Second Civil War or Same Old Same Old?


Type in “Second Civil War” into Google and you will instantly get nearly half a billion results. National Review, Townhall, Slate, New Yorker have all speculated about it recently. Thirty-one percent of Americans, including 37 per cent of the Democrats think it is likely (mind you, in a recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Leadership Foundation, 60 per cent of respondents were not sure who the United States fought in the Second World War so maybe asking people to analogise from history might not be the best idea).

The country certainly seems more polarised – though it has been a long term trend. Studies like this pop up quite frequently nowadays to support anecdotal observations:

Party polarization is even worse than most people think, according to a new Michigan State University study.

And neither party can shoulder the blame, as it doesn’t matter which party is in charge, said Zachary Neal, associate professor of psychology and global urban studies.

“What I’ve found is that polarization has been steadily getting worse since the early 1970s,” he said. “Today, we’ve hit the ceiling on polarization. At these levels, it will be difficult to make any progress on social or economic policies.”…

While it’s hard to imagine incivility among Democrats and Republicans getting worse, it likely will, Neal said, especially if one party barely holds the majority.

But the Hoover Institution’s Morris P Fiorina thinks the alarmism is too alarmist and we need to keep things in perspective:

To understand contemporary American political life, you should begin with the realization that most of the people blabbering on cable television, venting on Facebook, and/or fulminating on Twitter are abnormal. They are abnormally interested and involved in politics, they tend to occupy the policy extremes, and they are abnormally opinionated (yes, many readers of Hanson’s article and this one are probably abnormal).  Consider some numbers.  As of today, there are about 235 million eligible voters in the United States.  About one percent of them subscribe to either The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.  Liberals rail against Fox News and conservatives against MSNBC; they should take consolation in the fact that the Fox viewing audience is about one percent of the eligible electorate while news shows on MSNBC fall short of that.  Sean Hannity’s is the highest-rated political show on cable television with an audience of about 1.5 percent of the eligible electorate. On the other end of the spectrum Rachel Maddow gets a bit over one percent.  Anderson Cooper 360 draws in a paltry 0.4 of one percent.  Granted, these small audiences may spread the word to some non-subscribers and non-viewers, but even taking such second-order effects into account, the simple fact is that the ranks of the politically interested are surprisingly thin.

Some suggest that the internet and social media have replaced the older print and electronic media, but the available research does not support that suggestion.  If “hundreds of millions of people” really were doing politics on social media, I would share Hanson’s worries, but such a claim overstates the number of social media activists by several orders of magnitude.  A 2013 Facebook study that tracked Bing toolbar searches found that 96 percent of the users clicked on zero or one opinion column in a three-month period.  In 2017 the Pew Research Center reported that less than four percent of adults consider Twitter an important source of news. (Twitter audiences are exaggerated, but for what it’s worth, President Trump reportedly has 53 million followers; Katie Perry has about twice that many.)  Studies of fake news conclude that its impact is minimal.

Fiorina also notes that the level of political involvement in the community has remained surprisingly steady over the years: “In many respects the American electorate has changed surprisingly little in more than six decades.  In 2016 about 10 percent of the eligible electorate made a campaign contribution—to any campaign at any level, the same figure as in the 1950s.  Despite media hype about Obamamania in 2008 and Trump rallies in 2016, less than 10 percent of the eligible electorate attended any kind of campaign meeting or rally in those years, the same figure as six decades ago.  As for people who knock on doors or make phone calls for campaigns, we are talking about two to three percent of the eligible electorate, the same small proportion as in the Eisenhower era.”

All this does not preclude the possibility that the steady – and small – number of people interested in politics are increasingly more frenzied and hardcore about their beliefs. But does the bitter partisanship and the quantity of venom circulating through the body politic mean we’re only a step away from an outbreak of mass violence?

I don’t think so. One reason is that the Western societies, including the American one, have been becoming more and more peaceful and less and less violent over the recent decades and centuries, as researchers like Steven Pinker have shown. Overall levels of prosperity, as well as leisure and lifestyle options available to an average American likewise make me think people are just not that interested in precipitating and participating in a once-every-few-generations upheaval. I would wager a guess that this applies not only to an overwhelming majority of the general population but also the overwhelming majority of those interested and engaged in politics.

But for that supposition – and it just that – the argument like that of Fiorina’s pointing to small percentages involved is disingenuous. Revolutions, civil wars, conflicts of any sort are instigated by relatively minuscule groups of people who make up in organisation and enthusiasm what they lack in numbers. The Bolsheviks were a small group, as were the Nazis (initially, of course). Indeed, if you go back in history, the American Revolutionaries of 1775 and the soon-to-be Unionists and Confederates of 1860 were likewise comparable to Fox and MSNBC viewers as a proportion of the general population. It’s not the size that matters, so to speak – you don’t need to start with tens of millions of people on the barricades; the virulent and violent minorities will find the way to eventually get them there. Neither the Deplorables nor The Resistance are there; certainly their leadership is not. Any potentially violent sections of either constitute and tiny minority of a tiny minority. I think the United States is more in danger of bull than Bull Run.