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Is America on the Verge of Civil War?

While the idea may sound absurd, it happened just a few generations ago. The industrial north and the slave-holding, agrarian south couldn’t agree on, among other things, the extension of slavery into new states, as both sides didn’t want the other to gain a congressional voting advantage. A series of compromises over many years maintained the delicate balance, but gradually the two sides became more partisan, the rhetoric more divisive, and civil discourse eventually disappeared. Soon violence would be used to adjudicate their disputes, with the south firing the first shot. Within four years 700,000 Americans were dead, thousands more injured, homeless, widowed or orphaned. If that proportion of Americans were killed today, about 8 million Americans would die. The south thought that slavery and the lifestyle it provided were worth dying and killing for … and die and kill they did.

The parallels between the period that led up to the civil War in America and the situation today are striking. Today the basic functions of government—filling judicial vacancies including those on the Supreme Court, passing budgets, maintaining infrastructure, paying our bills—are stymied by disagreements over abortion, marriage, contraception, gun control, diplomacy, climate change, immigration, taxes, race relations and more. And these disagreements, like those preceding the American civil war, take on a regional flavor. Western and northern states are generally more educated, liberal and progressive, midwestern and southern states typically more conservative and reactionary.

Ideally, moral and political disagreements would be resolved through rational discourse. Members of the legislative and executive branches, informed by experts and the best available scientific evidence, would carefully and conscientiously consider the truth about issues. Subsequently, they would exchange ideas with their colleagues with the goal of following the most prudent course. Their aim would be to act in the national and international interest. Instead representative who wants to be re-elected tend to act in their own self-interest, which is generally accomplished by appeasing an ignorant constituency or a monied special interest.

In other words most representatives aren’t interested in the national or international interest; rather they are self-interested. If opposition to gun control, immigration reform, environmental protection or the selection of new judges aides their re-election, they will oppose such actions no matter how collectively good such things might be. And if they don’t get their way, they will not compromise. Instead they will not approve judges or budgets, or threaten to shut down government or default on the nation’s debt obligations in order to get their way. They will actually threaten to undermine the world economy because, for example, they or their constituency doesn’t want planned parenthood to distribute contraceptives or people to have greater access to health-care!

Representatives should know better. After all, given their place in the economic order it’s senseless to risk a world economic collapse over contraceptives or their citizens health-care. But to be re-elected they must pretend to care about keeping contraceptives from sexually active teenagers, or health-care from poor people, since many of their votes come from people who hold medieval views about sex or hate poor people. It also senseless for the elite to undermine the judiciary, as the wealthy benefit most from the rule of law and social stability. But if not approving judges is what some special interest wants, then by all means reduce the efficiency of the courts in order to be re-elected.

In fact, why not demonize government altogether if that helps get you get re-elected? Tell your constituency you hate government, just don’t mention that government includes police, firefighters, national guard, military, FBI, CIA, CDC or the very government that you are working for! Tell people to trust private corporations, for surely Monsanto and Exxon Mobil have your interests at heart more so than FDR did when he created social security or LBJ did when he created medicare and medicaid. Now I understand that the rich who fund campaigns don’t want to pay taxes or have their businesses regulated, but by demonizing government as a means to this end the rich weaken the foundation of their own wealth and power. They undermine government and the rule of law at our at their peril.

The combination of a corrupt political/economic system, demonization of government, rampant economic and social equality, and an uninformed or misinformed citizenry is a toxic brew. It is the root cause, for example, of the current Donald Trump phenomena in which the dissatisfied masses support a uniquely unqualified individual for the office of the American Presidency. Trump is obviously unqualified for the office of the presidency in every conceivable way—from his personality and moral character, to his psychological instability, to his ignorance of any knowledge or experience relevant to the job. Trump is a poster boy of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which the ignorant assume they are knowledgeable about things of which they are ignorant. His supporters no doubt suffer from a similar malady.

And while the American Psychiatric Association prohibits its members from offering a psychiatric diagnosis of a public official without their having conducted an exam on that person, I’m not a member so I’ll take my shot. (Although I have studied abnormal psychology and philosophical issues in psychiatry at a relatively high level.) I’d say a cursory glance at Mr. Trump reveals that he suffers severely from a number of psychological maladies including: bi-polar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and quite probably borderline personality disorder. He also suffers psychologically from the lack of sleep he brags about. Among the big 5 personality traits he would be rated very high on neuroticism and low on emotional stability.

Putting such an unstable individual at the helm of the nuclear arsenal is just one unintended consequence (and a particularly scary one) of a broken political system, especially today’s broken, obstructionist Republican party. The Republican party, especially its Tea Party wing, is in fact a Confederate party, a white, racist party most prominent in the American south. As the basic functions of democratic government are eroding, the ignorant look for a strongman to save them. Needless to say this does not bode well for the republic or for international peace and prosperity.

Another way of looking at the American situation reveals that the society is caught in a paradox that game theorists call an n-person prisoner’s dilemma. The essence of this paradox is that all of us would do better if we all cooperated—by having universal health-care, enacting weapons bans, acting on climate change, minimizing environmental pollution, reducing or eliminating nuclear arsenals, abandoning the use of antibiotics for livestock, fixing the infrastructure, etc.—but groups who profit producing weapons, refining oil, polluting the environment, selling health insurance or not paying taxes do better if they never cooperate, at least in the short-term. Thus we live in a state of political warfare rather than a more cooperative society like Norway, Denmark, Sweden or Switzerland.

The key to escaping this prisoner’s dilemma is to penalize those who don’t abide by the social contract, those who don’t cooperate with the rest of us. This works pretty well for petty criminals who steal $100 from the quick shop, but it doesn’t work well for forcing cooperative behavior from bankers, financiers, CEOs and the corrupt politicians who do their bidding. When billions of dollars are stolen or billions of dollars of taxes go unpaid, there are no repercussions. No one is guarding the guardians, and your AR-15 won’t save you. When weapons manufactures, oil companies, or the meat or insurance industries oppose measure that serve the common good, they win and the common good loses.

There is little hope that much can be done about all this, since justice would demand that the many prominent citizens, politicians, financiers and others would then serve jail time, and a majority of those in prison would be released and given a basic income as recompense for the injustice they have probably been subject to since birth. The little thieves go to jail, while the big thieves get bonuses. The wealthy and powerful want to undermine government’s ability to regulate, that’s why they rail against regulation. What they really don’t want is for government, the collective power of the people, to regulate their wealth and power. They want to be able to pollute the environment, profit from selling assault rifles or deny people health care.

So what can be done? Perhaps the US government can become less corrupt like those of the Scandinavian countries but I wouldn’t bet on it. A more radical solution, but one I have suggested many times on this blog, is for future technologies to rewire our brains so that humans will become more cooperative and intelligent. In addition we would also need the moral courage to utilize such technology. This is, I believe, our best hope.

But I’d actually bet that humans will destroy themselves, except that if I won that bet I wouldn’t be around to collect. So instead I’ll keep hoping that our descendants will find ways to augment their current moral and intellectual faculties. For either we evolve or we will die.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


I don’t disagree on your conclusions about Trump or the GOP - in fact I thought it was pretty succinct - but I do disagree on the articles premise.

Yes, there’s clearly a partisan divide in this country but the elements that make up the most radical portion of those sides is incredibly small compared to the rest of the electorate. 

You can’t just look at the division by popular vote because that represents the basic left/right division rather than the radical elements. 

For that you have to look at the actual number of Trump extremists who voted in the primaries.  They were a minority of the Republican party - itself a minority party. 

The people most likely to resort to that “first shot” of a new civil war are a minority of a minority of less than half the country.

To put a finer point on it those that are angry enough to resort to violence are only on one side of this division. There are no left wing militias or hate groups of any consequence, assuming there are any.

If we end up with any kind of internal violent conflict I believe it will begin with the ever rising (justified) anger over police violence against black Americans.  This is a powder keg and we are one violent demonstration away from the whole thing exploding.

I pray I’m wrong but my gut tells me this will happen.

“To put a finer point on it those that are angry enough to resort to violence are only on one side of this division. There are no left wing militias or hate groups of any consequence, assuming there are any.”


Black Lives Matter violence, rioters
The Anti-Trump Rioters
La Raza rioters in Arizona
The UK “gun grabber” at a trump rally in Vegas

The police violence may, indeed,  trigger this, but nobody says a thing over the shootings that happen in Chicago, every weekend. Also, there is a deep totalitarian mind set within the Progressive movement, which is seen on campuses, and public schools nearly everywhere. The Dems get funded also, by Wall Street, and Silicon Valley, and nothing is ever said about this.

For a true analysis of what has driven, in large part, by corporations, unimpeded by the Bushes, or Obama, outsourcing US jobs overseas. Look at Disney for example. Funds, Dem PAC’s and sends jobs to where it’s cheaper.

Both Sides!  Both Sides!


Black Lives Matter violence, rioters
The Anti-Trump Rioters
La Raza rioters in Arizona

People get angry at protests.  It can often take a lot of organization and discipline to prevent all of the people on one’s own side from ever engaging in any violence.  That doesn’t make a group of protesters an armed militia.  I see you made no mention of violence by Trump supporters or Tea Partiers who bring signs to their protests saying “We Didn’t Come Armed—This Time” (a direct, deliberate threat of armed insurrection).  Remember folks, It’s OK If You’re A Republican.

The UK “gun grabber” at a trump rally in Vegas

Given that the context here is the possibility of a second Civil War in the United States, how is the American Left responsible for the actions of a foreign citizen?  Furthermore, if he were a member of an armed militia, he wouldn’t have had to try to steal a policeman’s gun.

Pdavis’ comment still stands.

The police violence may, indeed,  trigger this, but nobody says a thing over the shootings that happen in Chicago, every weekend.

Maybe because cops ought to be held to a higher standard than criminal gangsters?  Or do you disagree?

Also, there is a deep totalitarian mind set within the Progressive movement, which is seen on campuses, and public schools nearly everywhere.

Sorry, but a group of angry college students is not equivalent to a Republican Senate that refuses to even consider doing its job when it comes to a nomination of a Supreme Court Justice from a President of the wrong party and with the wrong skin color.  It’s just not.  It’s not the same as a Republican cadre in the House that threatens to shut down the United States Government and destroy our credit rating and even the world economy to get their way.  It’s just not.

Furthermore, most of what gets called “Political Correctness” by the Right consists of extending the same common courtesy to people who are not heterosexual white males that heterosexual white males rightfully expect to receive as a matter of course.  Most people’s mommies and daddies taught them not to go around saying and doing things that are hurtful to others.  For the most part “PC” consists of explaining things that are hurtful to minority groups and, yes, shaming and/or “calling out” those who say and do those things anyway.  I’m sure there are times and places where it gets out of hand, but we have yet to see a bunch of “politically correct” college students showing up with firearms and taking over government property.  Mostly, they just get angry and shout at people.  A formidable militia indeed!

The Dems get funded also, by Wall Street, and Silicon Valley, and nothing is ever said about this.

Nothing?  Ever?  You’re the very first person to ever mention this?  You need to get out more.  Go read or watch pretty much any liberal source (Counterpunch, The Young Turks on YouTube, Huffington Post, Truthout, Truthdig, etc.), and you’ll see no end of complaints about corporate funding of Hillary and the DNC.  Ever heard of a guy named Bernie Sanders?  I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were complaints about this stuff on Right-wing sites as well.  Presumably you heard of it from somewhere, unless you discovered it all by yourself through personal investigation.

For a true analysis of what has driven, in large part, by corporations, unimpeded by the Bushes, or Obama, outsourcing US jobs overseas. Look at Disney for example. Funds, Dem PAC’s and sends jobs to where it’s cheaper.

But, but, but, isn’t that The Free Market (profits be upon its Invisible Hand) in all its glory?  Shouldn’t we give the rich more tax cuts and eliminate regulation on business, corporations (they’re people!), and the movement of capital?  Republicans have been telling us for decades that if we did this, The Free Market (pbuiih) would bless us with Trickled Down wealth from our glorious Job Creators who create all good things from the kindness of their Randian Ubermench hearts.  Granted, the Democrats didn’t stop this stuff from happening, but then, if they’d tried you guys would have howled that they’re Communist Atheist Muslim Fundamentalist Limp-Wristed Hippie Weakling Iron-Fisted Stalinist Tyrants (yes, all at the same time). 

Of course, you guys did that anyway, even when Democrats jumped on the Big Corporate Bandwagon and supported the various international trade treaties, foreign wars, etc., and generally moved well to the right of Nixon.  De-Republicanizing the Democratic Party is what the Bernie Sanders insurrection is all about.

Yeah, you can’t be wrong, because it runs against the left, ideological narrative. The ideology must, ever, be protected.  The facts speaks for themselves and the left is not peaceable, however they sell themselves. For example, “antiwar,” is not pacifism, its selective targeting of any American conflict, never a focus, say on what China does in the pacific. 

Civil War? Quite possibly.

The vast difference between the intellectual rigor and sophistication of Kevin C’s arguments versus the vacuous response of spud100 is astonishing.

Well vacuous is my middle name. Kevin defended the narrative and I said that the narrative is wrong. Defending the progressive ideology, sans, accuracy, is all important. This, I accept, as I accept water is wet. The ideological faith must be protected at all costs. I get it.

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