Civil division and its conquests are the true makers of America, and continue to shape its national progress—or threaten its undoing. Indeed, the very founding of the United States advanced the principle of civil conflict over all others. Our very identity, from the start, was framed as triumph over the “other.” We cast them out, like France cruelly expelled their heretic Huguenots in the 17th century. For our part, we drove out 100,000 loyalists we once counted as blood brothers. This civil war itself lasted 20 years, from 1763 to 1783, but the ensuing cold war and residual battles with Britain did not end until 1815.
By then there was another fissure in the nation. After 1815 a new cultural migration began. Young America itself split into two opposed ways of life and two increasingly bitter political identities, which fought another 20-year conflict, from 1857 to 1877. Threats of secession and nullification dominated American politics all the way to 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson. Only the “lucky” generations, from the 1930s to the 1970s, could pretend to celebrate something like national unity. Even then, such privilege was the demesne of a single, favored political majority—completely coterminous with the prevailing liberal establishment.
This is not, of course, the familiar American sacred narrative. We are taught that the Revolution was “a miracle” and that the Civil War “made America a nation.” Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “America is the country of the future,” reaffirming the providential destiny of Lincoln’s “almost chosen people.”
Yet, for most of our history, Americans have practiced a violent politics of national division. Today, this nation is fully embroiled in a third great civil war. What is this civil war? How did it happen, and, most importantly, where will it take us?
Civil war expresses itself as the violence surrounding a deep shift in the terms of kinship connections within society. Kinship is the core bonding force in society, whether community or nation. Benedict Anderson posited that nations are “imagined” communities, and communities are defined by a shared belief in belonging. While such national bonds may be weaker than traditional communities bound by “blood and soil,” imagined kinship after 1789 grew into a kind of “cult of the nation.” Americans were bound together by a Constitution and Bill of Rights and expressed their belonging through collective ritual. Our elections may be the great example, an exuberant political ceremonial that celebrates American identity, as witnessed by the 19th century painter George Caleb Bingham, in “Verdict of the People.”
In other words, groups with blood ties came to the new America and joined together with others in these unifying events. The solemn ritual of democratic participation was like a festival of national belonging, just as strong as the bond between family and clan, if not transcending it.
Yet by the 1840s this had begun to come apart. Kinship was sorting itself into two separate American subcultures: one wholly invested in a world of chattel slavery, and another rooted in the populist cry of “free soil, free labor, free men”; one dominated by an aristocratic elite, the other by the Republican yeoman ethos.
This was the North-South split that escalated into civil war, when each side believed they represented not only the sacred American narrative but the future of the nation, and when each became existentially threatening to the other’s way of life. There is plenty of evidence to suggest—culturally, politically, spiritually—that despite one side winning that conflict, they remained divided over the ensuing generations, albeit along shifting fault lines.
So why do we fool ourselves in thinking we are a United States? Unity may be hardwired into our American civil religion, yet incessant declaration on every public occasion does not necessarily make it so. Perhaps this national mantra belies an opposite tendency, that of the lady who doth protest too much.
Sure, the U.S. had a few decades of unity, prefigured by World War I, realized in World War II, and maintaining its warm afterglow into the 1970s. In fact, the world wars took the framing of civil war and adroitly turned the othering impulse outward. Instead of Britons and Tories or Rebels and Copperheads, the evil other was played helpfully, even willingly, by Germany. Moreover, after the Hun’s prostration, their place was taken, also rather willingly, by Soviet Russia. Reimagining and offshoring the other distracted Americans from kinship divides simmering at home.
But the end of the Cold War brought our century of dispensatory unity to a shuddering close.
America’s path to a civil war has five phases:
Moving apart. American kinship today is fissuring into two visions of the nation’s future way of life. “Red” virtue imagines a continuity of family and community within a publicly affirmed national community. “Blue” virtue imagines personally chosen communities mediated through the individual’s relationship with the state. This framing extends across the range of creedal litigation. Hence, for example, Blue sees guns as a dangerous and uncivil individual choice, while Red sees them as the source of political equality, a constitutional freedom. Red sees abortion as a threat to family, community, and faith, while Blue sees it as an individual’s right to choose. Blue champions “necessary” controls on political speech to protect the vulnerable freedom of individual choice, while Red opposes state control of thought as a threat to individual rights. Yet both agree that their vision of virtue must be eventually enforced.
So, even though these two divided visions of America have been opposed for decades, and so far have controlled the urge to violence, there is in their bitter contest a sense of gathering movement toward an ultimate decision. In no way is this more clear than in the 2016 election and ongoing political conflict. This divide is no status quo “agree to disagree,” but rather two moral armies moving towards a showdown.
Way of life. As kinship splits, ideological conflict coalesces into a perceived existential threat to one’s “way of life.” This initiates a dynamic othering in which opponents become identity-enemies over an issue that has become a threat in itself: whether Parliament could hold dominion over colonial self-rule, or, as the South sought, legal endorsement and defense of slavery throughout the United States.
Today, two righteous paths are gridlocked in opposition. Both perceive themselves as champions of national renewal, of cleansing corrupted ideals, and of truly fulfilling America’s promise. Both fervently believe that they alone own virtue. Yet the banners of each course are absolutist mirrors of one another, pro and contra, all or nothing. Moreover, lightning rod issues, as in the 1770s and 1850s, make the space between battle lines a no man’s land, forcing majority moderates and compromising fence-sitters to choose or be called out as willing collaborators with the other.
Today’s lightning rods—a feminist reordering of jurisprudence, a state-promoted LGBT agenda, closed or open borders, full gun rights guarantees—should not be seen as mere hot-button issues that can be manipulated at will by political party elites. These are way-of-life banners for two warring coalitions. Iconic issues that now represent the future of two tribal alliances are taking the place of a former, single nation. The time for compromise is over.
Othering. Here, the barren and inhospitable new civic space is dominated along looming, fortified lines. Warring identities have concluded that the only solution is the complete submission of the enemy party, and both sides are beginning to prepare for an ultimate showdown. Othering is a transforming process, through which former kin are reimagined as evil, an American inner-enemy, who once defeated must be punished. The most familiar metaphor of American othering was the 1770s practice of tarring and feathering. This less-than-lethal mob punishment corresponds—in shaming power and severity—to mob vengeance pervasive today on social media outlets such as Twitter.
Hence, to work fully as othering, the process must be public, result in the shame of the transgressor, and show that true virtue is in command. More than anything, othering is a ceremonial act designed to bring shame not just on the single person being tarred and feathered, but the entire community to which he belongs. The political object of #MeToo is not the numerically bounded set of guilty men, but rather the entire population set of all men. The political object of Black Lives Matter is not racists, but rather all white people. The political object of the LGBT movement is not homophobes, but rather the whole of straight cisgender society whose reality compass they seek to transform.
The targeted other, equally seized by virtue, operates today from an angry defensive crouch. Thus do corporate elites support marquee Blue “social justice” agendas on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube while censoring counterarguments and comment by Red. This is exactly the goal in this struggle: namely, to condition moderates to widespread acquiescence of a loud and insistent Blue agenda, while subtly coercing them to choose sides. They do this by arraigning Red as social losers, the future minority tribe, on their eventual way to the dustbin of history.
Red and Blue already represent an irreparable religious schism, deeper in doctrinal terms even than the 16th-century Catholic-Protestant schism. The war here is over which faction successfully captures the (social media) flag as true inheritor of American virtue.
The Decision. Othering’s most decisive effect is to condition the whole of society to believe that an existential clash is coming, that all must choose, and that there are no realistic alternatives to a final test of wills. Remember, in past times, Jacobins on both sides were small minorities. Yet for either one of these two angry visions to win, there must be a showdown. This demands, perversely, that they work together to bring on open conflict, successfully coercing the majority of Americans to buy into its inevitability. At that point, only a trigger pull is needed.
This was what the Boston Massacre did to push colonials against Britain in 1770, and this is what John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre and Congressman Preston Brooks’s caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor did to push people toward civil war in 1856. This is what the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh and the nearly two-year effort to delegitimize and overthrow President Donald Trump may doing today: getting the two halves of the former nation to pull that trigger.
The Fight. If the political balance shifts dramatically, then conflict checks—held in place by lingering political norms and a longstanding electoral standoff—disintegrate. Suddenly, both newly advantaged and disadvantaged parties rush to a test of wills sooner rather than later. A triggering incident becomes a spark—yet the spark itself does not ignite. Rather, it is the readiness for combat in this emerging “community of violence” that makes a fight the natural way forward. In 1774, the Sons of Liberty were spoiling for a fight. In the 1850s, Jayhawkers and Border Ruffians were equally primed to hit back. That pushed the nation to civil war.
Evidence from history and our own eyes tells us that we are deep into phase four. Three takeaways show us how close we are to real battle.
Both sides rush to tear down the constitutional order. Just since the 2016 election, we have witnessed a rolling thunder of Blue and Red elite rhetoric—packing the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, repealing the Second Amendment, wholesale state nullification of federal law, shackling of voter rights, and Deep State invocation of the 25th Amendment. These are all potential extremities of action that would not only dismantle our constitutional order, but also skew it to one side’s juridical construct of virtue, thus dissolving any semblance of adherence to law by the other. Over time each party becomes emotionally invested in the lust to dismantle the old and make something new.
Hence, constitutional norms exist only conditionally, until such time as they finally be dismantled, and only as long as a precariously balanced electoral divide holds firm. A big historical tilt in favor of one party over the other would very quickly push the nation into crisis because the party with the new mandate would rush to enact its program. The very threat of such constitutional dismantling would be sure casus belli. Such tilts in the early 1770s against Britain, and later in the 1850s against the slaveholding party, were the real tipping points. Not only was Dred Scott v. Sandford just such a tipping point in 1857, but subconsciously its legacy weighs heavily on Americans today, as they contemplate—often with hysterical passion—the dread consequences of a Kavanaugh appointment.
The dead hand of the last civil war grabs us from the grave. It is eerie how today’s angst pulls us back to the 1860s—and shows us what is likely to happen in our third civil war. If the poisonous hatreds of the 1860s again inform our civil anger today—i.e. battles between the alt-right and antifa—then this should tell us that we are literally on the cusp of another time of rage, where the continuity of strife is stronger than any hopes for reconciliation. What is clear is that two warring parties will accept nothing less from the other than submission, even though the loser will never submit. Moreover, each factional ethos is incapable of empathizing with the other.
Yet we should remember that “unconditional surrender” is like an Old Testament doctrine—meaning that its invocation hearkens unmistakably to God’s judgment. It became the Federal rallying cry throughout the Civil War, a substrate trope in the Versailles Treaty, the president’s official position for the end of World War II, and even our complacent conviction during the decomposition of the Soviet Union. It is an apocalyptic vision deeply embedded in both Blue and Red. Such visions presage existential crisis that puts what is left of the nation at real risk. If, at war’s end, the sacred scrolls, artifacts, and symbols—the archaeology of a once-cherished identity—cannot be restored or repurposed, then our entire history must be destroyed, and the “we” that once was wiped clean. Civil war—the battle over how, or whether, we belong to one another—thus demands nothing less than transformation.
Disbelieving war makes it inevitable. People will always disbelieve that we could come to blows, until we do. Delegates at the “Democracy” party convention in Charleston, in the summer of 1860, were still in denial of the coming fury. No one dares imagine another civil war playing out like the last, when two grimly determined American armies fought each other to the death in bloody pitched battles. It is unlikely that a third American civil war will embrace 18th and 19th century military dynamics. Antique Anglo-American society—organized around community “mustering”—was culturally equipped to fight civil wars. Today’s screen-absorbed Millennials are not. So what?
But the historical consequences of a non-military American civil war would be just as severe as any struggle settled by battle and blood. For example, the map of a divided America today suggests that division into functioning state and local sovereignties—with autonomy over kinship, identity, and way of life issues—might be the result of this non-bloody war. This could even represent de facto national partition—without de jure secession, achieved through a gradual process of accretive state and local nullification.
So what would a non-military civil war look like? Could it be non-violent? Americans are certainly not lovers, but they do not seem really to be fighters either. A possible path to kinship disengagement—a separation without de jure divorce—would here likely follow a crisis, a confrontation, and some shocking, spasmodic violence, horrifyingly amplified on social media. Passions at this point would pull back, but investment in separation would not. What might eventuate would be a national sorting out, a de facto kinship separation in which Blue and Red regions would go—and govern—their own ways, while still maintaining the surface fiction of a titular “United States.” This was, after all, the arrangement America came to after 20 years of civil war (1857-1877). This time, however, there will be no succeeding conciliation (as was achieved in the 1890s). Culturally, this United States will be, from the moment of agreement, two entirely separate sensibilities, peoples, and politics.
The winding path to civil war has yet another wrinkle: the people-elite divide. In the 1770s and the 1850s, American fissuring was championed by opposing elites. In the 1770s, two elites had emerged: one was the colonial, homegrown elite—such as Washington, Hamilton, and Adams—and the other was the metropole, trans-Atlantic British elite, celebrated by royally endowed landowners such as Lord Fairfax, whose holdings were in the thousands of square miles. Yet the British aristocracy was less intimately engaged in the colonies, and the loyalist elite a more sotto voce voice in colonial politics.
Not so the proto-Confederacy, the celebrated “Slave Power.” In the looming struggle between North and South, the Southern elite was the dominant economic force in the nation, thanks to its overwhelming capital stored in human flesh. In fact, planter aristocracy capital formation in 1860 equaled all capital invested in manufacturing, railroads, banks, and all currency in circulation—combined. This was the power of chattel slavery as the wealth ecology of the antebellum South. In defiant opposition to them were the Northern anti-slavery elites, nowhere as privileged and rich as their Southern counterparts. The new Republicans were further thwarted by the indissoluble alliance of planter aristocracy and the nation’s financial hub: New York City. There was an unholy bond between a dominant slaveholder elite and an equally dominant New York slave-enabling elite. To make the point, in 1859, New York shipbuilders outfitted 85 slave ships for the hungry needs of the Southern planter class.
The dominant cultural position occupied by the overlords of chattel slavery has its analogy today in the overlords of America’s Blue elite. While there is a vocal Red elite, the Blue elite dominates public life through its hold on the Internet, Hollywood, publishing, social media, academia, the Washington bureaucracy, and the global grip of corporate giants. Blue elite’s power, in its hold on the cultural pulse and economic lifeblood of American life, compares granularly to the planter aristocracy of the 1850s.
Ruling elites famously overthrown by history—like the Ancien Régime in France, Czarist Russia, and even the Antebellum South—were fated by their insatiable selfishness, their impenetrable arrogance, and their sneering aloofness from the despised people—“the deplorables”—upon whom their own economic status feasted.
Today’s Blue elite represents the greatest concentration of wealth and power in the United States. Moreover, such wealth is scattered across a mosaic of pristine, manicured, gated communities physically and socially divorced from the realities of normal American life—glittering bubbles of sovereign privilege. This is the very oligarchy Founders like John Adams so feared. While both Red and Blue elites represent themselves as the people’s champion, Blue’s protests ring the most false.
America is divided today not by customary tussles in party politics, but rather by passionate, existential, and irreconcilable opposition. Furthermore, the onset of battle is driven yet more urgently by the “intersection” of a culturally embedded kinship divide moving—however haphazardly—to join up with an elite-people divide.
Tragically, our divide may no longer be an outcome that people of goodwill work to overcome. Schism—with our nation in an ideological Iron Maiden—will soon force us all to submit, and choose.
Michael Vlahos teaches strategy and war at Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs and formerly, at the Naval War College. He is the author of the book Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change.