Before supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, I dismissed talk of an American Armageddon — “This country is headed for another civil war!” — as the irrational ravings of the paranoid. But, while civil war seems ridiculously far-fetched, there’s apparently a fair amount of concern that the current political climate presages one.
Recall that, during Barack Obama’s tenure, conservative activists in eight southern states wanted to secede rather than live in a country with a Black president. After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, there was a secessionist movement by liberals in California. Obviously, neither happened, but they revealed extreme opposition to both presidents and organized resistance to accepting election results.
Still, I never gave secession or the prospect of a full-metal rebellion a second thought.
But since Trump’s defeat and the attack on the Capitol to keep Congress from confirming Joe Biden’s electoral victory, there’s been more talk of “civil war,” expressed as both threat and fear. The Zogby polling outfit decided to conduct a survey a few weeks after the Capitol riot and found that 46% of likely voters believed the country would experience civil war. And that view was held just about equally by Democrats, Republicans and independents.
I take that as a measure of American despondency — that, in a politically divided and violent nation with more guns than people, almost half of us expect things to get worse before they get better.
In an essay in The American Scholar, historian and author Richard Striner, a former professor at Washington College, wrote that the prospect of several states seceding, as southern states did after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, might seem unthinkable. “But then,” Striner added, “we are now thinking about so many things that would have seemed unthinkable only months ago.”
Striner wrote those words shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Since then, the divisions have become pronounced — red states versus blue states; urban versus rural; white supremacists versus everyone else; Trump cult versus Democratic Party; believers in the Big Lie versus the millions who know Biden won the 2020 election convincingly; and, in the pandemic, the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.
We narrowly escaped a constitutional meltdown over the transfer of power in January, and the fact that the insurrection failed is hardly comforting. With Trump itching for a comeback, with Republicans more interested in sabotage than in governing, we remain at the brink of crisis described in the darkest terms by Robert Kagan in a recent Washington Post essay that warned of “incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”
According to polls, majorities of Republicans worship Trump, refuse to accept Biden as the legitimate president and subscribe to lies about the integrity of elections. With such persistent polarization in the country, with legislatures in red states passing laws that make it harder for people to vote, it becomes a fair question: Can the union hold?
I put a hypothetical question to Mark Graber, Regents Professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an expert in the Constitution: Could the legislatures of several southern states vote to secede and form a separate country, and could such an action lead to civil war?
Graber, who earlier spent several years teaching government and politics, came back with a reality check: The divide in 1860 was clear; it was sectional, South versus North, slave states versus free states. “The main divide today is urban-rural,” Graber said. “Lincoln got no votes anywhere in the deep South. While the more mountainous regions were opposed to secession, they were also opposed to Republicans.” (Lincoln was a Republican, but unlike any we know of today.)
“By comparison,” Graber went on, “Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, Austin and other metropolitan areas will rise up if those states attempt secession today. We are badly divided, but the divisions exist within states as well as between them.”
Graber notes that some former slave states that were overwhelmingly opposed to Lincoln now have significant numbers of moderate and liberal Democrats. So the lines are not drawn as easily as they were in 1860.
But, for the sake of the argument — and this column — let’s say a section of states managed by referendum to secede. Could the president stop them?
“The president by law has the right to combat an insurrection with military force,” Graber said. “Whether a president would be wise to do this is another issue.”
As Striner pointed out, Lincoln, who believed in “perpetual union,” convinced the Northern States that secession was treason. Hundreds of thousands died to preserve the union.
After the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled secession unconstitutional, but that decision would be meaningless to breakaway states.
William Gale and Darrell West, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, examined the civil war question recently and concluded that, despite Republican claims of electoral fraud and efforts to suppress voting, we will resolve our conflicts through the ballot box, not combat. “The rule of law remains strong,” they wrote, noting that the president and federal government have the power to put down insurrection and punish those who engage in violence.
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So I don’t believe we’re headed for civil war and, instead, agree with Graber about what’s more likely — less bloody but just as disastrous — if we remain on our present course: A country increasingly ungovernable.