The United States is going through a profound transition to which there are only difficult and costly choices. In this latest book on America’s political chaos, we are taken deep into the future of an unacceptable but perhaps unavoidable breakup of the union.
Is America close to civil war, and how will the next one occur? There is no single model to predict civil war, however the conditions that can precipitate them are well known. Major inequality, the erosion of civil society, government ineffectiveness and tyranny, corruption, and disillusionment with existing institutions are the most important ones. To be sure, these are the themes currently unfolding in the United States of America.
In this latest book by novelist and journalist Stephen Marche, civil war and disunion are unmistakeably on the horizon. America’s leaders have neither the stomach nor the wherewithal to undertake what would certainly be an ugly and disruptive turnaround from the current trajectory, at least not while an entrenched and hostile partisanship has hijacked the policy space. As Marche writes, it is difficult to obtain consensus on important constitutional issues when 45 percent of Republicans now believe the opposing party “is a threat to the nation’s wellbeing” (p. 86). What is becoming clearer about such scenarios is that America’s next civil war will not look like other civil wars. There will likely be no contestation of opposing armies. According to Marche, it will instead be a gradual erosion of authority and a breakdown of political institutions.
The author builds a picture of the unfolding event – styled as “dispatches” from the future – to narrate the unthinkable. In terms of a timeframe, the author suggests this could take place in 15 years, but the scenario could be tomorrow. It all begins over a bridge in a small southern town. The local sheriff stands off against federal authorities; militia from all over the country begin moving in. The story blows up into a nationwide public relations disaster, leaving the sheriff a social media star and darling of the political right. This sets the scene for a general decapitation of government, driven in no small part by its inability to curb all manner of hate speech, half-truths, and lies. Chinese infiltration of the Army, Jewish cabals, the CIA, alien invasions – the pregnant fantasies of contemporary conspiracists (think pizzagate) – are all aspects of the current information climate. Indeed, to some extent, Marche describes the next civil war as an information war. In this model of societal breakdown, the perversions of an outdated constitution require the government to “wage war without waging war” (p. 62). The instruments of peace (the ability to curb hate speech and conspiracy theories, and implement gun control) are beyond the workable tools of the administration and Congress. The impasse is the driver of further anti-government malcontent.
The author expertly navigates the current themes of popular drama and institutional crises. In his narrative, the Democratic president (who is a woman) is assassinated by a socially disturbed youth – a Sandy Hook, Uvalde, or Charleston mass-shooter-type. In America, the record is one successful assassination every 11 presidents (Kennedy was ten presidents ago!). It is, as the author states, the deadliest job in the country. Unlike previous assassinations, this time there is no national unity, no collective mourning. The Tucker Carlsons of the far-right media suggest the president had it coming. Some suggest it was an inside job. Almost no expressed topic, feeling, or accusation is beyond permissible. This is the beginning of what the author styles as disunity, the eventual breakup of America.
If all this sounds too close to home, it is. Like the most chilling Black Mirror episodes, the storyline is all too plausible. The reader bears witness not to a perfect storm of tragedies, but rather to extreme ordinariness. Each event has happened before, although what is different today is the degree to which the shockwaves are capable of regenerating, fuelling increasingly more anti-government outbursts. It is an allegory of the daily violence in America and of the failure of an electoral system that prizes gerrymandering, voter suppression, and malapportionment as methods of control.
This scenario is made more fearsome by several threat multipliers. The state of institutionalised inequality in American is a paramount source of constant antipathy. Wages have been stagnating since the 1990s. Healthcare for many is simply unreachable; in many states the average life expectancy has been going backwards. The gap between the rich and poor has returned to 1774 levels, says Marche. In economic downturns, government policies invariably bail out the irresponsible – the wealthy. The poor are subsequently locked under a credit crunch with diminishing capacity to sustain consumption. Meanwhile, climate change has fanned the flames of chaos and increasingly extreme droughts and storms have pushed many to become food insecure.
The obvious result is disillusionment with and distrust of the government. The author offers COVID-19 and the 6 January Congress riots as examples or “pretests.” In the latter, members of Congress couldn’t even agree to investigate the violent extremists who threatened their lives and attacked their place of work, notes Marche. As for COVID-19, “At a moment when the safety of each individual required the most basic collective action (to wear a mask) Americans refused to stop infighting,” (p. 113) even though it would save lives.
The node at the centre of this eventual destruction is the fact that America has always existed as two countries, divided between those that wholeheartedly accepted the values promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and those that seek freedom from it. On this point, the founding fathers and those that came after can be better described as Matryoshka Dolls, mythologised into something more than human, less duplicitous. How else can one explain Thomas Jefferson’s championship of human rights and his ownership of slaves? The Civil War was about trying to save the union, not freeing the African American slaves. The Compromise of 1877 is evidence that a precarious unity was always more important than fair and free democracy. Add to this that the Constitution bears no resemblance to current realities. Indeed, there is no recognition, verbally by Congress at least, that it must be changed. Here, America is a true outlier. No other democratic nation subjects its citizens to such anachronism.
Is Marche’s scenario believable? One imagines there will be little reception for such arguments and prognostications in Washington DC. The author offers one (albeit very convincing) scenario among many others not considered. Moreover, the US has shown a stubborn ability to overcome the faults of its forebears and the many challenges of modernity. It is unique for this quality and for its ability to allow the revision of its own past, however slow. Still, Marche’s key points are difficult to deny. The rot is deep. Much as the Frenchmen Alexis de Tocqueville captured the mood and behaviour of American democracy in 1835, Marche, originally from Canada, has done remarkable job capturing the modern erosion of it. More than this, the book adds to a growing and chilling literature articulating and demonstrating the growing failure of democracy in America.
This is a review of Stephen Marche, The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future (Avid Reader Press, 2022). ISBN: 9781982123215 (Hardcover).
Dr Adam Bartley is a Fulbright Scholar and resident fellow at the Elliot School for International Affairs, the George Washington University. In addition to this, he is a post-doctoral fellow at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and program manager of the AI Trilateral Experts Group. He is also managing editor for AIIA’s Australian Outlook. Twitter: @AaBartley
This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.