When I sat down to write a follow-up to my first series The Third World War: A Narrative History, I initially struggled for a topic. After writing a thousand-page epic story of armies of millions clashing across continents, almost any other subject seemed puny in comparison. I played with a concept called “The Tenth Crusade”, about an effort to carve out a Christian “homeland” in the Middle East but, after doing some research, that seemed to me to be a topic that could only genuinely be done justice after some years of research and some actual time spent in the area. So, I asked myself, what event looms as large in cultural memory – if not quite in scope – as the Second World War? With that as the question, the answer seemed quite obvious: the Civil War. Thus was born the first book in my new series, entitled A House Divided, which hit Amazon.com yesterday.
All of this lends itself to a simple question: is a Second Civil War actually plausible?
After five months writing about the subject, my qualified answer is: it’s at least as plausible as a Third World War and about ten thousand people and counting have paid to take that particular ride with me. The less-flip answer is that I believe that it is and, in fact, that it is a more-imminent threat than any continent-destroying mass conflict of the sort depicted in The Blast of War, A Land War in Asia, and A Thousand Points of Light. That is not to say that I believe that the Blue and the Gray are about to again meet on their old battlefields in Virginia or that we are upon the verge of seeing the nation torn asunder as it was during the first Civil War, with a group of states attempted to secede and to form a new nation. No. I believe, and A House Divided hypothesizes, that a Second Civil War would be likely to take a form radically different than the first, bearing more resemblance to the Commons versus Crown clash that was the English Civil War or to the repeats turnings-over of the state experienced during the civil wars of the final days of the Roman republic than the secessionist struggle of the first that, at one time, the Federal Government classified as the “war of the rebellion.”
In other words, instead of having a bloc of states attempt to break away from the United States, as is still the tendency in even most modern-day future civil war hypothetical fiction (think of the late, great Jericho’s Allied States of America for an example), the most plausible way to construct a Second Civil War is to create a scenario where multiple factions fight for control of the Federal Government. In other words, in seeking to answer the first question, we need not ask, “will an organized group ever attempt to again secede from the United States?”, to which the answer is almost certainly no. Instead, we need merely ask ourselves whether, especially in the face of extreme political polarization and amid the threat of national bankruptcy, whether we will reach a point where a constitutional impasse will be reached that it appears can only be settled by the use of force. Could such an impasse lead to a scenario where Americans are forced to fight one another? I fear it would.
Consider, for example, some of the wild and pseudo-Constitutional theories floated during the recent impasse between President Obama and the Congress over the debt ceiling. Many of the President’s more aggressive partisans clamored, throughout that fight, for the President to take aggressive and arguably extra-Constitutional actions in order to maintain the funding of the Federal Government. As the years go on and the financial demands placed upon the Federal Government multiply, does not the likelihood that some future crisis will spur some future President to take some spectacular action that a large part of the country – and the Congress – might consider to be a blatant violation of the Constitution? And might not, in such an emergency, a President – especially one whose political fortunes depended upon the goodwill of an impoverished and dependent mass of the people created by years of government spending, opt to simply defy the Congress (and perhaps the courts as well) and, counting upon the support of a large percentage of the people, simply dare them to stop them?
One need not look far away for examples of this in our own world. Many been told the sob story of the supposedly-benevolent socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, who was displaced by a military coup on September 11, 1973. What most tellings of that story miss is that while Allende was indeed democratically-elected in accord with the Constitution of Chile as it existed at that time, Allende had responded to the realities of an economic crisis and the fact that he was a head of state elected with a plurality of the vote without control of the Chilean Congress by attempting to bypass the constitution and existing law and instead to rule by decree. In fact, both the Chilean Supreme Court and its Chamber of Deputies had, prior to the coup, declared that the government was operating contrary to existing law and the Constitution but had found that, without any direct enforcement mechanism, there were no legal means available to bring a halt to those illegal acts. Hence the coup.
Perhaps, though, we ought to look further back for our model. We would do well to remember that the politics of the Roman republic were largely corrupted by two things: an increasing prosperity that removed the average Roman aristocrat from the simple and hardscrabble ways of the past and the willingness of certain ambitious Roman politicians to use their ability to pander to the ever-increasing mob by means of recourse to the public treasury. Now, some stalwart Roman statesmen attempted to force the latter genie back into the bottle by slaying the politicians who had set it loose, but it proved far too late to do so. As a result, with the ordinary political process disfigured by endemic corruption and mob violence, the Roman scene became a whirlwind of endless coups, plots, and civil wars. At one point a conservative General, Sulla, attempted to settle things by overturning the state and having himself installed as the “Dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution.” Sulla, having seemingly restored the old order by his actions during his service as Dictator, then emulated the best tradition of Cincinnatus by voluntarily laying down his office. However, by his extraordinary act Sulla had, even though he may have acted with the best of intentions, shattered the ideal of the Roman Constitution and opened up the possibility that the government might be overturned by force many times more. As a result, by the time of Augustus, the Roman people wanted stability more than liberty and therefore they were more than happy to accept the lifetime dictatorship clothed in republican garments that was offered to them.
In other words, even if you oppose a particular President or believe that certain extra-Constitutional actions pose a threat to the survival of the Constitution, it remains to be seen whether the Constitution, overturned once, could be actually restored or whether it would simply be subsequently turned over many times by whatever group might muster the strength to do so.
That is what I find so fascinating and frightening about the prospect of a Second Civil War. Because the trends pulling Americans apart are not being healed but, instead, made much worse by present events, there exists every possibility that we will eventually reach a point of no return for both sides. At some point, events will have been allowed to escalate to such a degree that both sides will face a choice between either offering their surrender or accepting battle with no guarantee that even a victorious outcome will save their vision of America and of the Constitution. I hope that the American people will come to their senses and accept the need to restore fiscal sanity and the basic principles of limited government before we ever reach the banks of that particular Rubicon.