Has America’s Fever Broken?
Veteran national security journalist Thomas Ricks explains “Why I’ve stopped fearing America is headed for civil war.” It is not an essay brimming with optimism. Indeed, he was downright pessimistic not long ago:
I wrote in a series of articles and online discussions for Foreign Policy that I expected to see widespread political violence accompanied by efforts in some states to undermine the authority and abilities of the federal government. At an annual lunch of national security experts in Austin, I posed the question of possible civil war and got a consensus of about a one-third chance of such a situation breaking.
Specifically, I worried that there would be a spate of assassination attempts against politicians and judges. I thought we might see courthouses and other federal buildings bombed. I also expected that in some states, right-wing organizations, heavily influenced by white nationalism, would hold conventions to discuss how to defy enforcement of federal laws they disliked, such as those dealing with voting rights. Some governors might vow to fire any state employee complying with unwanted federal orders. And I thought it likely that “nullification juries” would start cropping up, refusing to convict right-wingers committing mayhem, such as attacking election officials, no matter what evidence there was.
We still may see such catastrophes, of course. Our country remains deeply divided. We have a Supreme Court packed with reactionaries. Many right-wingers appear comfortable with threatening violence if things don’t go their way, and a large minority of the members of Congress seems unconcerned with such talk. I continue to worry especially about political assassinations, because all that takes is one deranged person and a gun — and our country unfortunately has many of both.
And yet, for all that, I am less pessimistic than I was back then.
That’s a low bar, indeed! Sure, we might still have mass murders and episodic assassinations—less than ideal, to be sure—but civil war?
Oddly enough, the main things that give me hope arise from former president Donald Trump’s attack on the electoral process, culminating in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. At the time I feared that the unprecedented insurrection was the beginning of a sustained war on American democracy.
Yet nothing much happened. Rather, with the executive branch crippled and the legislative branch divided, the judicial branch of the federal government held the line. Again and again, both federal and state courts rejected claims of election fraud. Now those who alleged fraud without substantial evidence are themselves being investigated. Hundreds of people who invaded the Capitol, attacked police and threatened lawmakers were tracked down and charged with crimes. It was as if the American system had been subjected to a stress test and, albeit a bit wobbly, passed.
Moreover, the Capitol invaders turned out to lack the courage of their convictions. Having broken the law, they shied away from the consequences. Unlike the civil rights activists of the 1960s, they did not proudly march into jails, certain of the rightness of their cause, eager to use the moment to explain what they had done and why. They lacked the essentials that gave the civil rights movement and others sustainability: training, discipline and a strategy for the long term.
The first part of this—that the system survived the stress test of a President trying to steal an election and, indeed, was foiled partly by election officials from his own party putting their duty to the Constitution over to him or their party—is indeed cause for optimism. The second part is less hopeful. It’s like not being worried about crime because the overwhelming number of criminals are rather inept.
More recently, the House select committee examining how Jan. 6 came to pass has established a factual record that cannot be denied. While unfortunately not truly bipartisan, it also shows part of the legislative branch of the federal government finally awakening and responding to the attack that branch suffered. The Justice Department’s slow but steady pursuit of Jan. 6 perpetrators “at any level” targets those who thought they could speak or act without repercussions. And the American people are paying attention. A recent NBC News poll found that “threats to democracy” topped the list of pressing issues facing the nation.
Again, I agree that the Committee—about which I was decidedly skeptical—has done surprisingly yeoman work. But the vast number of those citing “threats to democracy” are Democrats. And some Republicans think Democrats stealing elections is the threat. That doesn’t make me all that hopeful.
Yes, we still have a long way to go. There are no signs of a national reconciliation in the offing. Some Trump followers no doubt will be elected to Congress and to state offices this fall, and control of both houses of Congress is uncertain.
But it is beginning to feel to me like the wave of hard right — not “conservative” — reaction has crested. As we saw in the recent vote in Kansas, the Supreme Court’s ruling against abortion has awakened many women, and some men, to the dangers of letting that court go wildly out of step with the American people.
I agree with all that. But the fact remains that the Court is stacked and likely to remain so for quite a while.
In addition, the events of the past few years, most notably the pandemic and some natural disasters, have reminded many Americans that there is a place for good and effective government, especially in providing the basic societal needs of public health, public safety, air and water quality, and roads and other forms of transportation. That revived appreciation is one more reason I think the danger of civil war is receding.
I’m not sure we’re been watching the same pandemic. There has been a massive reaction against the CDC, vaccines, masking, and all the rest. To be sure, it’s a minority position. But it’s a sizable, loud, sometimes violent minority.
So, while the patient is not yet healthy, I see some signs that the fever is breaking and the prognosis is improving.
Sadly, I’m less optimistic than I was two years ago. I thought there was a decent chance that Joe Biden’s sheer decency and decades-long relationships with so many Congressional Republicans could start a healing process that would return us to some semblance of normalcy. We turned out to be too far gone for that.
Now, as I’ve noted many times before, I agree with Ricks that we’re unlikely to have a Civil War in the sense of North vs South. Our divides are no longer anything like that neat. But I don’t think the fever is anywhere close to breaking, either.