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I read a whole lot of January 6th columns and reportage this past week. One stood out to me as extra bizarre: a piece by John F. Harris in Politico called “We Are In a New Civil War … About What Exactly?” He lays out the premise in the sub-headline: “Grievous conflicts have been about big things—war, slavery, Depression—but this time we just don’t like each other.” I suspect the whole column came from the germ of an idea to compare modern politics to the television program Seinfeld, via the whole “a show about nothing” frame.
Harris argues that our current political conflicts are now “so profound that, as in the 1860s, democracy, constitutional order and union itself are in peril.” He calls this “a big deal, indeed.”
But I don’t believe Harris when he says he thinks it’s a big deal. Partly because he begins the article by noting that Civil War comparisons used to be a third rail in American political discourse, but that now they’re much more common. This might be an uncharitable interpretation of his tone, but my read of the line (and the rest of the article) is that he sees the civil-war rhetoric as hyperbolic.
Harris says throughout the piece that there is no real cause or ideology underlying our political divide. In his explanation, the mysterious fracture in American civic life is a Trump-related psychosis. He references the true Civil War of the 1860s and the Vietnam War as Real Conflicts. These stark events, he writes, “featured profound ideological and moral questions—easily visible to the naked eye, in the present and to historians afterward.” He goes on to say that, unlike the legible conflicts of the past, today’s political schisms have “both sides believing the other would turn the United States into something unrecognizable—with no obvious and easily summarized root cause.”
In other words, when it comes to existential national crises ... they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
Harris is right that slavery and the Vietnam War were sprawling societal issues and conflicts that were both quite bad and, as such, relatively easy to reduce into a tidy historical narratives. He’s just wrong most everywhere else. With hindsight and vast oversimplification, almost anything is easy to reduce into a tidy historical narrative. I’m no historian, and I won’t LARP as one here, but my most rudimentary understanding of the vocation is that it is the synthesis of economic, sociological, political, cultural, and demographic data and anecdata to make sense of the past. Good history, in my experience reading it, weaves together a coherent narrative while also highlighting the complexities therein. Good history reveals to the reader how large-scale conflicts are always the product of hundreds of smaller decisions, forces, and ideologies. Many of those ideologies often start out malleable and harden over time.
But Harris seems to be looking at our current American struggle through the lens of an elementary-school history textbook—one that synthesizes the complex narrative into a series of causal events and punctuates them with cinematic battles and marquee moments and action that comes to a resolution. It’s the 30,000-foot view of history. The Michael Bay version. From this reductive vantage, Harris’s narrative is: Trump wins presidency. Trump drives people crazy. Everyone hates everyone else. Goons storm the Capitol (which, for the record, was a truly jarring spectacle). Everyone continues to be mad. Roll credits.
I agree with Harris that this reductive view of our political climate is boring. But it’s only boring because it is the most incurious possible way to look at American life in 2022. I thought these two paragraphs in Harris's piece explain my point:
Harris seems to believe that the Right’s delight in offending its opposition is little more than garden-variety trolling. Harris is unable or unwilling to connect the Right’s contempt for their political enemy (part of the “own the libs” mentality) to the white-grievance politics he lists as a “semi-plausible” reason for Trump’s rise and our growing political polarization. Using a traditional Beltway lens, Harris sees Trump as ideologically inconsistent, and therefore assumes that Trump has no ideology and that his supporters must be drawn only to the aesthetics of Trumpism. What he seems not to understand is that the Right’s animus toward the Left is part of the ideology, and that ideology is linked to the sociological and economic and demographic theories he dismisses.
If one is actually curious about American life outside of Trump’s cult of personality, one can find ample reasons for division. One can look at sweeping demographic changes and how the country is diversifying more rapidly than previously predicted. One can look at troubling cultural trends like how, between 2005 and 2019, an average of 70,000 Americans died annually from “deaths of despair,” such as overdose and suicide. One could look at the widening racial wealth gap, deepening economic inequality, gridlock and corruption in government, and industry that drives resentment of elites. Here is one rich example from scholars Peter Turchin and Jack A. Goldstone, who built an economic model to try to predict political upheaval. For years, they’ve been arguing that we were headed for a “turbulent ’20s”:
In the last twenty years, real median household income has stagnated, while the loss of high-paying blue-collar jobs to technology and globalization has meant a decline in real wages for many workers, especially less educated men.
As a result, American politics has fallen into a pattern that is characteristic of many developing countries, where one portion of the elite seeks to win support from the working classes not by sharing the wealth or by expanding public services and making sacrifices to increase the common good, but by persuading the working classes that they are beset by enemies who hate them (liberal elites, minorities, illegal immigrants) and want to take away what little they have. This pattern builds polarization and distrust and is strongly associated with civil conflict, violence and democratic decline.
One doesn’t even have to agree with any specific piece of information here to look at American life and see our conflicts are not merely about nothing.
If you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering why this one bad take is worth a thousand words of my newslettering. Fair!
What worries me about Harris’s view is that there’s a large enough constituency of people who—like Harris, the founding editor of Politico—are powerful and also subscribe to the notion that our current conflict is mostly without reason and even, perhaps, overinflated. That matters for a few reasons, the first being that it is impossible to try to find solutions to a conflict you believe is rooted in a mysterious mass psychosis of contempt. I see a parallel here in some of our conversations around online misinformation. As I wrote recently, many members of the press and political establishment are so focused on the supply side of our information morass (the many grifters and opportunists who produce online garbage, and the technology platforms that distribute it) that we neglect to recognize the misery that might be creating a demand for it. Our leaders are searching for overly simple explanations for complex societal problems—and they’re not looking in the mirror.
The second reason the Harris piece unnerves me is that it could foreshadow an institutional backlash that portrays those worried about insurgent violence as hysterical neurotics. I worry that the glut of January 6th content and the pleas from scholars and activists that democracy is in trouble will trigger a reflexive contrarian instinct from mainstream pundits and politicians. Like Harris, they will use the unique circumstances of the Civil War to suggest that the notion of a modern protracted civil conflict is ridiculous. (In a 2019 New York Times column, I myself used flippant language about the idea of this country heading toward an 1860s-style Civil War, despite being quite concerned about insurgency at the time. I did this partly because I was worried about sounding alarmist. A mistake!) This backlash will attempt to paint concerns about right-wing extremism at scale as part of an exaggerated doomer mindset.
We’re going through a version of this style of backlash right now in COVID discourse. Omicron has created new divisions among those who are pro-vaccine. One group has adopted a mindset that COVID is mild enough for a vaccinatedandboosted individual—and not lethal enough for those under five, who can’t yet be vaccinated—that the logical position is for most everyone to revert to normalcy. Derek Thompson recently coined a name for this group: “Vaxxed and Done.”
Online, this camp often portrays more cautious individuals as an overly neurotic bunch who cling to the pandemic or want to be locked down indefinitely. The implication is that the cautious crowd is not behaving logically. But what’s often left out of that conversation are the complicating factors behind the cautiousness: unknowns about long COVID; the strain on ERs and hospital systems amid large caseloads, and its effect on elective surgeries and care; the impact on immunocompromised and disabled communities. The vast majority of concerned and cautious COVID individuals are not hysterical shut-ins who love lockdowns; they are individuals who tend to view their individual decisions through a collective lens. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than anyone else, but it does suggest that their lower tolerance for risk is, indeed, a rational response.
Similarly, alarmism about the anti-democratic movement feels like a rational response when one takes into account the events leading up to and after 1/6/21. When people wring their hands about civil war, they aren't talking about two sides lining up in blue and gray and meeting at dawn on battlefields. They’re referring to politically motivated violence and insurgency—the type of force that increases in likelihood as the sales of firearms sales or militia activity grows. They’re using “civil war” as a shorthand for what happens when people believe that our differences cannot be solved by traditional modes of government and democracy. It’s a phrase that aims to communicate how intractable our ideologies feel and how high the stakes feel. It’s meant to convey a sense of alarm.
As with parts of the COVID conversation, I fear that we could get trapped in a rhetorical and political cycle that focuses so much on individual decisions that we ignore our collective responsibilities. It’s important to have a shared language to describe our democracy crisis but getting bogged down in terminology can also be an enormous waste of effort that could be spent elsewhere (remember the weeks of arguing over whether “coup” was too strong a term to describe the events leading up to 1/6?).
Alarmism about insurgent political conflict and even invoking phrases like civil war is not hysteria, and it’s the opposite of doomerism. While Harris’s posture sounds rational, his argument depicts a hopeless version of America—a country suffering from some kind of mysterious, almost imaginary psychosis. His detached assessment offers no hope of solution, only a naive optimism that one “might take solace in the argument that it’s hard to have a real civil war without a real cause.” How do you solve a problem when you can’t even acknowledge it has a cause? You can’t, and you won’t. That right there is the real doomerism.