In the News: Civil War Is Coming … Again … or Not

(Mark Graves/The Oregonian via AP)

Civil war speculation is in the news again. Hardly a week goes by without some “expert” telling us we’re on the literal brink of armed conflict, and only a miracle can save us.


Or maybe not. Maybe we’re projecting our own fears onto the political situation and it’s all a mirage. Or perhaps, in a great, big, grownup industrialized country like the United States, armed conflict isn’t even possible.

What does it say about us that, around every corner, we see signs of a possible violent schism that would rip the country asunder? There are already a frighteningly large number of people on the right and left who think that violence against the government is sometimes justified. More than half of Donald Trump voters think it’s time for a red/blue split.

This is not a question of “cooler heads will prevail.” In case you haven’t noticed, there are no “cooler heads” on either side — not anyone of consequence, anyway. In fact, both sides see cooler heads as traitors to be canceled, or worse.

The most telling evidence is the unpopularity of “moderate” Joe Biden, who ran on being a cooler head than Donald Trump, and instead had his cooler head handed to him on a platter by the partisans.

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But still, there would need to be some kind of seismic event to overcome the stability — fragile though it may be — inherent in the American system.


The Conversation:

Individuals or groups may have grievances with specific state or national policies, or with other groups. As their anger grows, these people may not only use aggressive and demeaning language, but also become more accepting of the idea of using violence.

Anger and grievances are probably the most frequently highlighted issues in the mainstream media, and especially in social media outlets. Studies of social media outlets have found that their algorithms are designed to amplify anger to appeal to wider groups.

Aggrieved people, however, exist almost everywhere, even in the world’s happiest countries. Feeling aggrieved and even using harsh and violent rhetoric does not mean a person is willing to take up arms against the government or one’s fellow citizens.

Then there are the costs of actually joining a rebellion, including the likelihood of being on the losing side and forfeiting everything you’ve built over your lifetime.

Joining a rebellion is extremely risky. You can die or be severely wounded. Your chances of winning are low. If you don’t win, even if you survive unscathed, you still risk prosecution and social alienation. You may lose your job, your savings and even your home and put your family at risk.

It doesn’t matter how angry you are, these considerations are usually prohibitive.

All these calculations are part of what economists call “opportunity costs.” Opportunity costs basically measure how much you would have to potentially give up if you were to engage in a given activity, such as rebellion.


It’s easy to forget that, in the American Revolution, less than a third of colonists actively supported the revolt against the British. Another third actively supported the Crown. The revolutionaries did indeed pledge “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,” with an emphasis on the first two. Several wealthy signers of the Declaration of Independence went broke supporting the revolution or lost everything when the British took vengeance on their houses and estates.

It’s not impossible to imagine hundreds of thousands of citizens fighting each other for control of the country, but it would take a social or economic cataclysm to make it happen. More likely would be sporadic but still deadly small-scale violence against red or blue forces.



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