Is the United States’ 246-year experiment in self-government over?
According to our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, novelist and culture writer Stephen Marche (The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future), the US is careening toward catastrophe.
Marche breaks down the global history of civil wars and insurrections and concludes that the US now possesses virtually all the kindling required for a civil war to ignite.
As the popular acceptance of secession grows on both sides, the numbers of would-be violent activists in the country far exceed those of any other historical period of division, including the 1960s. While the United States is no stranger to political divides, violence, or even assassination, it once, according to Marche, could rely on a faith in its fundamental institutions to mitigate those forces. Marche says this is no longer true, as those institutions are inherently weaker and trust in them has all but vanished.
Marche lays out several future scenarios, in all of which order is confronted by chaos — and chaos wins out.
He explains why things may well get worse by 2040, when America finally becomes a minority-majority nation. He argues that history shows no way out other than the decline and fall of the current political order, precipitated by very high levels of violence, and perhaps the rise of as many as four successor countries.
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.
History may not exactly be like chemistry, where if you mix certain elements together, you get a predictable result, but sometimes the idea is pretty similar. History tells us that if certain things happen, things like the loss of faith in institutions, an increasing wealth gap, hatred of the other amidst demographic shifts, speeded up changes that leave people behind, the repeated incompetence of government, and then add the catalyst of a demagogue or two, a big galvanizing lie, and a destabilizing external event like a pandemic or climate change, throw in the steroid of social media, and the result will be predictable.
Given those sets of elements, history tells us that civil war in the US can’t be far away. More than fearing the loss of democracy, we perhaps best be fearing the loss of the country as a singular unit. In other words, has the United States reached its sell-by date? We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Stephen Marche. He’s a novelist, journalist, and culture writer who has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. His books include three previous novels, and his latest work of speculative nonfiction is The Next Civil War: Dispatches from America’s Future. It is my pleasure to welcome Stephen Marche here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Stephen, thanks so much for joining us.
Stephen: Pleasure to be with you.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Those of us that look at politics and watch all this as closely as we do, have we deluded ourselves into thinking things are worse than they are? Is there a great middle out there that is not as exercised about all of this?
Stephen: I think in some way, it’s the opposite. I think one of the lines in the book is that no matter how bad you think American politics looks on the surface, underneath, it’s much worse. No, I think just on the simple basis of hyper-partisanship, like the direct, political aspect of this, it’s hard to get much worse where you have Republicans who don’t want their children to be married to Democrats, Democrats who don’t want their children to be married to Republicans.
There’s a fascinating study about Thanksgiving dinners where people from– when people came home to different political areas than their own, their Thanksgiving dinner was about an hour and a half less. So bipartisan Thanksgiving dinner can’t even happen anymore. And of course, you just need to look at Washington to see complete paralysis and the inability of the government to do basic functions like appoint diplomats in a timely manner, guarantee their debt, pass budgets. Yes, it’s hard to see it getting much worse, actually.
Jeff: As we look at the contemporary history of the country, certainly we saw a great deal of division and violence that took place in the ’60s. The McCarthy year is set in the ’50s, of course, created an awful lot of division, pitted individuals and families against each other. We do have a history of this. What is your sense of what’s different this time?
Stephen: Well, I think the ’60s make a really interesting point of comparison because America really did burn during the ’60s. I don’t want to dismiss the violence and the level of conflict in the ’60s. One hundred forty cities burned after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was significant. But I would say the big difference was that in the ’60s, there were meaningful institutions to navigate through that chaos.
So, when you take an event like Watergate, at the time, it felt like turmoil, but in hindsight, what it is is the press discovering corruption, people believing the press about the corruption, politicians responding to the people believing in the corruption, and a bipartisan approach to keep the systems legitimate by dealing with Nixon. So none of those things would happen now.
All of the institutions are much weaker, both the private ones, like the press, but also the public ones like the government. And so, that creates a real possibility of violence. And then, of course, the size of the violent groups in America right now simply dwarfs what were the violent groups in the ’60s. The Weathermen were at most about 1,000 people. Now you have a minimum of 600,000 sovereign citizens, and, of course, the Oath Keepers have infiltrated pretty widely into American society.
Jeff: Of course, the other point is that if you took the ’60s and added on to that, the 24/7 news cycle, the speed of information, social media, all of the things that we’re dealing with today, the country wouldn’t have survived that.
Stephen: Yes. Well, it’s interesting. The social media argument, that’s when I looked into for the book, and one of the things that’s interesting is, of course, other countries have that same news cycle. Not quite to the extent that America has, but definitely they have social media sometimes much larger, but you don’t really have the same uptake of violent rhetoric. It’s really a question of what the social media latches on to.
In my own country, in Canada, there was an attempt to smear our then Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, with these rumors about a Nazi grandfather, and the Conservative Party responded by saying, “This is nonsense, please ignore it. It should not be a news story. Please don’t spread this misinformation.” The story died, and we all went about our business as usual because we responded to the attempt to manipulate our information environment collectively with solidarity. Conservatives and liberals understood that ultimately they were on the same team. That is what you don’t have in America; that understanding that liberals and conservatives are on the same team.
Jeff: How much of what we hear about in talk of civil war, in talk of secession, is simply political rhetoric directed at a particular base? And how much of it is serious?
Stephen: That’s a really good question because it’s hard to tell, to be perfectly frank with you. I think there are very serious people planning secession, particularly in Texas, and they mean it. They’re like the Scottish National Party or the Catalan Independence Movement. They have real goals, and they also have a basic understanding of how difficult it is, and that this is a process that involves other institutions. It’s not just, “Don’t mess with Texas,” and raising your gun. It’s actually quite a complicated legal process.
Then you have Ted Cruz saying, “We’re going to take NASA and the military.” And that’s not serious at all. That’s just pure talk. It has nothing to do with reality. So I would say both. The popularity of secession is growing, and on both sides. California Democrats, it’s about 41 percent right now, and on Southern Republicans, it’s about 58 percent. So there is a real substance there, but it is also definitely abused for rhetorical purposes.
Jeff: One of the things that happens when people talk about civil war, is they think of it not in historical terms, not in the sense of how civil wars have played out throughout the world, but only in terms of the US Civil War, and people’s suiting up with blue and gray uniforms. And in many ways, that conception is so misleading in this conversation today.
Stephen: Absolutely. What we’re talking about here, and I think it’s not just me, there are other people who think about the civil war, is insurgencies, or just a tolerance for political violence, and a normalization of political violence, and a sense that political violence is what determines the outcomes of government. And that, of course, leads to– what we’re really talking about here is not South versus North, or people in uniforms or even set armies. We’re talking about the forces of order versus the forces of chaos, and the forces of chaos are winning.
Jeff: To what extent do you think that the kindling is certainly there but that it’s going to take an extraordinary event to trigger something more dramatic?
Stephen: Well, that’s my argument, is that if you look at the political landscape and other things, like the environmental landscape, the high levels of inequality, vertical and horizontal inequality, the hyper-partisanship, all of these trends point towards civil war. And instead of giving a treatise on those trends, I instead encapsulate them in these little scenarios that are sparked by inciting incidents.
But those inciting incidents could come from anywhere. They’re not of interest necessarily in themselves. I think America is one spectacular act away from real violence. January 6 was a beginning, I think. But even that has not caused– the January 6 did not cause for a massive collective sense of, “okay, we have to deal with the crisis in our democracy.” In fact, it just led to deeper hyper-partisanship, and it caused the problems approaching civil war to be exacerbated.
So, in those conditions, I think, yes, America is really one spectacular act of violence away from the normalization of political violence and widespread turmoil.
Jeff: What about the possibility? And we’ve seen some of this with respect to January 6th, that this kind of action turns off a lot of people, moves some people away from paying attention to the political process at all if they just shut down.
Stephen: Well, there is a little evidence of that, but the other process that tends to happen is that, it’s called complimentary radicalization, to give the boring technical term, where what you’re in America is a reverse pendulum, where instead of things swinging to the middle, as things swing out, they get more extreme. And they get more extreme and more extreme and more extreme until you have President Trump, and you have more extreme right-wingers and more extreme left-wingers, and they radicalize each other.
So, it does turn people off politics, but it also has a strong effect where it actually exacerbates tensions on the other side, which then moves to more extremism on your own side. So, it’s a really nasty kind of spiral that happens. I would love to think that these events like January 6th would cause people to wake up and be like, “This is ridiculous, we can’t do this anymore,” but that’s not really what happens.
Jeff: To what extent does history teach us potential ways out of it, whether it is leadership, whether it is boredom, whether it is a change of political ideas? Talk a little bit about what you learned in that regard.
Stephen: Well, unfortunately, when America reaches the point that it’s in right now, what history teaches us is that it tends to lead to decline and fall, and it tends to lead to really high levels of violence. Now, I think America is America, and it is different from other examples in the past, and it’s different from its own past, and it is the country of change. But I will say that I do have hopes for America, but the hope is not that things are just going to work themselves out. That hope is gone, that train has left. What is required is really a rethinking of the structure of government, and even whether it makes sense to be a union anymore.
And I think the threat of civil war is quite real, and the possibility of violence is quite horrific. And so I think the questions that America needs to face now are the most profound of its political life that is based since the first Civil War. And the way out of this is to try and get to a point where you’re talking about those big issues rather than fighting them.
Jeff: What does contemporary civil war look like to you?
Stephen: Anarchy. Anarchy unleashed upon the world. It fragments very quickly. Insurgencies lead to response. They lead to responses, which leads to more insurgency. Violence breeds violence. You can barely keep track of it. I tried to get a sense of what that was like by going over the Iraq insurgencies and the Syrian insurgencies. It’s more or less impossible to keep track. Even the record keeping of it is almost impossible because groups fragment into tinier and tinier tribes, and they represent their own fears and their own hopes on an ever more fragmented level.
So yes, a modern civil war is a horrible, horrible eventuality. I have talked to some American media people who’ve asked me, “Do you think civil war might be a good thing? It might resolve questions?” No. It is strictly a horror. And then that’s why I think these kind of profound political questions are going to emerge even though they’re so unpalatable, and no one wants to face them, because the alternative is just too sickening, really, to contemplate.
Jeff: Does the level of violence have to increase in order to even create a real wake-up call?
Stephen: I don’t know. I would’ve thought, and having been through this, I keep waiting for the wake-up call and I don’t see it. I wrote the book as a wake-up call because I wanted to show what– But there’ve already been tanks on the streets of Washington on the 4th of July. There’s already been January 6th. So, those are pretty enormous wake-up calls to me. I’m not sure you’re going to get better ones.
Jeff: One would’ve thought that some external galvanizing event, the pandemic being a potential example, certainly 9/11, for like two minutes brought the country together. That some external, existential event might bring the country together in a way that provides an off ramp to this.
Stephen: Yes. That’s not going to happen. It’s very clear that’s not going to happen because when you have people at Trump events wearing, “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat,” that really says it all to me. You also have these massive events just get interpreted so quickly in a different way by both sides. January 6th, like Rush Limbaugh was on later that day saying, “The heroes at Concord were violent too.” And when you look at the numbers– the fact that the cop who died at the Capitol riots, only one party attended his minute of silence, his memorial. This is a man who gave his life for the physical security of the members of this institution, and they could not even agree to honor him.
So, I think one thing is that I think people like Joe Biden are kind of, they keep hoping that somehow sanity will snap back and people will recognize that these institutions matter more than partisan interest, but that is simply not going to happen. And to hope for it is a vain hope.
Jeff: What does the country look like within the context of a civil war? How does it play out, in your view?
Stephen: Well, getting an answer to that was unfortunately actually quite possible because there are many, many experts on counterinsurgency in the United States because America’s been fighting counter-insurgent conflicts unsuccessfully for 70 years. And the lesson that they taught me, that they shared with me, was that, it’s either, there’s two options: it’s either basically impossible to win a counterinsurgency, or it’s outright impossible. It’s really, those are the two schools of thought.
What you would see as large amounts of imprisonment. Already America is with a large number of prisons, it would be more so. Cities would be segmented, there would be lots of gates between neighborhoods. There would be barriers between communities. There would be unclear lines of authority. What sheriffs would decide to do could be considered flouting federal authority. And you would have constant battles between levels of government. You would have just large tribal groups of people armed in militias who essentially impose their own laws in their own neighborhood. That is what a civil war looks like, and it is extremely ugly.
And the government responses to it are almost impossible to know because almost every response just leads to increases in illegitimacy, the sense of illegitimacy, and from there, into more violence.
Jeff: Of course, political assassination is often a part of civil war.
Stephen: Yes. In America, as the secret service, a secret service agent told me, he said in America, assassination is part of the political process. It’s so common that one out of eleven presidents has been assassinated. I think with Biden it may actually be a little smaller than that. But that’s a high number, one in eleven. You get danger pay if you were even remotely close to that in any other line of work.
The question I think is really not the assassination in itself, because America has survived many, many presidential assassinations. The question is what would the response to it be? And I think at this point in history, a dead president would not be a cause for collective mourning. It would actually be more a driver of hyper partisanship.
Jeff: How does the rest of the world respond to this? And what role does the rest of the world play?
Stephen: Well, we’re all going to have to rethink our entire foreign policies. American military might, and American commitment to liberal democracy has been the linchpin of the world order for, since the end of the Second World War. And we were given the greatest series of international institutions ever on that basis, and they’re starting to fray. I think you can see the wolves that Russia and Ukraine is exactly what that looks like. They know that America’s weak, and they know that the institutions in NATO are vulnerable because the system that we had, which was internationally agreed on consensus backed up by American might, is falling because America is falling, and America is entering a period of chaos where it will be unable to provide answers for the rest of the world. What that means for each country is different. For Canada, we’re in real trouble, because so much of our trade, so much of our security, we’re basically an attachment to the United States. So, we’re in trouble.
For a country like Germany, it’s probably going to lead to them being more powerful. It’s probably going to lead to them having a bigger say in NATO, whether they want it or not, whether it’s good for them or not. They’re going to have to step up and actually take a more prominent role in international affairs. Seems true of Japan, which you can already see by their increased military budgets and their leadership on TPP, and so on.
America is going through a phase of real chaos where no one will be able to predict what it can do. During the Trump years, Canada was called “enemies of the American people” by senior members of the State Department. That freaks people out. They don’t forget that when Trump is gone. And so we’re going to have to find a way without big brother, and it’s going to be very tricky.
Jeff: To what extent would an unraveling in the US, some kind of a civil war, send a signal to insurgent groups and other countries that if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere, and give them cause to push forward with their own agenda?
Stephen: Well, I’m sure it will encourage them, but the breakdown in America, it’s very specific to America. It has to do with the political system, which really is increasingly no longer providing a sense of legitimacy and representation. You cannot say that about Canada. There are, of course, far right-wing people here and far left-wing people with violent intentions. But what you don’t have is a general sense in the populace that say the Supreme Court is a fraud. No one believes that here. And no one really believes that in England or Europe either.
There are certainly far right movements in there, but the breakdown in America is systematic and particular to conditions within it. So, I don’t really see it as part of a worldwide trend. I think it is specific to the United States.
Jeff: Talk about the role that business plays in all of this, because certainly the economic consequences of something like this could be staggering, and nobody has a greater interest in preventing that than the higher echelons of the business community.
Stephen: Is that true? I don’t even know if that’s true. You could make an argument that chaos in government serves them better as companies, especially hugely globalized companies like the major tech companies. I don’t see a lot of sense of responsibility on the part of Facebook to actually fix its algorithm. I just have not seen it. Of course, they make the right noises, but they’re definitely conscious that they’re part of the problem, and they don’t really take the preventative steps to try and save their own country.
But I don’t know. I assume they probably feel as powerless as everybody else, though, too, right? What is happening here are structural phenomena, well below the possibility of any business, even Facebook, really, to address in a meaningful way. And so that creates a sense of despair and hopelessness. I don’t think business people, even the people at Facebook, necessarily want any of this to happen. But I don’t know if they know how to step in and help.
Jeff: I was thinking less about the tech companies and more about companies and finance, companies in energy, really global multinational companies, and the stake that they have in this.
Stephen: Well, a lot of the funding of the far right groups comes from very prominent business leaders. We’ve seen that. But on the other hand, the same could be said for Democratic donors. To be frank, I didn’t really ask business people about that. The problem that they face, that the economy faces, is this incredibly heightened level of inequality. And no one really has the political solution to that. And they’re very hard to find. The solutions to inequality are all extremely unattractive to everyone.
While I wouldn’t blame business for the state that the United States is in, on the other hand, the particular economic system that we are in right now is definitely a contributing factor to the possibility of a civil war, because it creates these unbelievably high levels of inequality, which are at French Revolution levels.
Jeff: To what extent do you see the failure of leadership, of any high profile leadership emerging to address this as one of the causes of the potential problem?
Stephen: Well, I have two answers for that. One is that I think the problems here are structural. On the other hand, when I see someone like Senator Hawley raising his fists to rioters about to sack his own institution, and this is a man who has had every potential privilege, a graduate of Ivy League institutions, I do have to wonder if any country can survive when it’s best people try to deliberately forget about the sanctity of their institutions.
I find that that’s actually one of the mysteries. I don’t know what is motivating them, and I don’t completely understand how they could let that happen. I mean, how people with so much invested in the system could oversee its destruction for motives that seem shallow at best, like tiny little career advantages. It just seems like– well, I described it in The Atlantic– a suicide of the elites, and I think that’s the right phrase.
Jeff: Is that the problem, though, that because of this sense of American exceptionalism, and this misguided notion that prevails oftentimes about the country, that those people don’t see it, that they just cannot believe the possibility of it?
Stephen: Yes. That might be it. I think there’s definitely a sense that when you’ve been taught your whole life, that America is the solution to history, it’s very hard to just think of yourself as potentially one of its victims. And when you’re taught that your own government is the ideal form of government, when it’s very clear that it’s not working, it becomes very hard to come up with solutions when you have this idolization of your own failures, of the cause of your own failures.
I find the worship of the Constitution in the United States to be quite fascinating because every single group that I talk to, from Oath Keepers, to national separatists, to far left groups and so on, they all worship the Constitution, but it’s a completely different document in each of their minds. It’s a very old document that essentially has become the meanings that are ascribed to it. And it’s very hard, under those conditions, to see the crisis you’re facing that’s right in front of your eyes.
Jeff: Given all the people you’ve talked to, given the time you’ve spent looking at this, what is the timeframe you imagine?
Stephen: That, I really don’t know. I will say that the date that sticks in my mind is 2040. 2040 is a pretty big date in my mind because that’s when America will become a majority-minority country; that’s when white people will no longer be more than 50 percent of the country. That’s a huge cause of everything that I’m describing here. The sense of dominance from the privileged group being threatened from the rise of people below causes political violence all over the world. You can see it in India, you can see it in Africa, you can see it everywhere. And now you’re seeing it in America.
And then of course, in 2042, the best estimate is that about 30 percent of the country will control 68 percent of the Senate. So I think you really will have a state where America is, by then, like a quasi-democracy. It will no longer feel to ordinary Americans that their government represents a popular will. And, of course, that’s the function of democracy, to give that impression.
Jeff: What about generational change, and the sense that when you look out towards 2040, you’re really looking at an entirely different generation running the country?
Stephen: I don’t know if that’s true. People would’ve said by 2022, there’d be a different generation running the country, but it’s still the same old generation running the country. Although, to be clear, generational markers on a whole lot of functions, like racial resentment, and direct causes like that, there’s almost no generational trend for that. It feels like there is in daily life, but there really is almost no metric that registers that, which I think is really important to acknowledge. It’s not like young people get less racist. That’s not actually what happens. I think that the demographic trend that really matters is the one I mentioned earlier, which is that America becoming a majority-minority country, because that is generational change. And that is going to reshape America one way or the other.
Jeff: To what extent do you think economics will play a role in this? If the country is doing well, if markets are strong, if the country is awash in money, that it would forestall this, or maybe even eliminate it over time. And to the opposite extent, to the point that economics becomes a problem, we go into a deep recession or worse, that it really speeds this up?
Stephen: I had a really fascinating talk in the book with a guy who deals with inequality at the IMF. So, this is part of the Washington consensus. This is right-wing stuff. This is Wall Street Journal economic stuff. And they’ve recognized that the problem with inequality, with these huge elevated levels of inequality, is that it makes recovering from crashes really hard. First of all, it makes growth diminish earlier, but it also makes restarting growth a lot harder. So now that we’re all awash in money, incidentally, this is money that has been massively printed at quantitative easing over the past since 2008, which was considered an extreme emergency measure before 2008. Now, they’re just pumping money on a regular basis in a way that is probably not sustainable as these high levels of inflation are showing.
But the real problem comes when the crash comes, because this is capitalism, it works by crashes and booms. It’s not really a prediction to say there will be a crash. The question is, what happens after the next crash, and is there enough unity in the country? Is there enough solidarity in the country to come up with a coherent plan to get out of it? All of the far right people that I talk to, all of those movements, they all start in 2008. They all start in the market crash, and they all start with essentially the explosion of the housing market. The problem is, the money in America is really good right now, but money like this doesn’t last forever, there’s always a crash. The question is, what happens after the next crash? And that’s very troubling, because that requires a lot of solidarity, it requires a sense of fairness in the economic order, and that’s missing.
Jeff: Stephen Marche. The book is The Next Civil War: Dispatches From The American Future.
Stephen, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Stephen: Real pleasure to talk to you.
Jeff: Thank you.
And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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