This essay was originally published on SamoBurja.com. You can access the original here.
Every now and then I hear people express concern that political polarization might lead to a new American Civil War.
Such concerns should not be immediately dismissed. The consequences of a civil war are grave. Such wars can be very bloody and wipe out decades of prosperity. They can be accompanied by revolutions that radically change the governance of a country, often for the worse. If the state remains united, the aftermath is usually one of political centralization.
Civil war can also be followed by the disintegration of the state. History shows that even Great Powers are not immune. The term describing such processes, Balkanization, isn’t merely an abstraction to me. Rather it describes the backdrop of my childhood. I was born in 1988 in the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, a constituent republic of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. This country no longer exists. And while Slovenia itself did rather well, the Yugoslav Wars were a disaster for the region. Will the same be said of California one day?
Since the end of history hasn’t arrived, we must seriously evaluate such scenarios every now and then. Setting aside material interests or the general good, evaluating such political risks can be important for personal safety.
It is an interesting question whether America is actually politically polarized, but for the sake of argument let’s say it is. To evaluate the possibility of an American civil war, we should first understand the origin of civil wars in general. You cannot defer to indicators such as pundit statements or perceived public sentiment.
If organic public sentiment drove war and peace, there would be far fewer wars, and the wars that would be fought would be much more stupid and destructive (admittedly the bar is pretty low in that respect already). There does not seem to be a plausible candidate for a popular peace movement that successfully prevented a war.
War is driven by the interests of the powerful. In some societies the powerful might be military officers, in others they are priests, and in others they are diplomats. The incentives and requirements of these people are in turn determined by factors such as geopolitical position, the power landscape, demographics, office politics, party politics, and resources.
Sometimes the political necessities are mostly local — perhaps an attempt to change the distribution of prestige within the elite, or an attempt by an office-holder in a republican system to accumulate power under war measures. When power is secure locally, the factors such people respond to will be more distant. Considerations like the international balance of power or expected future technological development come into practical focus. The interests of elites coming into alignment with raison d’État.
These distant longer term considerations can produce unintuitive political necessities. An example are aspirational wars. They are similar to aspirational products, such as a luxury car or designer handbag, which a large audience wishes to own but cannot afford. Such wars are not imminently necessary, but they demonstrate serious ambition for the enlargement or maintenance of national greatness. This demonstration alone can be very valuable.
For example, the Italian Empire’s wars against Ethiopia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were economically and strategically dubious, but undertaken to lay claim to a destiny comparable to that of Britain or France. That particular effort proved folly, but national greatness can be indispensable for recruiting and coordinating the ambitious and the exceptional. If the greatest minds in Italy don’t see a path to greatness through aiding the Italian state, then they are liable to apply their talents elsewhere.
Ultimately, whatever the political incentives may be, political players must still act for events to unfold. The skill of such players thus limits the range of events that can take place. As an example, a war to preserve national grandeur will not happen unless someone is skilled at laying claim to preserving such greatness.
Though political players — not the public — cause wars, players pursuing war will nearly always drum up public support for war because support is useful. It helps maintain morale in organizations relevant to the war effort the war and provides moral cover to those pursuing it (“The people want war, not I!”). It is also not very difficult to bring about. Politicians and philosophers since ancient times have observed that public opinion can reliably be shifted to favor the start of war.
Popular pro-war sentiment will usually be manufactured through news, speeches and — on a long enough timescale — education. Even merely talking about a proposed war makes pursuing it more popular. The methods may have changed — from pamphleteering to radio and most recently to social media — but they have only become more effective and more centralized over time.
The way to distinguish empty bellicose sentiment from real ramp-up to war is preparation. If there is a party spreading war sentiment, but this party is not preparing logistics for war (financial, industrial, diplomatic, raising armies) then the sentiment is not a sufficient sign of war.
These facts about war in general apply to civil wars as well. If these fundamentals are in place, a player can trigger a civil war through directly challenging the entrenched institutions that in their normal operations respond with violence.
There are three usual and two marginal kinds of civil war:
Now to examine if any of the above are plausible in the United States today.
Given that none of the historical mechanisms look plausible in today’s US, why are fears of an American civil war so common? I think it goes back to the mythologies of our age. We want to believe governments are responsive to their populations, a kind of political supply and demand. When we see rhetoric or cultural tensions, it intuitively seems plausible this kind of demand will be met with instant organizational supply.
Someone on Twitter posts incendiary rhetoric and, lacking better models, we feel a twinge of anxiety. Looking at political and organizational fundamentals is reassuring. Naturally such fundamentals can move quickly, on a scale of a few years, but have a pace and signature different than this mentioned ‘political demand’. Neither personal authority nor large scale logistics are built in a flash of emotions.
To see how ephemeral those are consider: Can you remember the most prominent tweet of last year? Taking a break at times from hectic national conversation, driven by social identity and emotion, to look at fundamentals offers us a better way to address anxieties and set our expectations for the future. Why forgo it?
Read more from Samo Burja here.