The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we’re talking about when we talk about civil war

The Peace Monument, also known as the Naval Monument or Civil War Sailors Monument, is framed by the Capitol dome on Jan. 4, 2021. (Susan Walsh/AP)

That there has been a broad discussion in recent days of the prospect of civil war in the United States is, by itself, telling. What drives public conversations is often nebulous, but, here, the proximate cause is obvious. One year ago Thursday, a violent mob surged into the Capitol in an effort to block the election of Joe Biden. So we’ve seen a multipronged discussion about the willingness of Americans to engage in acts of political violence and how far that willingness might extend.

For Vox, Zack Beauchamp spoke with a number of historians and political scientists about the possible trajectories on which the country might be headed. Titled “How does this end?,” the essay summarizes the predictions of those with whom he spoke: “hotly contested elections whose legitimacy is doubted by the losing side, massive street demonstrations, a paralyzed Congress, and even lethal violence among partisans.”

A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland tested a related question: Would Americans actually engage in violence against the government? A third of respondents said that, under some circumstances, they might, including 4 in 10 Republicans and independents. That led to understandable hand-wringing about the country’s political future, including from Post opinion columnist Paul Waldman.

But there were also notes of caution. Political scientist Josh Kertzer found one component of Beauchamp’s essay puzzling. “I know a lot of civil war scholars, and… very few of them think the United States is on the precipice of a civil war,” he wrote on Twitter. Meanwhile, journalist Josh Barro thought Waldman’s essay was frustrating. “There’s this whole segment that wants to ‘talk more’ about authoritarianism,” he wrote, describing one facet of the essay — “to what end? Who are you convincing of what?”

Again, that we’re having this conversation is significant. To use a loaded analogy, it strikes me as being akin to essays and ruminations in February 2020 that evaluated how the country might respond to a broad pandemic and the extent to which we were prepared to address it. This is loaded, because it implies that, as with the pandemic, the subject of discussion inexorably followed. But it is also a flawed analogy: The current discussion is like wondering what a pandemic could look like after the pandemic was already underway.

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Last month, I spoke with American University associate professor Thomas Zeitzoff on this subject. His focus is political violence and political psychology, and he had publicly objected to a different Post column elevating the concerns expressed by Barbara F. Walter.

Walter is a professor at the University of California at San Diego who wrote a soon-to-be-published book titled “How Civil Wars Start.” She was also one of the featured experts in Beauchamp’s essay.

Zeitzoff’s objections were varied. One, he explained to me, was that elevating concerns about “civil war” could be self-fulfilling. He used the example of two feuding neighbors who observe each other buying weapons and ammunition. The instinct would be to be similarly prepared — raising the risk of a confrontation. Another objection Zeitzoff offered was that surveys suggesting broad support for violence were often vastly overstating the effect, as demonstrated in part by the rarity of such events: particularly compared with the 1960s and 1970s, he pointed out, a period when political violence was far, far more common.

One of his arguments mirrored that objection Josh Kertzer had to Beauchamp’s essay: “Civil war” means something specific that, while measured differently at different times, implies an extreme manifestation of political violence that, he agreed, was unlikely. Beauchamp himself later noted that his piece didn’t treat “civil war” as the natural endpoint; in fact, Barbara Walter’s use of the term is described as applying “broadly.” Scholarly definitions of “civil war,” Zeitzoff told me, often include benchmarks such as total battle deaths and extended durations of conflict.

In an essay for this paper’s Monkey Cage blog, Rockefeller College professor Julie Novkov pointed out that Americans tend to be blinkered by our own history.

“The U.S. civil war — the only one the country has endured — bore familiar hallmarks: extreme partisan division, geographic sectionalism, and the existence of radically incompatible visions for the role of state and federal government, particularly regarding slavery,” she wrote. “A constitutional crisis, however, need not involve a shooting war.”

This is an essential point, one raised by Zeitzoff and in Beauchamp’s article and by people such as Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan. On Twitter, Nyhan compared the use of “civil war” in this context to broad descriptors of threats to “democracy” (as in Waldman’s essay): There are many waypoints on the path to a years-long interstate shooting war or to a shredding of the Constitution in favor of an authoritarian figurehead, and by positioning the extreme as the only possibility, we can — and do — lose sight of those erosions.

“The next war is going to be more decentralized, fought by small groups and individuals using terrorism and guerrilla warfare to destabilize the country,” Walter told Beauchamp. “We are closer to that type of civil war than most people realize.” (Beauchamp might have been better served had he put “civil war” in quotes in that sentence.)

What’s remarkable here is how much easier it is to visualize that sort of violence than to imagine the Confederated States of MAGA assembling troops near Tallahassee. While much of the rhetoric focused on the Second Amendment involves patriots keeping firearms to ward off an overbearing state, it’s useful to remember that even in the Civil War, the fighting was done on behalf of state entities. Even at the First Battle of Bull Run, the troops were organized into brigades; this was not a take-up-arms-and-head-to-Lexington-Green situation. Instead, Zeitzoff pointed to that violence 50 years ago (bombings by the Weather Underground, for example) and to the takeover of the state Capitol building by right-wing actors in Lansing, Mich., soon after the pandemic emerged in the spring of 2020. These were spaces that didn’t warrant the descriptor of “civil war” but were real threats in which small groups of self-armed individuals engaged in political violence. Decentralized, to Walter’s point. And already present, if not to scale.

One danger lies in responses to this threat that mirror Barro’s. Most Americans are more worried about gas prices and being able to stop worrying about the coronavirus than they are about a collapse in democracy or the prospect of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Ninth New York Regiment getting bogged down at the Battle of Wheeling. The “obsession” with this discussion, he wrote, is “out of touch.”

It is true that Americans are more concerned about day-to-day economics than which definition of “civil war” might best describe the short-term future. But there are at least three reasons that this discussion is demanded.

The first is that there is always space for consideration of political issues that are distinct from immediate concerns of electoral politics. That there are so many people well-versed in the subject believing it to be worth discussion, even if that’s only to dismiss it, suggests that we carve out some time to do so.

The second reason is that elected officials are actively promoting these ideas. Before she was banned from Twitter, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) touted an idea she called “national divorce,” in which some states somehow seceded from the United States to form separate entities. This is a more apt phrase than you might think, presuming an amicability that would almost certainly collapse into something far worse. In other words, it’s functionally indistinguishable from what happened in 1861, something Greene’s colleagues were quick to point out.

It’s the third reason, though, that’s the most potent: The evidence that expanded political violence is already here. We’ve had repeated warnings from federal law enforcement officials about violence from domestic extremists, something that President Biden has made a focus since his inauguration. We saw, one year ago this week, hundreds of people engage in violence targeting law enforcement with the desired aim of upending democracy. On Jan. 6, many Americans were more immediately concerned about gas prices and the coronavirus than about the electoral college vote, but that obviously didn’t make the day’s violence insignificant. Preventing anything similar isn’t insignificant either.

I don’t know how to balance this need with Zeitzoff’s warning about how paying acute attention to the danger might make the danger more likely. I don’t know what the specific policy proposal is here that might lessen the threat, beyond recognizing that some acts of violence are qualitatively different and aimed at a specific political end. But I do know that a good way to answer those questions is to discuss them — and to recognize when the virus is already within our borders.