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Civil War: Death Match between Continuity and Change

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

That compressed tension between continuity and change is the mainspring of History. Societies characteristically work to balance continuity with change. This is the heart of the normal political dynamic. Equipoise is maintained by a natural, if informal understanding that some measure of compromise and accommodation is necessary — and desirable — in constitutional order.

Thus political competition is refereed by a collective expectation that things will likely “change enough to stay the same.”

Practical politics support equipoise. First, the reality of many contending change agendas must mean much balancing, encouraging a politics of equilibration. Second, historical custom should disfavor escalating conflict beyond certain thresholds — our very mythos itself discourages partisan agendas whose fulfillment puts the constitutional order at risk. Third, no vision or partisan agenda seeking to breach continuity or force change by fiat can be permitted. In other words, we took essential steps so that our political order would not be threatened by an unyielding existential issue — since the 1850s — for a reason.

Yet the United States today is skirmishing its way into just another such existential fight. This is a battle over the nature and direction of change itself: Over where society and its constitutional order are going, and how the legitimacy of republican rule, in its essence, is to be defined.

Right before Christmas I posted my end-of-2020 thoughts: “Civil War Has Yet to Go Critical.”

But now — with a storming of the Winter Palace (the Capitol) — can it more properly be said that we are already there? So the rhetoric and ritual events over the holiday space have turned out to be no “breather” at all.

Many millions among Red passionately declare the election “stolen” through outright fraud. Blue, in haughty contrast, treats any token of their deplorable disbelief as the addled maundering of so many children — acting out. Red leaders who demand accounting and investigation are routinely charged as traitors, or “enemies of the Constitution.”

The two contending factions, in other words, are no longer partisan: But rather, confounding Shakespeare, instead now steeled “To wield old partisans [in] cankered hate.” The angry tableau has been set; the stage prepared for renewed battle once the curtain is again, in a fortnight, raised.

Simply, America’s longstanding political equipoise (from c. 1876) has completely broken down. Continuity and change, for better or worse, is now locked in a classic death match. How will it be resolved? How will it end?

Yet at this moment, this is not the question for us. The question for us is at once intensely more urgent and yet also intensely intractable, which is: How can we properly — which is to say, dispassionately — analyze what is happening to us as a nation?

This is no minor matter. To know with surety that your society is already deep in civil war has little to do with bloodshed indices — though these are certain to come. In civil war, this is the unbridgeable divide, the insurmountable wall that splits virtue and truth — reality itself — into an existential moiety that no longer possesses the merest filament whatsoever to secure its reattachment again as a whole thing.

In such a tearing state, no analysis is possible from within the orbit of either torn and warring part. Only violent sermons are to be found among these bitter partisans.

Analysis here can come only from the naked vantage of an outsider: From the man who was once a part, and who is now, entirely, apart. From the lonely perch of [Robert Ezra Park and Everett Stonquist’s] Marginal Man, the net assessment of this third American civil war must go where it must — never where it wants.

No passionate, partisan assessment has any value, save to inflame. Remember this.

Hence, knowing that our great and bloody national clashes are still yet ahead, this marginal man can only sense three ends, with no assurance of clarity, or even finality, in the denouement:

1-Secession: Some agreed — whether polite or desperate — coming apart of the old Union into local, state, or other-based constitutional entities, perhaps still federated, if more loosely than a nation. While this arrangement is increasingly acknowledged by commentators as potentially avoiding the worst of civil war, its realization nonetheless requires a form of civil war. There is no avoiding war.

2-Blue triumph: The ultimate subjugation of Red by main force, achieved by the preponderance of wealth, ruling institutional leverage, and military power. A social revolution as well as a political transformation: The full outcome must likely reconstitute our constitutional order in ways unrecognizable to us today.

3-Thermidorian Reaction: Exhausted by civil conflict, American society takes a modest counter-revolutionary turn, in which repudiated old traditions are [at least partly] reinstated, and a measure of political toleration and overall equipoise returns to national life, along with constitutional accommodations and firewalls to forestall another descent into civil strife.

As you can see, the first of these ends preserves both continuity and change, in what would necessarily be a very uneasy — if not unacceptable — face-off. One side would likely be fearful of the other, ready to pounce.

The second of these ends is all change, and would almost certainly — if we are to believe anything of humanity’s 20th century agony — require totalitarian means to be even partly realized: And like the terrors of that century, this outcome, too, would be highly unstable.

The last end, to my © conservative mind, is also the happiest — or least unhappy — outcome.

Yet in this new year, looking ahead, I cannot even begin to affirm that this is, by any measure, the most likely.

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