For the first time since the 4-year civil war ended in 1865, America finds itself with a major Party that has become detached from democratic observance.
London: President Vladimir Putin doesn’t have to destroy the United States—the American people are doing it all by themselves. The Kremlin, of course, is giving a helping hand by intensifying existing fracture lines and cleavages found in most countries, but particularly large—and growing—in the US. Over recent years, Russia has successfully devoted serious resources to destabilise the US, courtesy of American owned social media Google and Facebook, and there are plenty of useful idiots to amplify the message. Many of these are Republican Senators, whose knowledge and judgement are increasingly untethered to reality or history.
For the first time since the 4-year civil war ended in 1865, America finds itself with a major Party that has become detached from democratic observance when too many of its partisans uphold false conspiracies that propel its supporters towards violence against the Union. Think of the events of 6 January 2021, when a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol in the worst attack on the home of Congress since it was burned by British Forces in 1814.
Political opinion in the US has become toxic. A recent Washington Post poll, carried out with the University of Maryland, revealed that about 1 in 3 Americans say they believe violence against the government can at times be justified. A similar poll found that 57% of respondents agreed that an attack like 6 January would happen again in the next few years. Alarmingly, 63% confirmed that the attack changed the way Americans think about the government.
Burdened by racial and economic injustice, packed with social resentments, and awash with guns, there is a serious risk that American democracy as we know it, will collapse around the time of the next presidential election in 2024, a process perhaps ignited by the mid-term elections this year. As the celebrated Canadian journalist, Stephen March, puts it in his new book The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, “The United States is coming to an end—the only question is how. America is one spectacular act of political violence away from a national crisis.”
March is not alone in expressing his anxiety. “The United States is closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe”, wrote political science Professor Barbara Walter, a member of a key CIA advisory panel and author of a new book, How Civil Wars Start, published last Tuesday. “We should stop underestimating the threat facing our country”, thundered a New York Times editorial last week. In a recent edition of the Washington Post, three retired Generals wrote that they were “increasingly concerned about the aftermath of the 2024 presidential election and the potential for lethal chaos in our military, which would put all Americans at severe risk”. Noting that more than one in ten of those charged with the attempted pro-Trump coup last year had a service record, the Generals continued, “In short, we are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time!”
How has this great nation, a standard bearer of democracy, come to this?
Few doubt that populism, cronyism and corruption have sapped the strength of American democracy, as the people have become more and more susceptible to political manipulation. America has morphed into a place where self-dealing elites have hollowed out vital institutions, where alienated, frustrated people have become increasingly open to populist and authoritarian appeals. Many believe that the process started with the election of Donald Trump, who offered the people quick fixes for complex problems, bypassing or eliminating intermediaries such as political parties, congressional representatives and established institutions. But in reality, the rot started long before the arrival of Trump. The Donald merely hastened the process.
It’s true, of course, that never before has there been an American President who schemed to overturn legitimate election results, who attacked the press and civil servants who worked for him, who admired dictators, who blatantly profited from his public office, and who repeatedly lied to the public for his own selfish purpose. But American divisions and partisanship go back decades. Racial divisions have not fully healed since the United States was created on 4 July 1776. Only last week were three white males sentenced to long prison terms for murdering a black jogger, merely for running through their neighbourhood. White law-enforcement officers in Georgia had earlier turned a blind eye to the assassination, until camera evidence was revealed to prove beyond prejudice that a murder had been committed. Divisions over gun laws and abortion are also rife, with the possibility that California could secede from the Union over the former, while Confederate-era secessionism is heard in Texas over the latter.
But it’s the electoral system which will provide the catalyst for Civil War 2.0 in America. You might think that in a country which espouses the principle of equality, the successful candidate for President should receive the majority of votes in an election. Not so under the present system. In 2016, Donald Trump won the election despite receiving 2.8 million votes less than Hilary Clinton, who came second. In 2000, George W. Bush won with 500,000 less votes than Al Gore. If that’s not bad enough, the crazy Electoral Count Act of 1887 actually allows Congress to reject valid votes, so that if Republicans control both chambers of Congress in 2024, something likely as a result of this year’s half-term elections, as well as the governorships of enough crucial swing states, it could be a Republican Congress that selects the President rather than the American people.
This is why the Republican Party is working so hard to gerrymander the electoral boundaries to its advantage, while making voting so much more difficult for its Democratic opponents. They have spent the last year stacking state election offices with partisans who can be counted on to do Trump’s bidding next time, even passing laws that make it easier to manipulate or overturn election results and intimidate nonpartisan officials by criminalising minor infractions. Their tireless campaign of legislation and disinformation has set in motion an irreversible process of electoral sabotage. Most Republican voters believe that the last election was stolen and that the next one is also likely to be, unless, of course, they win. Even moderate Republican politicians, who initially accepted that Biden won and criticized Trump, have now gone silent, having become objects of more visceral hatred than any Democrat.
If there’s one common element in a growing chorus of Republican voices, it’s revenge. Republicans clearly hope that the upcoming mid-term elections in November will be a referendum on President Biden and what they describe as his tragic mishandling of inflation, immigration, Afghanistan, and the pandemic. By staying “laser-focused on Democratic failings”, to use the words of Republican Senate Minority Leader McConnell, they are confident of winning sufficient votes to control both houses of Congress, effectively neutralising Biden during his remaining two years. According to Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, House Republicans will even impeach President Biden in 2023, whether justified or not, simply because in his view the Democrats had “weaponised” impeachment when they twice formally accused Trump of wrongdoing.
In a hopelessly divided nation, each side accuses the other of hating America, which is only a way of saying that both hate what the other means by America. Anyone who disagrees with them is evil and actively working to destroy the community. Whoever wins in 2024 will therefore not be accepted by the other side. If the next President is then chosen by the Supreme Court or Congress, the backstop of Trump’s plan for re-election, half the country will explode with rage, protests will turn violent, and crowds will be met by lethal force while instigators will firebomb government buildings. Neighbourhoods will organise self-defence groups and law-enforcement officers will either take sides or go home. The new President will take power in a state of siege while the country descends into Civil War 2.0.
This is the scenario that chills the Generals’ bones. No wonder so many Americans have sleepless nights about the future of their country.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.