The Second Civil War
The potential overturning of Roe v. Wade last week sent shockwaves through the political system. Protestors gathered and clashed at the Supreme Court. Democrats and Republicans tried as quickly as they could to respond to the ruling, with either sleight-of-hand or federal legislation. The pundit class started an interminable discussion about what the Court could do next and what further long-cherished precedents it could overturn.
Social media and pundits did not stop at simply analyzing the circumstances of the decision and its terrible impact on millions of American women. They also decided to game out all of the possible implications of the decision, primarily the possibility that tensions over abortion rights might inflame current political polarization. The go-to comparison is another civil war, a repeat of the conflict that tore that country apart from 1861 to 1865. Former labor secretary Robert Reich used the term “second civil war” to describe the parties after the Roe reversal. He did not predict an immediate shooting conflict, but rather noted that the country was going through a “kind of benign separation analogous to unhappily married people who don’t want to go through the trauma of a formal divorce.” Twitter users were much less reserved than Reich, with manyeither predicting an imminent war over the decision or openly calling for one.
It would be one thing if this rush to civil war comparisons was restricted to this particular debate. But in fact, the comparison emerges during nearly every heated moment in American politics. Publications such as Time, The Guardian, and the New Republic have devoted numerous articles to debating the possibility of the United States devolving into civil war over the past year, often from a liberal perspective. The idea has seeped into general discussions, political campaigns, and even prominent literary works. It is an omnipresent part of political discussion, as inevitable in social media discourse as Hitler comparisons and the debate over civility in protests.
The rush to proclaim another civil war is a symptom of ahistorical thinking common in the social media age. Several factors combine to push this sort of crude analogy. Historical knowledge is limited in the general public, meaning that many readers are not familiar with more obscure allusions from American history. American historians either are not on social media or are siloed into their own subfields that are not readily applicable to most substantial news stories. Furthermore, social media amplifies the voices that can garner the most shares, likes, clicks, and retweets. Sober, level-headed analysis is often subsumed under the most outrageous, vivid, provocative posts. The idea that the debate of the day can result in an outright war, one that could kill half a million people and reshape the entire social fabric in four years, is about as outrageous as a post can get. It is, therefore, a quick source of popularity.
It is understandable that Americans may view today’s debates as the precursor of another civil war. Americans are as politically polarized as they have been in decades. Social media and our current news ecosystem have created an atmosphere where every day seems to be the worst that has ever existed. The past six years have been host to a pandemic, massive protests over racial justice, and a political leader who has reshaped the country to suit his simplistic, rage-filled worldview. Furthermore, it seems as though this debate has a territorial component to it. There are now “red states” and “blue states,” states that rejected Trump and plan to protect abortion rights and those that pursued the opposite course of action.
But comparing our current situation with the leadup to the Civil War shows a lack of historical thinking. It betrays our profound internal differences and the numerous splits that Americans have overcome over the past two centuries. The nation has always been divided, even during the tenure of its very first president, George Washington. Political leaders have been predicting civil war and the end of the republic ever since the 1790s. The idea that a current political division could split the country applied during debates over Jefferson’s presidency, the War of 1812, and the immediate context of nullification. In 1801, as a response to a law repealing a number of judgeships, Federalist leader Gouverneur Morris predicted the end of the country if the bill passed:
I stand in the presence of Almighty God and of the world, and I declare to you that if you lose this charter, never, no, never will you get another! We are now, perhaps, arrived at the parting point. Here, even here, we stand on the brink of fate. Pause! Pause! For Heaven’s sake, pause!
Following the one contest that did lead to war, a host of other issues were supposed to lead to its sequel. Reconstruction has been referred to as a “second civil war” by some historians, although the horrific acts of violence during that period were at a much smaller scale than, say, the Battles of Gettysburg or Cold Harbor. The Populist revolt was a potential second civil war, a conflict in which the side out of power even had its own makeshift army, known as Coxey’s Army. Time and again, political leaders have predicted another civil war precisely at the moment when the nation’s problems seemed the most intractable. With the one very specific exception of 1861–1865, those predictions have turned out to be untrue.
Liberals need to stop talking about a “second civil war.” They need to focus on finding the right set of policies and messages that will help them recruit candidates and win elections both in 2022 and 2024. They need to harness the power of grassroots movements and protests, threading the needle between denouncing violence and supporting peaceful gatherings. Finally, liberals need to embrace the lessons of history and avoid the cheap political points and clickbait that lead so many to discuss another war between American citizens. Focusing on unity and success is more productive than spilling so much digital ink over the one time in American history when the country could not solve its problems without war.