Civil War or Civil Decline? Can America Save Itself?

Is America about to enter a civil war? Is America in a state of irreversible decline? These are tough questions for Americans, and part of us would like to respond to both: “Heck no!”

Yet even believers in American exceptionalism have to wonder. Freshman Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) laid it on the line in a speech to the Idaho state legislature:

No government has ever survived and no economy has ever survived when the national debt hit 90% of GDP. We will hit 90% in a few years.

Senator Risch, while expressing belief in American exceptionalism, suggested it might have its limits:

Can we survive when no other country has? If Congress doesn’t change its ways, we’re going to find out.

Some might be tempted to dismiss the deep divisions we face as a country with a simple “we’ve had problems before.” Yet the problems we face now are more severe. We face an avalanche of debt, the decline of the family, and cultural divisions perhaps more severe than those America faced in the run-up to the Civil War.

As I see it, there are three potential roads for America to follow:

1. Disunion

America breaking up? It seems far-fetched. Former KGB analyst Igor Panarin thinks this is the year. I wouldn’t bet on 2010, but the possibility of disunion can’t be ignored. Lawrence O’Donnell famously suggested secession after John Kerry lost in 2004. That and the popular Jesusland map both suggest that some on the left would like to take the other half of the country to divorce court.

Today, America is divided, not only by the traditional cultural issues like abortion and same sex marriage, but by the fundamental question of whether we ought to have a paternalistic messiah state that seeks to meet all needs and regulate every affair of life.

America’s Founders understood you could not have a national government trying to make uniform all the customs and laws of places as different as Massachusetts and South Carolina. Yet the federal government has consistently increased its control, laying unfunded mandates on states and localities and using the federal courts to control an ever-widening circle of activities, from marriage laws to what decorations can go in courthouses.

This level of federal control has created tension. Two distinctly different cultural views predominate in our country. One ascending to control invariably leads the other to fear everything it holds dear is about to be devastated by the unruly monster both sides have created. The question, when one looks at disunion, is whether one side will tire of fighting for control of the beast and decide to attempt to escape its grasp.

An actual civil war is unlikely. America was a different place in the 1860s. The population was far more homogeneous, with many folks never having traveled outside their home state. Today, in America, people have moved from all over. The red state and blue state maps fail to capture that there are pockets of liberals and conservatives, secularists and traditionalists, in every region. If there were attempts to secede, the resistance wouldn’t be a northern army marching against the southern rebels, it would be ugly street warfare between neighbors in every state.

If it’s hard to imagine a brother against brother conflict, it’s just as hard to imagine a “peaceful secession” being allowed. Unless America reaches a point of such national impotence, it can’t stop a rebellion in its own borders.

2. Decline

This scenario is happening right now. When people speak of America falling, we picture foreign invasions like in Red Dawn, or we imagine a post-apocalyptic future like in The Postman. Glenn Beck imagines inflation hitting us like the Weimar Republic.

Americans believe if something’s going to knock us down, it’s going to be something grand and massive like Islamofascists taking over or a nuclear holocaust. Yet what is happening is the far more pervasive death that other great powers suffered.

The British Empire is no more, but England still exists as a far weaker power. Four out of five people in the UK declared the nation in moral decline, and a recent YouTube sensation featured MEP Daniel Hannan denouncing Gordon Brown as the “devalued prime minister of a devalued government,” as debt has overrun the British Commonwealth through its unwieldy welfare state.

In ancient times, a declining nation would be overrun by foreign conquerors, but the 21st century is different. Commerce and trade are the order of the day for most nations. Not only is killing your customers bad for business, nation building and empires are expensive enterprises that do nothing to raise your standard of living.