Civil War Histories’ Direct Message to Us
Last week’s post — Civil War History Shows Us What We Don’t Want to Know — described a topology: Can many different civil wars through history be distilled — in terms of their, dimension, bounding, and connectedness — into a manageable set of variants?
I suggested five civil war variants, and then posited that today’s American civil war touches elements of all five. These shared points of contact — bounded, measured, and connected — might tell us more precisely just what kind of civil war we are in.
Variant One: An abiding sense of kinship across a national society migrates away from the unity of the whole toward separate and mutually estranged identities.
The estrangement/separating-identities model appeals to many observers today. The electoral maps (especially by county) seem to show two distinct nations, one Red and one Blue. Thus, today’s civil war can look a lot like the estrangement between Britain and its diehard colonial loyalists, on one hand, and the firebrand “Sons of Liberty” on the other.
The pattern of 18th century estrangement, however, was more complex. The deeply entrenched on both sides — “Tory” and “Patriot” — were each smaller political minorities in a sea of middle-roaders, fence-sitters, and the disengaged. Is today’s United States so different?
The big departure from the estrangement model is that Blue is driven by a cohesive elite class, one which holds a dominant national position, owning both overwhelming wealth and ruling institutions. In contrast, Red represents a populist insurgency of the left-behind, rising from the “Tea Party” movement and rooted in rural marginalization and political dispossession. The two forces are wildly unequal.
In practice this struggle is not taking shape as a separation — de facto secession — but rather as a dynamic in which Blue, now the ruling regime, seeks through force to completely suppress and eradicate the political insurgency that is Red. Political proscription (criminalizing) and ideological submission (reeducation), while not yet official policy, is the rhetoric driving the heart of the Blue ruling class agenda.
In the 18th century, separation from Britain was natural and straightforward. More than 100,000 Loyalists were geographically evacuated by the Crown. Today the estranged identity of Red has no real prospect of political autonomy, or even escape, as Blue — with all the power cards stacked in its favor — will use force to quell all resistance.
Two: A longstanding constitutional order (and its entrenched regime) can no longer adjust to existential cultural change.
Above all, constitutional order requires equipoise to work. In other words, opposing political factions commit to working with each other in a power-sharing balance. While one party from time to time may hold electoral advantage, neither party can become so powerful as to threaten the existence of the other. As a goal, pure political power leading to one-party rule is taboo. The prime directive must be to preserve the constitutional order.
Hence, America’s first constitutional order broke down when just such political equipoise unravelled in the 1850s. Why did it come apart? I suggest that the specter of “existential cultural change” came to eclipse constitutional altruism. Each party came to believe that the way of life it represented could not survive with the other party in power. Two opposed visions of American life could not coexist.
Our successor constitutional order rose from the wreckage of civil war. A working equipoise reemerged, built by mutual accommodation. By the end of the 1870s, and certainly by the 1890s, a new political order and its rules were universally embraced, within which two ruling parties shared power, periodically trading places. Our second constitutional order succeeded to no small degree by balancing federal power and state autonomy.
In the 1850s, two roughly equal American elites ranged against each other. Today, in contrast, the Blue elite seeks to alter the constitutional order so as to permanently advantage a de facto one-party system that ideologically aligns with a unitary ruling class. This may even appear within reach as the old Red elite looks to be in steep decline and tries to lead a weaker populist constituency.
Three: “Imagined Community” among disparate identities is an artificial kinship maintained through leadership and regime force majeure, and can no longer be enforced.
The classical example of imposed, artificial kinship is Yugoslavia, where manufactured national kinship suddenly dissolved after the death of Tito.
There is indeed manufactured kinship in the United States today, but its claims are hardly national. What has been artificially constructed is imagined as a sort of brutalist tribal kinship, where identity allegiance is defined strictly by race and sex. The Blue elite class has succeeded in selling such artificial kinship as the primary electoral motivation among Blue working class political constituencies.
This represents a cynical strategy of electoral divide-and-conquer, in order to cement Blue ruling class locks on power. It involves substituting tribal identity for class interest, so that working class blacks, hispanics, and women will choose emotional allegiance to the Blue elite rather than voting in solidarity — for their own class interests — with working class Red populists.
The Blue ruling class solidified tribal kinship through an aggressive four year campaign that sought to define the Red president and his “base” as a threat to the nation itself. “Fascist” was the term of art used to paint supporters as unthinking acolytes in a cult of the Leader. “Authoritarian” was the term used to paint Red as a clear and present danger to American democracy. “Deplorable” was the term used to suggest that Red voters were ignorant, stupid, and savage, suspect and unworthy citizens.
Now the Blue elite is using the events of 6 January to justify a strategy of Red proscription. All Red political activity may be put under criminal scrutiny, as “domestic terrorism.” Formally declaring Red ideology as “sedition” or “insurrectionist” can be invidiously contrasted with legislative programs that privilege Blue tribal identities, fueling tribal hatred of the Other.
Four: A rising religious movement seeks the forced conversion of the entire national community, and an official renunciation of former terms of kinship, of bonds of allegiance to original identity.
Deep fervor drives the Blue ruling class. Like all elites, it seeks to preserve and grow its locks on national wealth and institutions. Yet the energy of its attack on longstanding traditions in the American way of life is driven by religious fervor. In this sense there is a revolutionary and transformative guiding spirit at work.
The Blue religion has been gestating for fifty years, flowering into full force only recently. As I describe in my Humanitas essay, “The Church of Woke: Next American Religion,” the new (or next) American religion has fully captured the Blue elite. Its orthodoxies and doctrine now rules them all.
I use the term American religion pointedly. American identity cannot be disentangled from the national religion. Our original faith — in shorthand: “American Exceptionalism” — flows from the existential postulate that this nation operates under a divine charge to redeem humanity and punish the wicked. This original church can be understood as a sort of “universalism in one country,” and was equally a charge on all citizens, just as our religion subsumed all other in situ churches under the wings of American universalism.
The Church of Woke is clearly a successor American religion, and moreover, seeks to replace original Exceptionalism with its new doctrine and branding — in its its entirety. This means that henceforth there will be no religious exceptions for individuals or subordinate churches. All must confess to Truth in the reign of Woke. All will be converted. This is where Woke today touches both Lenin and Torquemada.
Those who do not submit, like the wicked of Red, will be reeducated and taught the error of their ways, or they will be proscribed, and in the current patois, “cancelled.”
The Great Mission of Woke can be understood, furthermore, as the dispensation for pursuing one-party rule, as well as wholesale punishment of the racist, the phobic, and the seditious. Hence (in Woke exegesis), just as the First Amendment requires filtering speech, the safe survival of Democracy requires filtering political activity — by a unitary, ruling force (and its Truth).
Five: Formal, regulated civil war is integrated into the constitutional order as the new national process of state succession and its legitimation.
Regulating and integrating civil war into the constitutional order is, in a word, sub-optimal. It is what politics does if there is no other way to achieve political succession. Therefore, as Rome, and later Byzantium, worked civil war into a violent ceremony of imperial succession, they tried to make civil battles both ritual and periodic. Usually, civil war would attend a dynastic transition, where the successful usurper would found his own, new family business. A stable dynasty might avoid a fight for decades: The Antonine lasted 96 years.
This fate has befallen the United States. It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine future, peaceful transitions of power, and it is just as hard to imagine an uncontested election outcome. The specter of civil conflict now haunts the prospect of every presidential election to come. This is no imperial Roman modus vivendi. American civil conflict promises only chaos and national unraveling.
To survive, we may be moving toward a dynastic constitutional order. Perhaps this is what Blue so desperately seeks. Truth be told, American constitutional order has taken the form of a series of semi-dynastic periods. The Virginian “Dynasty” [1788-1824] was followed by the Planter Dynasty [1824-1860], which was followed by the long Republican Dynasty [1860-1930], and then the long Democrat Dynasty [1930-1980].
Right now, however, it is the stated objective of the Blue ruling class to revise the constitutional system to ensure a semi-permanent Blue, national government franchise. Conflict, in the near term, is certain — and certain to be bitter indeed.
* * *
As America’s civil conflict touches on each variant dynamic of civil war, what is the message for us? How do the variants speak — each alone, and then all together?
First, as things stand right now, this is less a civil war of estrangement and separation, and more decisively a class struggle — admittedly with electric cultural dimensions — that is taking the form of a dominant ruling class (and various dependent working class constituencies) committing to wage a give-no-quarter counterinsurgency campaign against an obdurate working class movement; one that represents a large, resistant minority of Americans.
Second, the counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign will be integrated into a larger push to alter the constitutional order so as to lock in Blue elite rule. These can be formal revisions, taking the form of new states and a more easily influenced Supreme Court, or they can be more informally enjoined, effectively bypassing the electoral college, enlarging citizen status to quickly grow Blue voter rolls, loosening voting protocols and oversight to shade electoral outcomes, transforming school curricula nationwide, limiting Red political speech and activity, appointing and replacing circuit and district court judges with an officially pure ideological cadre.
Third, institutionalizing tribal kinship identity through a national legal regime that supersedes state responses and enters directly into all facets in American life. For privileged groups this will mean a bounty of protected (legally enforced) preferences. For those guilty of thought crimes, or descendants of the oppressor class, life will be more difficult, opportunities will winnow, and those small rewards in normal life will be preserved only through the public confessional. For everyone, however, the planned outcome will be the same: We will see the Other as evil, as our sworn enemy, and maybe even, as something less than human.
Fourth, the Church of Woke will see us all in bright light, as if through a panopticon, or Sauron. Moreover, its great eye will know each emotional need, every interest, the full compass of our curiosity, our knowledge, and our desire. It will follow our conversations at home, just as it tracks our comings and goings in the physical world. Our inmost beliefs will be laid bare before it. This is already nearly done. Just ask Alexa. The straightened band of what is allowed, contrasted with the vast expanse of what is banned, will encourage an American herd that effectively self-censors, that knows with awesome certainty when to be quiet, and equally, when to be correctly effusive.
Today’s tangency with the fifth variant is the only point of contact where I see furtive glimmers of possibility. I cannot call this optimism. Yet perhaps possibility is enough:
Civil war — even as counterinsurgency — is not to be shied away from. It is, rather, to be enjoined. Struggle, even battle, is the best defense against the tide of Aristocratic Woke. Even today, more than half of Americans treasure the continuities in our national kinship, and the pleasures of family, community, and liberty in our way of life. Fighting to keep these may in fact be decisive in whether or not, ultimately, we actually get to keep them. Here, fighting works. Here is what fighting for our beliefs buys us:
Our struggle may ultimately tire and weaken the Woke. Working Americans, like the growing legion of “People of Color” who voted Red in 2020, may foreshadow another political realignment in American life. A new party system may rise up. In it, working people in their unstoppable majority might make common cause against a vampiric ruling class — an Ancien Regime that lives only for itself — sanctimonious rivers of their pious rhetoric notwithstanding.
Or indeed, ordinary Americans may yet remember who they are, and take heart from their own strength. They might again remember once-forgotten ancestors, and draw new spirit from their ancient courage. We might remember too, that we were once all, all Americans, and that in those great days we could accomplish anything together, if only we might be true to one another.
We still might, against all odds, once again.