destroy America and control people through vaccinations and socialism. The other extreme believes the country is sliding into an authoritarian government, a conservative approach to body autonomy, and a blurring of the lines between the separation of church and state. Social media has only caused people to verify and amplify their own mistrust. Regardless of what you believe, remember that these are the extremes. If we were to look at Aristotle’s writings, we should seek what was termed the golden mean, or the golden middle way. He would encourage us to reject both the extremes, because extremes are rarely, if ever, true. That is not, however, the route that we are moving to as a country.
News sites and media and message boards and groups operate by algorithms that feed up information to us that amplifies what we choose to click on and read. Our own thoughts, no matter how odd they may be, are encouraged and reinforced and echo back to us more loudly. While these, again, are the extremes, the extremities pull apart and reduce the center. They make it harder to find any common area in the center to conduct meaningful discussion and negotiation. But is the pull of these far extremes enough to pull apart our nation? When we look back at history, are there common elements of civil wars?
Defining the Civil War
A civil war isn’t always what you might envision. It may not align with what you might imagine. History gives us a few guiding conditions which have to be met for any internal conflict to rise to the level of a civil war. First, political scientists define a civil war as having more than one thousand casualties. While that seems to be a relatively arbitrary number, it serves as a sort of demarcation point to define the difference between civil conflicts which may have high casualties, like the Tulsa Race Massacre, Mountain Meadows Massacre, or the California Genocide, from conflicts which can spin out further than their location and spread to a greater area. At this point, though both sides are heavily armed, fatalities are extremely low by comparison.
Another prerequisite is some of the military to dissent. Typically, in other countries, we see this as military generals using their troops to attack or defend against a perceived corrupt or morally bankrupt leadership. We haven’t really heard that level of dissension in our military chain of command, but we have seen federal forces drawn from everywhere from the Bureaus of Prisons to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deployed in an extra-operational mission in states. Deployment of federal troops would have required the presidential use of the Insurrection Act, which would have been a very unpopular move. The use of the Insurrection Act at any time could drive states to buck federal overreach and could lead to the right conditions for a civil war, so we will have to watch for that.
Though there is not really a military component, America is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. There is more than one gun for every person in America. We rank 12th in the world and higher than any other G8 nation in total gun deaths when combining both homicides and accidental deaths. Americans are very heavily armed and, as of very recently, demonstrated that they can organize, seize capital buildings, and show up in organized forces on streets throughout America. With that capability, is having a dissenting military a valid prerequisite for civil war in America?
There are many conditions and nuances to what a civil war is, but casualties and organization are probably the two biggest. Beyond the conditions, however, there are a set of causes that are also, typically, a part.
Causes of Civil Wars
The causes are where our possibility of sliding into a civil war is most conceivable. Typically, the causes are defined as greed, grievance, or opportunity based, and some overlap can occur. Think of these causes as motivators for people to rise up against or for a government or opposition force.
The first is greed. Is it in the economic best interests of individuals and groups to start a conflict? We all can see that income disparities have grown dramatically over recent years. The gap between the haves and have nots has grown tremendously. This is further complicated by very high unemployment numbers right now and very little COVID-19 relief actually making it into the hands of everyday citizens. The compounded elements leave those that “have” wanting to defend what they have and those who “have not” wanting to obtain what they feel they need to survive. This can be complicated even further during civil unrest, where apolitical or radical opportunists may loot or take by force items and possessions of others. A climate does exist right now where these criminal opportunists get lumped in as the forward face of even amorphous political groups.
A “grievance” based cause is another potential catalyst for civil war. This is the theory that a civil war begins because of issues of identity, rather than purely as a result of economics. To determine how close we are to this, we only need to look at the disenfranchised. The current election is a great example of this. At the time that I am editing this video, the election is undecided. By the time this video comes out, we will, hopefully, have a decision. One thing is for sure, one or both sides will emerge from this election feeling slightly, if not totally cheated. Already there are accusations at the top levels of government that one side is cheating. Already there are attempts to stop vote counting here or keep vote counting there. This election will, most assuredly, be contested, litigated, re-examined, and studied in the history books. One or both sides will emerge angrier at leadership. One or both sides will emerge even more distrustful of government and even more distrustful of each other. Add to this the already disenfranchised social justice protestors, a group that clearly feels their identity is foremost in their decision making, and there is clearly enough disparity amongst Americans. Add to this, too, the groups on both sides of the political spectrum who would love to see anarchy or a reset of the government, which are essentially the same chaos when you boil them down; and are we at a cumulatively high enough grievance level to foment the early shots of a civil war? In other videos, we have explored how continual civil unrest can foment larger civil conflicts.
The third real cause of civil wars is “opportunity.” At certain times the opportunity for wide scale conflict rising to the definition of a civil war is greater. Any group of armed citizens stopping a vote count or kidnapping election officials or in any way creating havoc that would warrant the calling of federal troops in the current political and divisive climate, could be seen as authoritarian moves by the coastal regions. Here is where a civil war is possible at a state level. The Supreme Court has already ruled once that state legislatures have the authority to determine their own election processes, so how will it be perceived if a mob, coaxed by either presidential candidate seeks to stop the vote? How would it be received if federal troops seized ballots or rolled into a city’s center under the premise of keeping the peace? Such provocative actions create the opportunities for civil wars. Governance or the lack thereof, population density, poverty, these are all elements of the opportunity cause of a civil war. Think of “opportunity” as potential. Think of it as fertile soil. Are the conditions of the soil such that the seeds of civil war could grow quite easily.
You and Civil War
So is a civil war possible and what does this mean for you? The fact that we can even imagine the possibility so clearly now requires us to look at how you can prepare to survive widespread civil unrest even to the extreme of an all-out civil war. Will you be prepared if a civil war passes through, envelops, or consumes your town, city, or state?
There are no winners in large scale civil unrest or a civil war. Knowing this, it doesn’t matter if the conflict comes to your doorstep, forces you to find a safer area, to fight for survival, or sweeps you up into it as an unwilling victim. Prepare now for the possibility that things could go south very quickly. Peace and calm can swiftly erode into violence and chaos. We have seen it before. We have seen it in other countries, and we may be on the cusp of it today in the United States. Use this time to prepare for that possibility. Know your routes to safety. Have your bug out bag handy. Make sure your home preparations are in order. You should have the foods and medicines you may need in case you can’t leave your home for an extended period of time.
Use your head to make decisions. If violence erupts anywhere in the country, don’t rush to a conclusion before all of the facts are in. A good deal of finger-pointing will be going on, but you should try to keep a level head and stay above the fray. Any incident, even those that look very specific in nature, could be wildly distorted out of context, and, as I mentioned earlier, the echo and amplification capabilities of social media can turn something innocuous into something nefarious. Accept little at first brush. Vet information out. Find at least two other sources with perhaps even different views on the incident to determine where the truth is. Any incident may actually be started by one group but only to blame another. Don’t take anything at face value, but continue to question everything until the facts are clear. There are two narratives in this country, but there is only one truth. Seek that truth and try your best to remain above the narrative.
It was the satirist and philosopher Voltaire who wrote that we must “cultivate our own gardens,” and this has been part of my prepping philosophy for a long time. Often, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the politics out there. It is easy to be drawn into debates, because it seems that a day doesn’t go by where we aren’t forced to live and breathe politics. It’s hard to tune it out, and I am not suggesting you do, because a democracy thrives from the actions of its people. What we are suggesting is that during these tumultuous times, you cultivate your own garden; tend to your flock; prepare your stores; grow in your knowledge and skills, and prepare yourself for whatever challenge you face.
We have seen, during my time doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan in 2003, the devastating effects of civil wars. There are no winners. The ruling party doesn’t win. The people do not win. While some may boast “bring it on,” the reality is they don’t really understand the often irrecoverable state they leave nations in their aftermath. No education, medicine, civil services, even food and water, for some remain a scarcity. No part of the country is left unscathed, either. The countryside suffers as much as the city because our economies and our agriculture and our manufacturing and our commerce are all tied together with one another.
This election cycle will end. It will one day be in the past, and we will be looking back at it. Let us not regret the decisions we made in this time. At the end of the day, when the fires of our division are all put out and we are not forced to live and breathe politics, we are still all Americans. While a civil war could be in our future because so many of the potential causes are there to have a conflict rise to the level of a civil war, we all, collectively, have the power to avert it.
Now more than ever we need to listen to our fellow Americans instead of screaming over them. Now more than ever we need to bridge the gap between the two narratives, the two realities. We need to strive for finding common ground and take as a personal responsibility to be the leaders of our communities and to lead them with compassion. Though it may seem overly sentimental and too lofty, I think that in the words of Lincoln, it is our responsibility to make sure that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
We would love to hear your plan for keeping the peace and your plan for the tumultuous times we find ourselves in today and in the coming weeks.
As always, stay safe out there.