How Probable is a Second American Civil War?

Fear of a Second American Civil War is at an all-time high. Speculation about a 21st Century Civil War is so widespread the august Brookings Institution think tank is examining the possibility.

Frighteningly, 46% of Americans admit they think another civil war is likely a January 2021 Zogby Poll estimates. In detail, Zogby estimates 16% of Americans think a Second Civil War is very likely, 30% of Americans think a second Civil War is somewhat likely.

In contrast, 24% of Americans think a Second Civil War is very unlikely and 18% believe a Second Civil War is unlikely. Thus, 64% of Americans think a Second Civil War is possible  – if Zogby’s data is accurate. Plus, another 11% of Americans say they are unsure about another civil war which means they fear the possibility.

Young Americans Think Civil War is Coming

Zogby’s scariest discovery is that younger Americans believe Civil War is inevitable. For example, 53% of Americas between 18 and 29 and 51% of Americans between 18 and 24 thought Civil War was likely.

Conversely, 55% of Americans over 65 thought Civil War was unlikely. I suspect many older Americans remember past Civil War scares that did not bear fruit. For example, the race war fears of the 1960s. Yet, Zogby calculates 31% of Americans over 65 thought Civil War was likely.

Disturbingly politically active Americans are more afraid of Civil War. Zogby found 49% of those who identify as Republican and 45% of people who identify as Democrat think Civil War is likely.

Who Thinks Civil War is Coming

Furthermore, Americans who interact with more people think Civil War is probable. For instance, Zogby estimates 55% of Americans in large cities think Civil War is likely. However, only 36% of suburban Americans think Civil War is probable.

Predictably, race plays a role in attitudes about a potential Civil War. For example, Zogby claims 43% of whites, 49% of blacks, and 53% of Hispanics believe Civil War is likely.

I find the Hispanic figure frightening because many American Hispanics come from countries with recent histories of civil war. For example, Guatemala, Columbia, Peru, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Hence, Americans who have seen a real civil war think one is probable in America.

Is the Pentagon Afraid of Civil War?

Frighteningly, the brass in the Pentagon fears Civil War. On 12 January 2021 The New York Times reported “Military Chiefs Remind Troops of Their Oath.” The oath the Joint Chiefs of Staff reminded military members of is their pledge to defend the Constitution.

More recently, on 20 December 2021, the Pentagon issued detailed new rules prohibiting service members from participating in extremist activities. The Associated Press reports the 6 January 2021 Capitol Riot inspired the new guidelines. The AP estimates federal prosecutors charged six active duty military personnel with offenses on 6 January.

The new policy bars military personnel from advocating terrorism, membership in extremist groups, paying dues to extremist groups, supporting the overthrow of the government, rallying with extremist groups, and liking or posting extremist material on social media, the AP reports. The policy gives military commanders the power to restrict their troops’ political activities.

Both the Joint Chiefs and the Biden Administration now worry about military extremism. For example, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a former general, ordered commanders to hold a stand day to discuss extremism with the ranks. The military will increase screening of new recruits to keep out extremists, the AP notes.

News reports focus on right-wing and racist groups, but there is some evidence of left-wing extremism in the military. On 31 January 2020, Rolling Stone estimated that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines donated the most money to social democrat US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in the 2020 presidential campaign.

I suspect the Joint Chiefs want to prevent the military from becoming as politicized and as the rest of American society. Unfortunately, their actions could be too little too late.

Frighteningly, three retired army generals think the Pentagon’s action is too little too late. Major General Paul D. Eaton, Major General Antonio M. Taguba, and Brigadier General Steven M. Anderson warn about a total breakdown of command in a 17 December Washington Post op-ed. The generals are afraid of rogue units who will refuse to follow the President’s orders or take sides in political disputes.

How Probable is an American Civil War?

Ascertaining the probability of Civil War is difficult because passion and division do not always lead to violent conflict. However, the conflicts to lead to Civil Wars share certain characteristics. Those characteristics include:

1. A Crisis of Legitimacy

In a Crisis of Legitimacy, much of the population believes the government is illegal, or illegitimate. For example, the Spanish Civil War broke out because the Army, the Church, and much of the peasantry were royalists who believed the Spanish Republic was illegitimate. Similarly, the French Revolution became a Civil War after the Jacobins removed King Louis XVI from the throne and declared a republic. That drove French royalists to revolt.

In America today, Trump is calling President Joe Biden (D-Delaware) illegitimate by claiming Democrats won by vote fraud. Those claims led to the January 9 Capitol Riot. Frighteningly, a November 2021 Public Religion Research Institute Poll found 82% of regular Fox News viewers believed Trump’s vote fraud claims.

In 2016, Americans avoided a crisis of legitimacy because political leaders such as former presidents George Bush (R-Texas), George H. W. Bush (R-Texas), Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) and Barack Obama (D-Illinois) accepted Trump’s win by attending his inauguration. In 2024, a Trump win could spark widespread violence if only a handful of Republican hacks show up for his inauguration.

2. Irreconcilable Differences

Irreconcilable ideological, philosophical, religious, cultural, and social divisions. For example, the differences over slavery before the American Civil War. Americans have such differences over many issues, including guns, abortion, and fossil fuels.

3. Long-Standing Conflicts

Long-standing regional, cultural, social, religious, racial, and ethnic conflicts and grievances that are not resolved. For example, the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland. America’s grievance could be race, particularly black-white relations, which is a festering wound.

4. Minority Fears

A large minority that believes its status, rights, or existence is threatened by the majority or the ruling class. I think America has such a minority; white rural Christians.

Many rural white Christians feel their culture, faith, heritage, and way of life are under attack by a secularist majority. See any of Rod Dreher’s columns from The American Conservative for a sampling of these beliefs. The First American Civil War broke out because Southerners thought the North threatened their rights and way of life. Today, many Rural Whites hold similar beliefs.

5. Fear of the Government or Leaders

A large portion of the population that distrusts or fears the government or ruling class. For example Pew Research estimates only 24% of Americans said they could trust the government on 11 April 2021. Hence, 76% of Americans distrust government, if Pew’s data is accurate.

6. Extremist Minorities

An extremist minority that is dedicated to restructuring society and suppressing dissent. For example, the Russian Communist Party, or the Jacobins in the French Revolution.

America has such groups, in particular, all the Koch-funded groups attempting to force extreme neoliberalism and the growing woke intelligentsia on the Left. One danger from such a minority is that some group will try to defend the nation by eliminating that minority. For example, Pinochet’s bloody war on Chile’s left. I can imagine a left-wing American leader or general launching a reign of terror against America’s right.

7. Weak and Ineffective Leaders

Weak, or ineffective, leaders who refuse to take strong actions to curb extremism and violence. For example, French King Louis XVI and US President James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania).

8. Corrupt and Ineffective Government

A corrupt and ineffective government that is incapable of governing or dealing with the nation’s problems. For example, a US Senate that is incapable of passing budgets or legislation. I think America’s budget battles are reminiscent of the Ancien Regime’s eternal fiscal crisis in 18th century France.

America has some of these problems. However, history shows nations, including America, have had such problems and not exploded into Civil War.

What will a 21st Century American Civil War be like?

Yes, I think a Civil War is a strong possibility in 21st Century. Hence, the question we need to ask is what will a 21st Century Civil War look like?

Obviously, a 21st Century Civil War will not feature cavalry charges and men in blue and gray uniforms shooting at each other with muskets. However, historic conflicts can show us what a potential Civil War could comprise.

Here are some scenarios for a Second American Civil War based on historic examples.

Example one: the French Revolution

The French Revolution was a Civil War between Parisian revolutionaries and royalist and federalist forces. The Parisians won because they had control of the Army.

In this scenario, an extremist group seizes control of the federal government and uses its resources to restructure America. For example, in the French Revolution, the Assembly abolished the nation’s historic provinces and divided France into 94 departments.

Frighteningly, I think we could see an American Vendee with NRA types armed with AR-15s fighting the Army and the Marines. How are people with rifles supposed to defeat a military with tanks, drones, heavy artillery, helicopter gunships, and fighter planes? What happens when black and Hispanic soldiers get rural whites screaming racial slurs in their gun sights?

I can easily imagine a radical US government abolishing states, rewriting the Constitution, and turning the military loose on ordinary Americans. Frighteningly, the French Revolution began as an idealistic effort to rewrite France’s Constitution in the Estates General of 1789.

That effort triggered the French Revolution. The clumsy Royalist resistance to the Revolution and foreign invasion radicalized the regime and led to wholesale revolution and the Reign of Terror.

Example Two: Chile 1973

Chile’s neoliberal revolution of 1973 began as a coup against controversial socialist President Salvador Allende.

The coup began with a battle between the military and Allende’s private militia in the presidential palace. In the battle’s aftermath, Army General Augusto Jose Ramon Pinochet Ugarte seized power and declared himself president.

As president, Pinochet launched a Reign of Terror against political enemies. Pinochet’s atrocities included the Caravan of Death, a roving death squad, assassinations in other countries, including the United States, and mass killings in Santiago, Chile’s capital.

Pinochet also implemented a radical neoliberal economic program and rewrote Chile’s Constitution. The Chilean horror occurred because of the politicization of society. Everybody took sides and considered their opponents enemies. In that environment, many people cheered while Pinochet murdered his opponents.

One frightening development in Chile was the total politicization of the military. The Chilean military became dedicated to eliminating political enemies at all costs. The Chilean horror was a one-sided Civil War in which one group had the guns and used them.

Chile is still grappling with the effects of the neoliberal revolution almost 50 years later. Only history will tell if Chile’s new president Gabriel Boric can create social democracy in that troubled land.

In Chile, the politicization turned the military into a radical right-wing revolutionary organization. Frighteningly, such military violence can come from the left too. Under Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan military has become a leftist revolutionary organization dedicated to forcing Marxist ideology on the nation. However, the results of Venezuela’s Marxist revolution and Chile’s neoliberal revolution are similar. It has made the people poor and miserable as freedom vanishes.

Example Three: Spain 1936

The Spanish Civil War began as a botched coup attempt against Spain’s Republic by royalist army officers.

When the coup failed all-out Civil War broke out between the Republican government and the Army. The war became a slaughter as the nation’s people took sides. Nobles, clergy, and the peasants sided with the Army while workers and intellectuals backed the Republic.

One nasty aspect of the Spanish Civil War was foreign interference. Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin backed the Republic with military advisors and weapons. Italian fascist clown Benito Mussolini sent his army to Spain to embarrass itself. Hitler sent advisors, planes, and weapons. Foreign intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell showed up to support the Republic and glorify a brutal Civil War into a battle for democracy.

The Spanish Civil War began as a crisis of legitimacy made worse by ideological conflict. Fascists backed Generalissimo Francisco Franco while Communists and Anarchists rallied to the Republic.

The Spanish Civil War is a frightening example because it ended with the establishment of a vicious dictatorship. Nobody got what they wanted in Spain, they did not restore monarchy for almost 40 years, a fascist dictatorship was not setup, traditional Spanish society collapsed, Franco betrayed his allies Hitler and Mussolini by staying neutral in World War II, and the Spanish Left fled into exile.

Today Spain is a left-leaning social democracy and constitutional monarchy that’s a member of the European Union.

The Spanish Civil War should serve as a warning to all who want a Civil War. Nobody achieved their goals and foreign interference made the conflict far worse.

A War of Centralization

I suspect a Second American Civil War will resemble the French Revolution. That is the Second American Civil War, like the first American Civil War, will be a war of centralization.

To elaborate in the French Revolution, the Assembly, and its successor the Directory, crushed all resistance to central authority as they restructured the nation. That centralization paved the way for Napoleon I’s dictatorship by creating an efficient and ruthless central government backed by a powerful military machine and a centralized bureaucracy and paramilitary police force.

Thus, I think people who believe America is about to break up into different countries are mistaken. I think America is centralizing as all politics become national and local media dies off. For example, Statista estimates 2,196 US newspapers closed or merged between 2004 and 2020 creating news deserts with only national news. The great media die off drives nationalization by limiting interest in local politics.

Instead of breakup, I suspect secession will trigger Civil War as it did in 1861 by giving leaders in Washington, DC, a pretext for using the military to crush all opposition. Naturally, those leaders will invoke Lincoln as they suppress freedom and kill Americans.  

Moreover, during its Revolution, France went from absolute monarchy to technocracy. France went from government by nobles and the king, to government by intellectual bureaucrats who still rule the country. Hence, I think a Second American Civil War will move the United States from democracy to technocracy.

So yes I think a Second American Civil War is possible. However, I believe America could avoid a Second Civil War with effective leadership. Unfortunately, I see no effective leadership in America today.