The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new book imagines a looming civil war over the very meaning of America

Journalist Stephen Marche envisions multiple scenarios propelling the country into conflict

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 06, 2021 Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

THE NEXT CIVIL WAR: Dispatches from the American Future

By Stephen Marche. Avid Reader Press. 238 pp. $27.

To glimpse the coming dismemberment of the United States of America, just stop by your local bookstore.

“How Civil Wars Start” by Barbara F. Walter, one of the most-discussed titles of the moment, warns that the signs typically heralding such conflicts are now evident at home. “Divided We Fall” by David French, published weeks before the 2020 election, pictures the cleaving of the United States into two culturally distinct states, united only in their mutual detestation. On the magazine racks, the Atlantic argues that the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol was merely “practice” for the more effective democratic subversion that’s now underway. And on the fiction shelves, you can pick up a paperback of Omar El Akkad’s 2017 novel, “American War,” a grim vision of environmental destruction, youth radicalization, internally displaced populations and biological warfare in the United States, a vision rendered less fashionable only by its timing (here, the second American civil war is not waged until the latter half of the 21st century).

Into this crowd steps Canadian novelist and journalist Stephen Marche with “The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future,” which takes the realities of a politically tribalistic United States — burdened by racial and economic injustice, packed with social resentments, awash with guns — and imagines its move toward all-out conflict. “The background hum of hyper-partisanship, the rage and loathing of everyday American politics, generates a widespread tolerance for violence,” Marche writes. “Eventually somebody acts on it.”

In this telling, the precipitating act of the next civil war is almost incidental, and Marche conjures up several options. It could be a local dispute over the closing of a small-town bridge by federal safety inspectors that escalates into an armed confrontation, forces led by a charismatic sheriff on one side and a decorated general on the other. Or the assassination of a president (no one will expect him to do it, Marche writes of the creepy young killer, yet “no one will be surprised when he does”). Or a natural disaster that upends New York City, overwhelms governmental capacities and sends climate refugees pouring across the country. Or a drone armed with bioweapons that strikes the Capitol. “America is one spectacular act of political violence away from a national crisis,” Marche writes.

Such scenario-spinning is a staple of the Civil War redux and secessionist lit. French’s book imagines California breaking off over gun laws or Texas splitting away over abortion disputes, while Walter’s envisions multiple bombings of state capitol buildings after the 2028 presidential election, leading to domestic terrorism and even attempts at ethnic cleansing. There is a horrifying yet normalizing quality to such discussions. The more often cable news chyrons, think tank analyses, political rhetoric and nonfiction works elevate the discussion of a new civil war, the more inevitable such an outcome may seem, and the more fatalistic the public may feel. It’s not clear that fanciful scenarios are all that necessary; one year ago, we witnessed a real-life spectacular act of political violence against the U.S. Capitol, carried live on television, while a recent Washington Post-UMD poll finds that one-third of Americans say violence against the government can be justified.

Oddly, given his book’s title, Marche oscillates between certitude about a coming civil war (we are already on its “threshold,” he warns, and any catalyzing event will appear “a logical outcome to the trends of the country”) and the belief that we can avoid it (“none of the crises described in this book are beyond the capacity of Americans to solve,” he writes, as long as we recapture the spirit of a country “devoted to reinvention”). Marche’s final two chapters are titled “The End of the Republic” and “A Note on American Hope.” When you’re betting on the end of the American experiment, a little hedge doesn’t hurt.

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After all, the U.S. of A. has survived local-federal standoffs, domestic terrorism, natural disasters and presidential assassinations before. Why would today be different? Marche ticks through the circumstances that, in his view, heighten the risks: extreme political and geographic polarization; the particular radicalization of the right; drought and other climate-related crises; deepening racial resentments and injustices; technological and informational silos; the proliferation of guns; and obscene levels of economic inequality. “Every society in human history with levels of inequality like those in the United States today has descended into war, revolution, or plague,” Marche contends.

Given how many societies have experienced some form of war, revolution or plague, regardless of their inequality statistics, such a warning may be less ominous than it first appears. Indeed, Marche’s brisk writing sometimes falls into spirals of political and cultural buzzwords. The aftermath of a presidential assassination, for example, would produce “an ever-hardening version of soft autocracy riddled with violent grievance politics born out of a sense of institutional illegitimacy.” (It’s like death-of-democracy Mad Libs.)

Yet Marche does hit on a more fundamental tension, one that underlies so many of our divides: “Each side accuses the other of hating America, which is only another way of saying that both hate what the other means by America.” Even fledgling separatists, he notes, take pains to assure that their efforts are consistent with the Constitution, with American traditions. (“It’s genuinely weird,” Marche admits.) A future civil war will be a fight “to preserve a coherent definition of America itself.” It will be, he concludes, “a war over meaning.”

And what is that meaning? “Difference is the core of the American experience,” Marche argues. “Difference is its genius. There has never been a country — in history, in the world — so comfortable with difference.” But now that comfort, to the extent that it ever truly existed, has become insufferable irritation, and that American genius, national zealotry. Disillusioned and angry, some citizens “don’t want America’s differences,” Marche writes. “They can no longer tolerate America’s contradictions.”

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Marche stresses the contradictions involving culture and race and history and national identity, of enslavers who extolled freedom and equality, or of a country that has imagined itself both a White settler republic and a multicultural democracy. These battles over meaning have animated past American conflicts — not just Marche’s “next” civil war but the first one, too. Yet such contradictions are embedded throughout the American story. Think of the ways the country has perceived itself throughout its history, and what such notions mean today. The land of opportunity, but denying it to many. A nation of immigrants, finding new ways to be unwelcoming. American ingenuity, creating sophisticated engines of division and misinformation. The land of the free, with a system of mass incarceration. The aspirations that have defined us threaten to rip us apart.

Books on the threats to the American experiment come in waves, each new theme more treacherous than the one before. Polarization books. Democratic-decline books. Now, the new civil war literature. But we don’t have to browse the latest titles to find fears of disunion. We can revisit instead some of the earliest and most enduring American prose.

George Washington’s farewell address of Sept. 19, 1796, was, overwhelmingly, a plea to preserve a united country. “Your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty . . . the love of the one ought to endear you to the preservation of the other,” he declared. Washington foresaw how the malign influence of parties and factions “agitates the Community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

Such admonitions find resonance at a moment when one major American party has grown unmoored from democratic observance, when too many of its partisans uphold false conspiracies that can propel supporters toward violence against the union. Whether it portends civil war or lesser forms of conflict, the tragedy of Jan. 6 is not just the assault of that day and the lies that produced it, but what it signals for days to come. As our first president warned when explaining his intention to relinquish the office, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People, and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his recent book reviews, including:

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