A Civil War? An Internal Cold War?

A Civil War? An Internal Cold War? November 10, 2020


The United States has become so polarized–as evidenced in our recent election–that some observers from both the Left and the Right are wondering if we might be facing a new Civil War.

That would not be another military conflict like the War Between the States.  The disputes are not between states that have armies.  And there is probably little sentiment on either side for keeping the Union together.  That’s the problem.  Our two sides do not seem capable of existing in a union with each other.  What we seem to have lost is our democratic consensus and our overarching identity as Americans.  But it’s hard to have a nation or a rule of law or a culture when the major factions do not recognize each other’s legitimacy.

To speak of a Civil War is to use a metaphor, but metaphors capture realities.  Someone has said that what we are facing is more of a “Cold Civil War,” not a shooting conflict but a bitter ideological struggle, similar to the Cold War between the United States and the Western Alliance and the Soviet Union and its Communist empire.  That Cold War sometimes became “hot” in various regional conflicts, just as our protests today sometimes turn violent, but it came to an end not because of a military victory but because of the internal economic and cultural collapse of Communism.  The metaphor of the Cold War is not adequate either, since in the United States, both liberals and conservatives were mostly united against the common adversary.  An internal Cold War is something different, and it isn’t clear how it could be resolved.

Clifford Humphrey has written a thoughtful discussion of this topic for Law & Liberty entitled Uncivil Wars of Civil Religion.

He notes the important differences between our current disagreements between progressives and conservatives and the 19th century regional conflict over slavery.  But there is a regional dimension to today’s polarization:

Today we are looking at an urban archipelago of progressive strongholds in an otherwise sea of conservatism. Put another way, there are fortifications of concentrated Left-leaning populations in every State that are nearly equal in numbers of inhabitants to the sprawling conservative countryside surrounding them. If progressives are able to enact the regime-altering changes to the Constitution they are proposing (such as packing the Court and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.), these relatively tiny islands of progressivism would be able to rule the rest of the country like feudal barons ruling over a countryside replete with serfs.

The Founders of the Republic counted on there being a large population consisting of many diverse interests and beliefs, so many that the various small groups would have to form coalitions and work towards not any particular interests–they would be too small for that–but for a common good.  Dr. Humphrey quotes James Madison, who notes that “in the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects, which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place upon any other principles, than those of justice and the general good.”  But this isn’t working today!

Dr. Humphrey sees a better analogy in the Wars of Religion of the 17th century.  The problem is, religion has to do with people’s strongest commitments and most fundamental beliefs.  So when political associations come down to religious belief, compromise is impossible. 

He sees today’s conflict between progressives, who are secularists who believe that American culture and government is oppressive to its core, and conservatives who believe in American traditions of economic liberty and Constitutional government, is fundamentally religious.  That is, a conflict between civil religions.  Though secularists tend to be progressive and adherents to traditional religions tend to be conservatives, the political conflicts are not spiritual issues, as such.  (I would add the examples that black evangelicals tend to be progressives, and white working class secularists tend to be conservatives, with Catholics on both sides of the divide.)

My thought is that perhaps when we hear the Civil War metaphor, we should think not of the American Civil War but the English Civil War, in which the middle and lower class Puritans overthrew the aristocratic high church Royalists.  That war, in which the Puritans overthrew and executed the King but were unable to govern for very long, was religious, but it was also social, as is our conflicts today.

The 17th century religious wars were eventually resolved by allowing different countries to have different religions.  Eventually, this developed into allowing individuals to have different religions.  Dr. Humphrey quotes a prominent scholar:

Harry V. Jaffa once noted that “indeed, it was only this separation of religious opinion from political rights that enabled the United States to adopt a republican or non-Caesarian solution to the political problem.”

Jaffa explained that there is a necessary connection between the possibility for republican government and the institutionalization of religious liberty “because it was only by disestablishment that theological differences—differences which cannot yield to the process of compromise—ceased to be political differences.” If Jaffa is right, republican government becomes impossible if political differences begin to take on the color of theological differences because those differences cannot yield to the deliberative process of compromise.

When such a condition prevails, we are no longer able to govern ourselves through political speech. Deliberation thus gives way to negotiation. The nature of this difference—as I have heard Paul A. Rahe explain—implies that we are no longer civil friends with a common good, but antagonistic adversaries with conflicting interests.

Dr. Humphrey sees no clear way forward on these issues.  But he holds out the hope that perhaps we are not quite so far gone yet.  Perhaps we can recover some kind of national consensus, enough to hold us together as a nation.

And yet, don’t we still have some common American values that can be found on both sides of our divide?  Such as “freedom.”  There are differences about what that entails, but isn’t that a common value?  The Progressives are critical of capitalism, but their leaders in the academic, entertainment, and corporate world seem to be in favor of making money.  They invoke socialism, but that would suggest an ideology that would be inclusive of the white working class, which is Donald Trump’s base.  The cultural elite–what Blind Willie Johnson called our “nobles”–look down their noses at the “serfs,” but the populist mood seems to unite both the grass roots right and the grass roots left.  Black evangelicals are far from sharing the perspectives of their  “secularist” allies  and have much in common with white evangelicals.  The biggest and most passionate point of division has to do with abortion.  The pro-life movement includes Catholics and evangelicals who would be fine with many liberal social and political policies, if progressives would only extend their social justice sensibilities to the unborn.

Might we see some new alliances and new configurations that could get us past the current polarizations?  Might we put together some semblance of national unity, perhaps in response to a newly-aggressive China or to a resurgence of Islamic terrorism?

Will our election perpetuate and even intensify our divisions–with Republicans claiming Democrats stole the election, just as Democrats claimed that Republicans stole the election in 2016, with a “Resistance” this time of the right–or might it usher in a new national mood that is tired of the constant conflict?

What do you think?


Image:  English Civil War re-enactors by 2720609 from Pixabay

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