Is the US Headed for Another Civil War?

Polarization and violence have been on the rise in the US for years, particularly since the 2016 election and the emergence of Trumpism. But in the post-2020 era, this process is reaching a new fever pitch, and numerous polls indicate that people are anxiously speculating about where it will lead.

More than half of the American population believes that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States,” according to a poll conducted by University of California, Davis in May and June of this year. A smaller survey by the Brookings Institution in early 2021 found that 46% of respondents—and 53% of those between the ages of 18 and 29—believed the US would have another civil war. A poll conducted in June 2022 by Yahoo! News asked the same question and yielded the same figure as the 2021 survey: 46% anticipated a coming civil war.

The latter poll also asked respondents about their willingness to take part in political violence. It found that only 47% were willing to rule out “taking up arms against the government”—with 23% willing outright, and another 30% either unsure, or preferring not to say. A similar question was asked in a May 2022 poll by the University of Chicago, which found that 28% believed “it may be necessary at some point soon for citizens to take up arms against the government.”

More than half of the American population believes that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.” / Image: Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia Commons

To be sure, when participants in a survey are responding to questions from a pollster, the answers they give in that context are above all a reflection of their general attitudes of unease and dread about the future, rather than a precise prediction about the likelihood for the outbreak of widespread violence. What this polling provides more than anything is a striking snapshot of the outlook of tens of millions of Americans in the 2020s.

Just a few years ago, the mere suggestion that such a dramatic event could be on the near horizon would have been dismissed by most people as an outlandish exaggeration. Today, vast swathes of the population are gripped by a mood of pessimism and anxiety when they look toward the future. Ultimately, this reflects a deep-seated recognition that society has entered a terminal impasse. It’s hard for many to imagine a brighter, peaceful future when the present era of crisis and instability shows no sign of letting up. Among young people in particular, this can give rise to competing sentiments of “doomerism” and defiant anti-capitalism.

That the US is gripped by intense polarization and discontent is self-evident. But does this really signify the short-term prospect of another civil war? And what does this kind of political landscape mean for the class struggle and the fight for revolutionary socialism?

The strategists of the system are alarmed

One of the most prominent figures in analyzing these trends is Barbara F. Walter, an author and professor of International Relations at UC San Diego. She has spent 30 years studying civil wars and political violence, working as a consultant for a dozen federal and international governmental bodies including the UN, the World Bank, CIA, US Departments of Defense and State, and the US Central Command.

Her latest book, How Civil Wars Start—And How to Stop Them, is a New York Times bestseller. It argues that the political trajectory of the US in the 2020s shares the characteristics of a country headed in that very direction. “A civil war today won’t look like America in the 1860s, Spain in the 1930s, or Russia in the 1920s,” warns the homepage of Walter’s website. “It will begin with sporadic acts of violence and terror, accelerated by social media. It will sneak up on us and leave us wondering how we could have been so blind.”

When the “democratic” facade begins to break down, it indicates significant changes in the consciousness of the masses. / Image: Hungryogrephotos. Wikimedia Commons

From 2017 to 2021, Walter was assigned to a US government task force that analyzed civil wars around the world in the attempt to identify patterns and generate a model for predicting outbreaks of political instability and violence. The researchers came up with two main factors that were deemed “highly predictive” of a civil war.

The first factor, according to Walter, was a country transitioning into a “partial democracy” or “anocracy.” This could take the form of a government that was previously considered to be relatively democratic slipping rapidly toward a more autocratic regime. Or it could be a transition in the reverse direction. An authoritarian government begins to undergo reform, providing new openings for a sudden, and sometimes violent, reconfiguration of the political balance of forces, as new political groupings and parties contend for power. This echoes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that “experience teaches that the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform.”

So whether the change happens in the direction of more democracy or more autocracy, Walter argues, it’s the rapid shift into the “in-between” zone that increases the likelihood of political violence.

While the researchers in Walter’s task force start out from a liberal conception of “democracy” in the abstract, Marxists recognize that even the most “democratic” of bourgeois regimes is merely a facade for the dictatorship of capital, backed by the violence of the state, or “special bodies of armed men,” as Engels put it. However, the way such a regime is perceived by the masses is not a secondary matter.

In periods of relative stability and temporary calm in the class struggle, capitalist rule is reinforced by widespread public trust in the legitimacy of the state and the ruling institutions. When this facade begins to break down, it indicates significant changes in the consciousness of the masses.

This is undeniably what is happening before our eyes. The above-mentioned Yahoo! News poll found that 58% of respondents think America is becoming “a less democratic country,” and half believe that it “will cease to be a democracy in the future.” A New York Times survey from July likewise found that 58% of voters believe that the current system of government “does not work,” and that “the world’s oldest independent constitutional democracy needs major reforms or a complete overhaul.”

The University of Chicago poll reported that 56% of respondents agreed that “the government is corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me.” Notably, the same survey included a question with class content: 54% of respondents strongly agreed that “a few wealthy people are able to achieve greater and greater wealth while ordinary Americans seem to struggle more with each passing year.” Only 12% disagreed with the statement.

The myth of American “democracy”

All capitalist governments—whether they are democratic republics, constitutional monarchies, mixed parliamentary systems, or bonapartist dictatorships—serve the same purpose for the ruling class. They protect and maintain the power of the tiny minority that owns the means of production and appropriates the surplus value produced by the working class. But beyond this inherently undemocratic characteristic shared by all capitalist states, the US Constitution contains particularly undemocratic features, a legacy of the first revolution.

Beyond the inherently undemocratic characteristics shared by all capitalist states, the US Constitution contains particularly undemocratic features. / Image: Phil Roeder, Wikimedia Commons

The American Revolution brought to power a ruling class that was divided between slaveholders on Southern plantations and nascent capitalists in Northern cities. The constitution they developed was a compromise that allowed the divided ruling class to govern by balancing between their divergent interests. They created a federal republic with three branches of government and a bicameral Congress, with disproportionate political weight given to rural, conservative states at the expense of the more developed and populous states. This is particularly stark in the Senate, one of the most inherently conservative branches of government, where rural states with tiny populations are given equal weight to the largest states with populations in the tens of millions. This system is still standing today.

To accommodate the coexistence of chattel slavery and wage slavery within a single nation-state, state legislatures were also given wide-ranging leeway to set their own laws. After the revolutionary overthrow of slavery in the Civil War, the Northern ruling class turned their backs on Reconstruction and the defeated minority of former slaveholders was fully reincorporated into the nation. Southern states were given free rein to determine their own voting laws and institute Jim Crow segregation.

Today, the same “states’ rights” logic is what gives Republican-dominated states the power to enact laws restricting voter access and other civil liberties. The fact that basic reproductive rights are under attack in over half the states is another consequence of this. Other features like gerrymandering and the filibuster have only intensified the extraordinarily undemocratic nature of the US government. And all of this is not to mention overtly undemocratic institutions like the Electoral College and the Supreme Court.

While the ruling class and its representatives panic over the “threat to democracy” posed by Trumpism, what they really fear is the damage Trump is causing to the illusion of democracy. But the veneer of legitimacy was already crumbling. The fact that Trump and a majority of Republican politicians are willing to further undermine it by sowing doubts about the integrity of the 2020 elections has only added to the damage.

Trump and the Republicans are playing a short-sighted game that will have far-reaching and unintended consequences for both ruling parties of capital. There is widespread recognition that the ruling institutions are undemocratic, and that the whole system is rigged against ordinary people in favor of a ruling minority. This is a conclusion with profound revolutionary implications, once it is given a conscious working-class expression.

The role of identity-based politics

The second predictive factor of political violence that the task force identified was the rise of identity-based political parties that organize people not around ideas or programs, but along the lines of ethnic, religious, or racial identity. The researchers referred to this as political or ethnic “factionalism,” described as an intense and conscious fear-mongering that emerges when public figures such as politicians, media personalities, or religious leaders attempt to play on the prejudices and fears of one identity group against another in order to galvanize support on the basis of cultural divisions.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that a task force at the service of US imperialism would identify a “predictive” link between civil wars and the deliberate fomenting of ethnic, religious, and racial divisions. The imperialist powers have always used precisely this divide-and-conquer method to secure their domination and cut across rebellion. If this is a major predictor of political violence, it is violence that is usually cultivated quite consciously by the same intelligence agencies sponsoring the research of the task force.

For Walter, however, the concept of “ethnic factionalism” describes Trump’s rise in the Republican Party. She argues that the intensifying polarization of recent years has been driven primarily by Trump’s racist demagogy and amplified by social media algorithms that steer users to more and more extreme content. This explanation for the phenomenon of Trumpism is commonly heard from liberals seeking to attribute the rise of polarization to external factors. It is a perspective that flows from the idealist philosophy of bourgeois liberalism, that ideas themselves are the driving force of history, and that the rise of polarization and extremism are due to the spread of pernicious ideas—such as “tribalism” and racism.

Right-wing identity politics cannot explain why an enormous cross-section of society turned to Trump. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

The Marxist perspective is diametrically opposed to this. It is the material conditions in society that lay the basis for ideas to take hold and resonate. It is true that Trump delivers a blend of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment with his anti-establishment message. But right-wing identity politics cannot explain why an enormous cross-section of society turned to Trump, with 74 million people voting for him in the 2020 elections. Nor do social media algorithms explain the extraordinary fact that 70% of Republicans have come to believe the last election was stolen.

The strategists of the ruling class are incapable of producing a scientific analysis of what is happening in society because their empirical method and idealist philosophical outlook is blind to the dialectics of the class struggle. Without analyzing the central class divisions in society, the historical impasse of the capitalist system, and its contradictory impact on mass consciousness, it is impossible to understand the polarization and where it is leading.

Trumpism and the class balance of forces

For decades, the living standards of the US working class have plummeted by practically every measure. Wages have stagnated since the early 1970s and are now being consumed more rapidly by inflation. Life expectancy has fallen by two years, its sharpest decline since World War II. A staggering 112 million people struggle to afford healthcare. Half of the American workforce does not earn enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment, and the typical full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford to rent an apartment anywhere in the country.

Well-paid manufacturing jobs have declined for 40 years. In the decade from 2000 to 2010, one-third of the jobs in this sector were eliminated, falling to the lowest level since 1941 and destroying the livelihood of some six million workers. This is what the status quo has come to represent for millions of working-class households. And since the Democrats were the party that oversaw the jobless post-2008 recovery for two terms, after the previous Democratic administration signed NAFTA in 1994, millions of workers have correctly seen right through the Democratic Party’s false “worker-friendly” image.

These are the material factors that have built up a widespread and deep-seated discontent, contributing to the near unanimous feeling that American society is “on the wrong track.” It is not social media content or Trump’s racist demagogy in isolation that have led such a large portion of the population to accumulate extreme resentment toward the status quo, the political establishments of both parties, and the ruling institutions as a whole.

More than any other factor, it is the absence of a mass working-class socialist party that has allowed Trump to style himself and the Republican Party as the focal point of the anger in society. Tens of millions voted for Trump and against a Wall Street–endorsed Democrat, precisely because for many, Trump appeared to be the only alternative to the status-quo establishment. The cross-class coalition of Trump voters brings together affluent business owners, frenzied small business owners, fringe conspiracy theorists, racist militiamen, lumpen Proud Boy thugs… and tens of millions of workers who are desperate for a way out of the impasse.

Racism, chauvinism, and other forms of reactionary prejudice are certainly alive and well in the US, and occupy a prominent place within the Republican voter base. But the far right represents a numerically insignificant minority compared to the rest of the population.

This is clearly revealed any time a far-right group attempts to rally openly under their own banner. In 2017, for example, dozens of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and alt-right organizations gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite the Right” rally. After months of planning, and bringing in participants from all over the country for this “show of strength,” the crowd they mustered was easily outnumbered by at least two-to-one by the counter-demonstration. Tens of thousands mobilized across a dozen other cities in mass rallies against these racist organizations. Though far-right individuals can find cover when they blend into a typical Trump rally, the overwhelming majority of the working class rejects these fringe reactionaries.

The response to the murder of George Floyd is evidence that the working class is capable of uniting to fight for a common cause. / Image: tedeytan, Flickr

This was revealed by the unprecedented mobilization after the murder of George Floyd. At its height in early June 2020, three-quarters of the population supported the mass movement, including a 60% majority of white people and even a 53% majority of Republicans. If tens of millions of workers and youth of all colors were willing to mobilize against racism and police terror, just imagine the mass response that the racist menace of the far right would provoke long before it came anywhere near taking real political power.

Only class politics can cut across Trumpism

The provocations of Donald Trump undoubtedly played a role in fueling the mass scope of the 2020 movement, which sent the President himself running for cover in the White House bunker. If Trump gets back in the White House in 2024, it will only increase the volatility and the likelihood of another mass upsurge in the streets. Importantly, it will also risk splitting his own base, precisely because of Trump’s inability to solve any of the burning social problems of the working class.

In fact, despite the numerical increase in Trump’s 2020 vote compared to 2016, data from the American National Election Studies indicates that the working-class segment of his voter base actually declined by three percentage points after the experience of his first term. Meanwhile, over 80 million eligible voters chose to sit it out, primarily because they saw no appeal in either candidate. The 2024 election will again present the working class with two unpalatable options, and nothing viable to cut across the simmering discontent.

While the two-party framework appears to reflect a population polarized in two directions, the young generation of the working class is moving inexorably towards class struggle. Millennials and Gen Z now make up the largest segment of the American workforce, and given the period of capitalist decline they have grown up in, they are more likely to identify as members of the working class than any other generation.

Some striking miners in rural Alabama turned on the Republican Party after local politicians—all from the GOP—supported the company against them. / Image: UMWA

We see the real mood of the working class in the recent wave of unionization struggles, and in the uptick of support for unions. Today, 71% of Americans support unions—their highest level of public support in six decades, and up from 48% in 2009. Among young people, union approval is even higher. For example, an April 2022 poll found that 83% of people aged 18–34 support the effort to organize Amazon workers. Even 71% of Trump voters in that age group support the struggle to unionize Amazon!

Likewise, some of the striking miners in rural Alabama turned on the Republican Party after local politicians—all from the GOP—supported the company against them. As one of these miners, a former Trump supporter, concluded about the two parties: “I’d like to actually see, from either side, just a change toward the workers of the country. I mean, just me as an average working-class American, I can’t see to where either side has done anything to help the working class.”

Living in a revolutionary epoch

Walter’s conclusions about the danger of another civil war are based on a method of analysis that fails to account for the elemental power of the working class when it moves into action, and the explosive way in which mass consciousness changes under the impact of events. The empirical tools of the “predictive model” developed by her task force are blind to the real driver of history—including the many civil wars of the past—the war between the classes.

The revolutions in Russia and Spain of the last century were not the result of any vague “identity-based factionalism” or “tribalism,” but rather, living struggles between the workers, peasants, capitalists, and landlords. Likewise, the last American Civil War was a revolutionary class war fought over slavery, not identity.

Walter’s practical advice for preventing civil war? She points to the crucial role of the “business community,” the need for the public to “listen to the warnings from the experts,” and for people to vote. A bourgeois method of analysis can only produce impotent conclusions like these.

The part of Walter’s prognosis we can agree with is that the instability and chaos will only continue to intensify. There is nothing the ruling class can do to close the Pandora’s box of crisis and polarization, because it is driven by the historical exhaustion of the capitalist system itself.

But society’s impasse does not at all mean we are doomed to a helpless descent into sporadic and unfocused violence. There is, in fact, an infinitely preferable alternative to the scenario of a prolonged and destructive civil war: the decisive overthrow of capitalism by the new generation of the working class united around a revolutionary socialist program.

The cross-class coalition around Trump can be broken down along class lines, once there is a prominent current in society that appeals directly and systematically to working-class interests and demands. The role of socialists in the US in the 2020s is to lay the foundations for a mass socialist party that can connect with the working class and cut through the “culture war” debates with a revolutionary perspective and a militant program for solving the problems facing the majority.

Future social explosions on the scale of June 2020 and beyond are inevitable. But socialists can take action today to prepare ahead of such momentous events. Millions of young people are opposed to capitalism, open to revolutionary ideas, and taking the road of class struggle. The IMT is fighting to organize this immense layer of the working class into a serious political force armed with a clear revolutionary program. Join us in the fight to take our future into our hands!

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