Back in high school when most of us studied the Civil War (usually briefly and superficially), it was hard to get our heads around the extent to which Americans held wildly different world-views. I remember my own inability to understand how so many Southerners (and not a few Northerners) fervently believed their skin color entitled them to own another human being.
At the time of the Civil War, a majority of people willing to defend the institution of slavery lived below the Mason-Dixon Line, a geographic reality that made it possible to take up arms against those who disagreed. Today, most of the divisions we face lack that geographic clarity. Although it’s true that we have Red States and Blue States, we also have bright blue cities in those Red States, and Blue States have pockets of rural Red voters. So our current Civil War–and I don’t think that is too strong a descriptor–is a “Cold War,” being fought primarily with propaganda, but threatening to erupt into assaults like the January 6th insurrection.
Most readers of this blog are well aware of the recent speech given by former General Michael Flynn, at an event for QAnon believers that featured other representatives of LaLaLand like Texas Representative Louis Gohmert.
As the New York Times reported,
Michael T. Flynn, a former national security adviser, suggested that a military coup was needed in the United States during a Memorial Day weekend conference organized by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, drawing criticism from political scientists, veterans, Democrats and a handful of prominent Republicans.
I don’t know how many of the Southerners who ultimately took up arms in America’s first Civil War actually believed in the core precepts of slavery and “the White Man’s burden,” but thanks to advances in polling and survey research, we have a fairly accurate understanding of the percentage of our fellow-Americans who claim to believe QAnon nonsense.
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 14 percent of Americans, including about one in four Republicans, believed in three central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory: that the United States is being run by a cabal of Satanist pedophiles, that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to get rid of that cabal, and that a “storm” will soon “restore the rightful leaders.”
In a robust democracy, fourteen percent of the population can be bat-shit crazy without endangering the Union–but we don’t have a robust democracy. As over one hundred political science scholars recently wrote, the attacks on voting underway in several states are transforming democratic decision-making into “political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.” The scholars warn that “our entire democracy is now at risk.”
Ezra Klein recently reminded readers that Democrats face an unforgiving context:
Their coalition leans young, urban and diverse, while America’s turnout patterns and electoral geography favor the old, rural and white. According to FiveThirtyEight, Republicans hold a 3.5 point advantage in the Electoral College, a 5-point advantage in the Senate and a 2-point advantage in the House. Even after winning many more votes than Republicans in 2018 and 2020, they are at a 50-50 split in the Senate, and a bare 4-seat majority in the House. Odds are that they will lose the House and possibly the Senate in 2022.
This is the fundamental asymmetry of American politics right now: To hold national power, Democrats need to win voters who are right-of-center; Republicans do not need to win voters who are left-of-center. Even worse, Republicans control the election laws and redistricting processes in 23 states, while Democrats control 15. The ongoing effort by Texas Republicans to tilt the voting laws in their favor, even as national Republicans stonewall the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, is testament to the consequences of that imbalance.
This is how a Cold Civil War is conducted. Although there may be scattered bloodshed a la January 6th, the actual battles–the coups favored by crackpots like Flynn and Gohmert and numerous other Republicans– are taking place in state-level legislative bodies where the will of the majority has been neutered by gerrymandering and on media platforms where facts are twisted or sacrificed to feed the appetites–and generate the rage– of angry old White guys.
What is really terrifying is the likelihood that this current iteration of Civil War will be won or lost with most Americans totally unaware that it is even being fought….