Nicholas Goldberg: Worried about another American civil war? It’s not imminent, but …

I don’t think the United States is on the brink of civil war.

I don’t think so, although a significant portion of Americans support political violence and despite chilling examples ranging from the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, to the brutal Beatings on Paul Pelosi to the point of increase in armed right-wing extremist activities.

I don’t believe it’s coming, despite warnings from experts.

“America is plunging headlong into another civil war, and it’s a matter of when, not if,” Christopher Sebastian Parker, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor, said last month in an article titled “How Close Is the U.S. to Civil War.” War?”

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

Stephen Marche, author of “The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future,” said, “The United States is a textbook example of a country headed for civil war.” The conditions were “ripe for political violence.”

“They are preparing for war,” Barbara Walter, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, told the Washington Post. “And not talking about it doesn’t make us any safer.”

And I don’t believe it, although to some extent these dire prophecies are backed up by public opinion.

For example, a solid minority of Americans — close to 20% — say violence may be justified to “advance an important political goal.” Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans view their political opponents as “more narrow-minded, dishonest, immoral, and unintelligent” than other Americans. Nearly 9 in 10 voters told pollsters last month they were concerned about the increased risk of politically motivated violence.

Despite all of this, I think this country still has a long way to go before we enter our bunkers. Call me a blue-eyed optimist (or a self-deceiving fool), but I believe most Americans still share a basic respect for rules, laws, and institutions, a respect built over 200 years of history. The vast majority of Americans do not stand on the brink of violence, but accept the basic expectations and benefits of a democratic society.

I don’t think you’re going to bring that down with a stupid presidency, or a handful of divisive Supreme Court decisions, or some horn-topped, flag-waving vigilantes storming the Capitol, or even sporadic far-right violence. Will there be conflicts and more violent incidents? Yes, probably. Long-term war or guerrilla insurgency? Not now.

But here I change the arguments a bit. Because I also believe, as a person whose family was forced to change their stable, settled existence when Hitler came to power, that this is not a time for complacency either.

I have seen signs of upheaval in this country over the past seven years that I could not have imagined just a few years ago. Two presidential impeachment trials in 13 months – the highest number in the past 230 years. Two-thirds of Republicans believe President Biden was not elected fairly. Twitter mentions of the “civil war” surged nearly 3,000% after the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago in August. Hate crimes are on the rise across the country.

If I had to worry, waking up at night drenched in sweat fearing for my country, I would definitely focus on one thing: our political system doesn’t seem to be working anymore. The government is crippled, paralyzed and embittered.

Even if a party wins the majority, it achieves little. The filibuster is an immense obstacle to legislative action in the Senate, allowing little except through grandstanding and procedural machinations. The hurdles to constitutional change are practically insurmountable; Some experts believe it will never happen again.

The process of government as now practiced does not encourage deliberation, compromise, or the common good at all; Instead, it rewards scorched-earth conflicts with your enemies. profit matters; don’t rule so much.

This causes intense frustration among voters that threatens to boil over. If working within the system doesn’t improve things, voters will eventually reject the system. If elections fail to bring meaningful benefits, Americans will lose confidence in the election. When they feel misled, mistreated, and undervalued by Washington, they grow angry and disillusioned, lose faith in institutions, and turn elsewhere for solutions, including to demagogues.

Consider abortion, although it is just one example among many. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, the United States no longer recognizes a constitutional right to abortion, although more than 60% of Americans believe the process should be legal in most or all cases.

So, OK, fine; In a healthy political system, Congress would now pass legislation codifying abortion rights nationally, which is what most Americans want. But the legislature is broken and unable to respond. Despite popular support, the proposed bill lacks the votes to overcome the 60-vote filibuster requirement in the Senate.

Both left and right feel the frustration. According to Pew, only 8% of Americans view government as very or extremely responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Dissatisfaction with Washington is one of the few things Republicans and Democrats agree on.

In today’s system, established companies are virtually unbeatable; money corrupts elections; political parties gerrymander constituency lines for unfair advantage. The candidate with the most votes does not necessarily become president. States with fewer than one million people are represented in the Senate as well as states with tens of millions of people.

And it’s not clear what to do about it.

In the years to come, the US could settle down and return to the old status quo, or maybe the Cassandras are right and we’ll face a literal civil war, or an ongoing guerrilla insurgency, or a “cold” civil war, as some have speculated, through partisanship, distrust and paralysis.

If we hope to avoid these latter outcomes, government must respond to voter needs.

@Nick_Goldberg Nicholas Goldberg: Worried about another American civil war? It’s not imminent, but …

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