Averting A Second American Civil War

Even before a mob attacked the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of Presidential power, the majority of Americans agreed that the country has entered a Cold Civil War. Almost half now consider secession a viable option in reputable scientific surveys.

America Balkanized

The odds of this conflict turning hot within the next decade are high and increasing. I originally published this piece in March of 2021, and in the half a year that has passed the argument has only become stronger. Normally left-leaning polls show Biden’s administration has shed almost all but hardcore Democrat support as of October 2021.

Pretty much what I predicted. America’s problems are structural.

Countries live, countries die — history is littered with the corpses of failed states and nations. The United States of America is not exceptional, never has been, and never will be, except in one respect: too many Americans believe it is.

That belief, coupled to ever-deepening tribal affiliations with Red or Blue, is a result of 80 years of political marketing using techniques pioneered by one Joseph Goebbels of Nazi Germany. After the Second World War, a powerful group of Americans in New York City and Washington D.C. embraced Goebbels-style propaganda to sell a peculiar mythos to a people reeling from the Great Depression and Second World War.

The Baby Boomer generation, is presently — and until 2024 will remain — the largest cohort of voters in the United States. It was the first generation to be fully raised under the influence of television, which brought journalists who were mostly tied to wealthy Northeast-based Transatlantic power brokers into the living rooms of almost every American.

Millions of Americans were exposed to a belief system deliberately crafted to squelch opposition to the America these powerful elites wanted for themselves. A pretend meritocracy where proximity to the right people and institutions works as a gatekeeping device to prevent true American democracy from ever taking root.

This mythos is finally collapsing under the weight of reality — unfortunately, almost every elected leader in the United States hails from the Boomer generation. And an eternal two-party struggle for total control over the political system was a feature of their youth. It should come as no surprise that they are all replicating the battles and rhetoric of their younger days.

Trouble is, the world of the 2020s is radically different than the one of the 1960s. Oppressed people — pretty much anyone not a wealthy white straight neurotypical male or someone who could pass as — are no longer rendered permanently invisible by a news ecosystem literally anchored by an old white dude behind a desk.

The Boomers grew up in a unique moment where the United States led the world in manufacturing because most of the world’s factories had been annihilated in the Second World War. American leaders in the early postwar period recognized that to sell your products you needed customers with cash, and at home were terrified of the consequences of millions of soldiers coming home to chronic unemployment.

See, the United States quite literally died and was reborn in the 1930s. The collapse of the Gilded Era system that emerged from the wreck of the Civil War and turned the United States into a global empire was so deep the country faced a real risk of splintering again.

Or — and this terrified America’s wealthy even more — there could be a communist revolution. This was a much bigger threat in the 1930s than it ever was in the Red Scare of the 1950s, despite all the paranoia, because in its early incarnations the Soviet Union was committed to exporting the Revolution abroad.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been lauded as one of America’s great Presidents, and he certainly was. But the heroic legacy he has been imbued with cover for the unsettling truth that he was actually kind of a sociopath. Roosevelt stayed in office for an unprecedented 4 terms for a reason: he saw himself as a kind of benevolent democratic dictator whose job it was to salvage and reinforce as much of the pre-Great Depression United States as possible.

Yes, the social welfare system America adopted in the 1930s was a dramatic leap forward in terms of social progress. But it was intended specifically to calm tempers around the country, rectify chronic unemployment, and reboot the shattered American economy not out of any sense of moral obligation or dedication to social justice, but to shore up the long-term position of the wealthy.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States found itself in a similar position — and the wealthy and powerful knew it. They had lived the 20’s and knew how dangerous a postwar period can be.

They deliberately studied and adopted the techniques employed by the Nazi Regime, awed by the Nazis’ ability to keep so many people enthralled so effectively that they damn near conquered all of Europe. Just like the early space program relied on captured German scientists — many of them Nazi party members (most Germans weren’t, so the choice to join is significant) — so did the political effort to establish the boundaries of postwar society imitate many totalitarian elements learned from the defeated powers.

This is the reason why many of the hot-button issues Red and Blue are still fighting over today are more or less the same ones as in the 1960s. Unlike in a totalitarian state, the process of nation-building that started out of the genuine need to restructure American society after years of conflict took place in an open forum. The stilted, Ozzie and Harriet world shown in 1950s mass media was not a product of any conspiracy or agreement to lie to the American public.

Instead, mass media itself served as the battleground for deciding what kinds of behaviors were expected in the new American society being built. In a free news market where lots of expensive equipment is needed to produce messages lots of people see, there will only be room for a few large companies who will each try to appeal to a particular audience. If this is paid for by subscriptions or advertising, as is standard in the United States, a doubly-reinforced feedback look will develop where people are essentially recruited into distinct news ecosystems where they absorb and accept different sets of facts.

The limited number of channels available before the Internet Age tied to the few specific areas of agreement virtually all wealthy Americans share with respect to common national values meant that for many decades most Americans were trained to accept facts that were mostly in agreement across channels because of this, as well as the natural tendency of any small number of agents in a competitive environment to establish common rules to limit their conflict.

There are no true conspiracies in politics — people are just not very good at keeping secrets. Conspiratorial thinking becomes common when the various spins on the available facts given by the majority of media channels don’t match up with some group of people’s pre-existing views. But it only takes hold when this mismatch is persistent across time.

This all links back to the trouble with Boomer leadership for a simple reason: leadership is always about narratives, using stories to sway large numbers of people to action. But the Boomers were from birth subjected to a uniquely constrained set of narratives about the world and their place within it that resulted from the limited, focused concerns of the elites in power when the Boomers were young.

Fearing internal division, most people who had influence over what kinds of ideas and stories were published in the national press collectively demanded a high degree of self-censorship, each media channel attacking any other it perceived to be violating a set of invisible norms that emerged in the late 1940s.

At the same time, they nevertheless competed for dominance, latching onto the old two-party system and turning national politics into a kind of dance, each side’s leaders using whatever rhetoric would motivate voters to the polls most efficiently but maintaining a high degree of collegiality in their daily work. While talking heads and politicians would grandstand, the people who wrote the laws would carefully work behind the scenes to make sure a level of detente between the two parties — each representing a coalition of wealthy national interests like unions or the gun lobby — kept violent conflict to an absolute minimum.

In the 1930s, Army Generals MacArthur and Patton — both later to be elevated to mythic status — led soldiers to attack a group of protesting veterans who had been defrauded by the federal government after the First World War and drove them from Washington D.C. Earlier in the century, bombings and assassinations attributed to “anarchists” were widespread. These are the kinds of events that terrify national elites who fear mass revolt above all else — even nuclear war.

Fearful of a repeat of this chaos in the 1950s and 1960s, America’s Atlantic-based elites invested in the system that has dominated American politics ever since. The one that now, faced with decades of decay, is starting the cycle all over again.

Trouble is, the Boomers are incapable of effective leadership in this moment precisely because they were the generation trained to believe the days of America’s fragility were over. Blessed by God, America was exceptional, they were taught, a shining city on the hill, a beacon of freedom to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Propaganda, but effective.

Joe Biden’s administration exemplifies this inability to perceive beyond the constraints of the postwar American mythos. At 78 in 2021, he is publicly committed to running for re-election in 2024, meaning he intends to be President until he is 86 — more than a decade past his anticipated lifespan at birth.

Nancy Pelosi, longtime Speaker of the House, is also a senior citizen. Same goes for Schumer and McConnell over in the Senate. Trained to believe a two-party system characterized by ever-escalating rhetoric but no major violence was normal and that their jobs as leaders meant taking their side to final victory over the other, all they have and can offer is meaningless ideological conflict and posturing that guarantees a decrepit, dying system will collapse sooner rather than later.

The Internet has broken the old media system and revealed America for what it always has been: a nation of tribes, each struggling to make their voices heard through a general din of nonsensical bullshit pushed by craven politicians who represent their party, not their people. The United States of America is not a democracy, but an oligarchic republic that was always intended to secure the privilege of a lucky few. The promise of the Constitution has never been fulfilled for all, and in contemporary America your rights correlate directly with the balance in your bank account.

This inequality is the real root cause of the fast-heating Cold Civil War of the early 2020s. The ultimate taboos in American politics are to question the defense budget, the democratic legitimacy of the two-party system, and the disproportionate influence of the old Northeast-based wealthy elite.

Call out any of these, and you will soon find yourselves ignored in polite circles. You don’t get to write feature pieces in prestigious publications like The Atlantic or New Yorker or speak at fancy events people pay hundreds of dollars to attend. American media totalitarianism doesn’t need camps or torture — everyone in the business simply learns who to not offend at any cost.

But these factors have totally calcified the American political system. People across the country are desperate, and now that they have the Internet they are free to connect with whatever ideas or beliefs move them.

This is nothing new. This is simply how people are: no one lives in a truly shared reality. Everyone perceives the world a little differently. Only through communication do we develop a good-enough, shared vision of a world in common that is always being re-imagined — especially by the younger generations.

But a lot of very intelligent, influential people want you to believe otherwise. They want — need — as many people as possible to accept the inevitability of the way things currently are.

The simple fact of the matter is that the United States of America died in 2020, and it won’t be reborn in quite the same form.

Trying, as the Biden Administration appears hell-bent on doing, to put the genie of change back in the bottle and kick of reform the can down the road in the hopes skies clear on their own is a fatal error. In fact, Joe Biden’s election was the second-worst outcome of the 2020 Election, behind only Trump managing to stay in office (legally or otherwise).

The Republican Party could have installed him had they chosen to. Had senior Republicans in the Senate and Supreme Court given into Trump’s demand to totally abandon the rules of the postwar era at his insistence, he would still be in office and the country would be paralyzed by demonstrations right now — likely, with Biden ultimately calling for calm and conceding despite the consequences for American democracy.

The media narrative that emerged in 2020 holding Biden up as the centrist savior who would end America’s uncivil war was as close as the American media has come since the runup to the Iraq War of overtly coordinating to sell a fantasy to the American public. The fact that the election was as close as it was, with the Republican Party substantially improving its position in the House and numerous State Legislatures, is a sign of just how badly things have slipped for the Democratic Party’s future hopes.

Turnout spiked in 2020, but nearly as many new voters turned out for Trump as for Biden. A large movement of former Republicans into the Democratic column was nearly swamped, in the key states that gave Biden the election, by turnout from new Trump voters. Worse, the Democrats’ margins among Black and Latino voters declined.

If this trend continues, the inevitable brighter demographic future Democrats have been banking on will never come. The trend lines are not good — 2024 is set to be worse for them in 2020 despite the narrow electoral college victory they scored.

Further, Democrats chose to portray the 2020 Election as being the most important in history, and to cast anyone who voted Republican as against Democracy. This disastrous choice, coupled to a candidate effectively selected by a committee of elite Democrats once the threat of Covid made it clear the Democratic Party Primary was in serious trouble, has set the country up for a Trump return in 2024.

You only get to make claims like this once and expect voters to respond in full force, and even by playing this card the Democrats nearly lost everything. If you re-run Biden vs. Trump without a raging pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of Americans and forcing expansion of absentee voting, and Trump wins a second term.

And now that Republican state legislatures are moving to legalize Trump’s efforts to overturn the last election, the future is bleak.

The tragedy of 2020 was that the Democratic Party establishment congealed around a myth: that Americans aren’t ready for change, that the only way to beat the slide to authoritarianism is to double-down on the status quo.

In 2024, neither Trump fatigue nor a pandemic will be able to mask Biden’s fundamental weaknesses as a candidate and leader, and if he runs for re-election, he will fail. Only half the people who voted Biden-Harris voted for Biden. The other half simply wanted Trump gone.

But the fact that the stock market soared from 2016–2020 will, unless the world is in the middle of a complete meltdown by 2024, means that the “fascism is ok for my 401k” effect will outweigh the “vote for democracy!” side. Trump came out of the Capitol Riot in a stronger position than he held going in, and recovering from Covid-19 in full will take America many years. Memory of what the Trump era felt like will fade as more pressing concerns dominate people’s minds, and all too many people will care about was the massive runup in stock and property values from 2017 to 2020.

To make matters even worse, Biden is already making choices — particularly with respect to foreign policy and China — that are guaranteed to make his life difficult. Neither China nor Russia is the threat American elites want them to be — but trying to make them so is likely to lead to a disastrous confrontation on one or more fronts that the United States will not win.

A tipping point has been passed, a threshold breached, with respect to the China-USA relationship. It is now likely that in the near future China will be ina position use an incident provoked by the Philippines or maybe Vietnam defending their territorial claims to take military action in the South China Sea that the United States will be expected to respond to.

But all it will actually be able to do is send a few ships and bombers and rattle sabers before turning to sanctions, because the United States military is now so fundamentally vulnerable that only a fool would send it into open combat within a thousand miles of China’s coast. That’s a scenario China has literally been preparing for ever since the invasion of Iraq proved just how much the United States can be trusted to respect a “rules-based world order.”

Confrontation with China won’t end well for the United States because its military is caught up in a postwar mentality that demands the USA defend national borders that — though most Americans don’t realize this is the case — are assumed to run along China’s own coastline. As a matter of face, the first opportunity China has to call America’s military bluff that it can actually fight a war in China’s backyard without suffering extreme losses, it may well take it.

The same is true of Russia — Iran’s bombardment of US bases in Iraq with ballistic missiles in 2020 was a harbinger of what awaits American forces in a future conflict near Russia’s borders. As a power utterly dependent on a few crucial forward bases and a complicated supply chain spanning the globe, beating the United States in a conflict is much, much simpler than Americans understand as a result of the Pentagon basically embedding itself in the mass media since the Vietnam War to make sure we never question why 50% of America’s income taxes must always be sent to it regardless of the true level of threat the country faces.

So what happens when Biden’s fake-tough policy meets reality? More disillusionment that will play into growing anger with the establishment as Biden’s big Roosevelt-imitating programs die in the Senate — or are seen as so partisan they boost the Republican nightmare of creeping socialism.

Two-party system, massive wealth and social inequality, plus a generation trained to believe There Is No Alternative to the present situation — together this spells inevitable catastrophe unless decisive action is taken by anyone with enough wealth and influence to make a difference.

The current Cold Civil War is a natural result of the collapse of the postwar era, escalated by powerful the financial incentives unleashed in full by Citizens United. Conflicts escalate when all sides believe it is in their interest for the fight to continue, and both the Republican and Democratic Parties are financially and ideologically committed to their war.

Frankly, the fight itself is all they have left to offer voters, but allied with partisan media outlets there is no telling how long it will be before everyone tunes them out and focuses on local organization.

To prevent a Second American Civil War from erupting later this decade, a deliberate and focused internal de-escalation mediated by international groups will be required. It is in the world’s best interest to stabilize the situation, because if the United States does collapse into violence the consequences will be grave.

After the Republicans retake the House in 2022 through a combination of gerrymandering and voter suppression, Joe Biden must use his State of the Nation address to announce his resignation in 2023, bipartisanship having clearly failed.

A national precedent must be set that sets a realistic maximum age for holding public office. Politicians should be expected to retire by the age of 75 in order to give greater representation to younger voices who will have to live longer with the consequences of political choices.

A sitting President resigning, acknowledging that the job cannot by done by someone at risk of rapid cognitive or physical decline, is essential to undercutting Trump’s path to re-election.

This will allow Kamala Harris to become President, where she can dominate press coverage and spend the next two years traveling the nation to lay out plans for a set of fundamental reforms she will champion in Congress after her re-election in 2024 and beyond.

Biden must take the blame for all that has gone wrong in his administration and admit to his deliberately sabotaging Harris’ political fortunes, leaving Harris two years to establish herself as a visionary leader hamstrung only by a Republican-controlled Congress elected as a result of voter suppression efforts in a few states.

Then, the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party must break off and form its own separate Party, focusing its campaigning on hard-Blue states where there is no risk of accidentally electing Republicans.

This is necessary because the Democratic Party’s coalition is simply too big and diverse to be sustainable. All politics are identity politics and always have been — the Internet has simply lowered communication costs and allowed more identities to be recognized and organized around.

But Progressives like Ilhan Omar and AoC simply cannot co-exist in the same party as people like Mike Bloomberg and Joe Manchin, and this dilemma poses an existential dilemma for the Democratic Party. It wants to absorb the 1/3 of Republicans who don’t like the direction their party is heading, but it can’t do that when it also has to satisfy a growing Progressive wing that demands radical reforms that all virtually Republicans oppose.

Forcing people to vote Blue no matter who simply to prevent a Red takeover of the federal government is a recipe for alienation — a huge part of the reason that despite all the rhetoric about the 2020 Election 30% of voters still failed to turn out. This is a massive missed opportunity, the true hinge point in American democracy.

A functional but separate Progressive Party allows the Democrats to adopt a fully centrist identity with Harris as an Obama-esque leader who can wrangle factions to chart an ambitious path to a better future. At the same time, the Squad-led Progressives can mobilize people around their vision, making it as radical and anti-establishment as possible.

This is vital because anti-establishment feelings will grow in the coming years barring the kind of reforms the existing political system simply cannot deliver. If no one can appeal to them in time, the hard-right will.

Next, a non-partisan social media platform dedicated to politics must be established and supported by both government and social media outlets. Political discussions need to be pushed away from mainstream social media, and the old norm of not talking about politics outside of political venues re-established.

The key to this kind of platform will be using algorithms not to drive people to content, but to present a balanced view that stimulates meaningful interaction. Healthy political discussion is a learned skill, and a game-like social media platform combining aspects of Duolingo and Ballotpedia to present balanced and even challenging ideas can foster a healthy discussion ecosystem, if coupled to skillful moderation.

And finally, Americans must be engaged in truly meaningful assessments of the entire system of government, then empowered to identify and pursue reforms. It is no longer possible for a select group of Ivy League trained “experts” to decide for everyone what freedom and the pursuit of happiness ought to look like.

Everything needs to be on the table — from the way we elect our representatives to how districts are drawn. To stop the Cold Civil War from escalating to widespread violence as the challenges of this difficult decade grow, bottom-up reform will be required.

We’re not talking patches — America’s long history of genocide, slavery, and oppression can’t be hand-waved away by letting people express their “voice,” reparations and real commitment to a truly democratic system are needed now.

Well, actually they were needed about 20 years ago. They’ve been put off too long — and this is why political violence is now normal in some places, like Oregon.

Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria — these will be as nothing compared to an open Red-Blue conflict in the United States of America.

Those who can must act fast to stop a Second American Civil War from happening. Once violence begins, it rarely ends without a great deal of pain for all involved.