Too Pessimistic

The Origins of Our Second Civil War by Victor Davis Hanson.

The first half of this VDH piece seems over-the-top. Would the intermarriage and cultural assimilation that he cites in his next-to-last paragraph be happening if the situation were as bad as he thinks? Or is the country mostly culturally sound but burdened with dysfunctional elites dominating politics, big business, the universities and the media.

This part is good:

Again, Obama most unfortunately redefined race as a white-versus-nonwhite binary, in an attempt to build a new coalition of progressives, on the unspoken assumption that the clingers were destined to slow irrelevance and with them their retrograde and obstructionist ideas. In other words, the Left could win most presidential elections of the future, as Obama did, by writing off the interior and hyping identity politics on the two coasts.
The Obama administration hinged on leveraging these sociocultural, political, and economic schisms even further. The split pitted constitutionalism and American exceptionalism and tradition on the one side versus globalist ecumenicalism and citizenry of the world on the other. Of course, older divides — big government, high taxes, redistributionist social-welfare schemes, and mandated equality of result versus limited government, low taxes, free-market individualism, and equality of opportunity — were replayed, but sharpened in these new racial, cultural, and economic landscapes.

The rest of the piece is also good and points out how the country’s situation might improve. “A steady 3 to 4 percent growth in annual GDP” doesn’t seem very far from where we are. University reform seems likely as the public increasingly catches on to the corruption and excessive costs of higher education. Race relations seem to improve when not politicized. Spiritual and religious reawakenings happen every few generations.

Keyboard trash talk and dark speculations about violence and civil war are not the same as actual violence. They might even be safety valves to release transient passions, cautionary tales, for everyone outside of a tiny lunatic minority. (The lunatic minority who are spurred to action by online/media hype are a serious problem, but not mainly a political one except as regards public and hence political unwillingness to force treatment on recalcitrant individuals with severe mental-health issues.)

Today’s political violence is a problem but not one at the level of 1968 much less 1861. Almost all of the action now is in the political realm. There is little reason to expect an intractable impasse on a fundamental issue as in 1850-60 over slavery. There is no substantial constituency favoring civil war as there was in 1861. The modern federal government is huge, profligate and obnoxious, but risk-averse deep-state bureaucrats and crony-capitalist opportunists aren’t going to take physical risks to defend the status quo. The political process still responds to public concerns about governmental overreach, which is probably a large part of why Trump was elected. There is also enough collective memory of the last civil war and its awfulness to discourage enthusiasm for a replay from anyone who is sane.

None of this is to say dire predictions won’t come to pass, but that’s not the way to bet. The country has been through harder times and surmounted them through politics rather than violence. My money’s on the basic soundness of our culture and political system this time as well.

23 thoughts on “Too Pessimistic”

  1. Agreed.

    Also, social media is where a small but influential percentage of people spend their time. And on those platforms, over-the-top, hateful, angry comments are common. That is quite bit different from actually going outside and punching somebody, let alone shooting somebody.

  2. The prospect of flash mob intimidation and violence is facilitated by social media capabilities and a younger generation increasingly passionate about their social justice concerns. Combine Maxine Watters and Ferguson and you get the idea. Recently the action in Portand directed toward the ICE building and the staff. If this trend grows, it could result in group violence on larger scale, more frequent targeted violence against specific individuals or groups and overwhelm the LE agencies, especially where they are held on a short leash.

    If I were living in one of the larger urban hot spots which are continuing to signal their tolerance to such actions, I’d be very worried. For them, it might look a lot like a civil war when it goes down.


  3. Another interesting (and long!) post linked this morning on Insty – the social media war has moved into Medieval Studies, of all places. Short version, a well-respected, talented and honored Medieval Studies professor who also has blogged on the side and has no interest in toeing the SJW line, and has refused to do so with good humor and grace … is the target of a perfectly vicious campaign conducted by a pretty loathsome lot of social justice warriors.

    The first thing that I thought of, reading it – was the old saying about academic fights being so vicious because the stakes were so small, but the point of the article was – no, this is huge, and Rachel Fulton Brown is right to fight it.

  4. “academic fights being so vicious because the stakes were so small”….this quote is often cited, but the stakes are not small for the players involved. Tenure vs no tenure, research grants vs no research grants, these are career-makers or career-enders for people in academia.

  5. ” …the basic soundness of our culture and political system this time as well.” Yes, I believe that, at the bottom, this is the case. What concerns me is the truth that Churchill quipped about (something like): “the Americans can be depended upon to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else”. Not to put too fine a point on it, our fellow citizens elected a leftist who wanted to, and did, change the country for eight years. After eight years the need to change direction was apparently recognized. We can’t afford to make mistakes of this sort in these (what I’ll call) “time-compressed times.” Things have changed, too much can be lost in too short a period.

    The subversive nature of the left-leaners (not to mention the naivety) is clear and, really, I can’t be optimistic re. the country’s future.


  6. I think a cold civil war is going on right now.

    There is an undercurrent driving a lot of simultaneous stories in WaPoo, NYT , Time Newsweak, CNN etc.

    My spelling of Newsweek is on purpose.

    Lots of conspiracy theories. not all of which are false.

    The November election will be as important as 1932.

  7. Remember that VDH is speaking from deep blue California, one of the main #Resistance centers and an active Sanctuary area. His perspective is probably different from those of us in more purple to red areas.

  8. 1968 was a pretty wild year. Assassinations, bombings, riots. The only difference between then and now I believe is that the polarization is more evenly divided. Not many sympathized with Sirhan Sirhan or the Weathermen.

    While there is an ongoing culture war, I think we have a long way to go – thankfully – before a Civil War.

  9. The internet is not real life. People do not interact with each other about politics 100% of the time in the real world. No one who is not online for 12 hours a day talks about “white privilege” or other similar nonsense.

  10. “No one who is not online for 12 hours a day talks about “white privilege” or other similar nonsense.” I bet they do in large swaths of academia and the ‘nonprofit’ world.

  11. I’m holding my optimism for a couple more years.

    As I’ve commented before, I’m pretty sure similar optimism was expressed in 1859. The country was still growing and expanding in many positive ways. Compromises had been forged and issues finessed by political leaders in the past. The United States had weathered internal rebellion and external war, and proven the viability of its democratic republican government for several generations. We only see the ACW as inevitable through 20/20 hindsight. It happened, and we can only speculate on how it could have been avoided.

    The Sanctuary movement is unquestionably an attempt by states and municipalities to repudiate the authority of the Federal government in an area where the Constitution is clear. Succession is being voted on in a major state and discussed in some minor ones. The Democrat party is clearly aligned with the Sanctuary movement and support of illegal immigration/open borders, and expects to draw a significant share of its power from the beneficiaries of those policies just as (somewhat ironically) its support of slavery in the antebellum South was a major source of its power then. Democrats have been told that they would form a natural majority party via demographic changes enhanced by expanded immigration, reflecting their glory days of 1930-1980, for over a generation now. That coming natural majority which never quite arrives is now threatened by resurgent nativism and the structural impediments of the Constitution in much the same way slavery was clearly threatened by the formation of the Republican party and the election of Abraham Lincoln. This frustrated expectation seems to me to be what’s turning the opposition to Trump up to 11, and if that expectation continues to be frustrated it will be the flash point for more open conflict.

    The Democrats have signaled since 2000 they regard any election, especially national elections, they expect to win but don’t as illegitimate. This frustration is resulting in actual physical attacks such as the shooting of Republican Congressional leadership, assaults on people wearing Trump shirts and hats including one reported yesterday where someone rammed a car with a Trump bumper sticker, and organized violence such as Antifa and BLM protests. While one can question mental stability in the more extreme examples, in many cases these actions are being done either deliberately or by people who would not be considered abnormal. I expect them to be frustrated by the results of coming Congressional election and to spend a lot of time talking about how many votes Democrat Congressional candidates got in relation to Republican candidates.

    Consistent economic growth is going to provide a fair breathing space but it’s not going to diffuse the Democrat expectation that they represent a natural continuing political majority rather than a regionally restricted party. If Trump runs and wins in 2020, especially if it’s a narrow victory, it may provoke a crisis in the Democrat party that will spill over into the general population. How violent that crisis is and the extent to which Democrat leaders “don’t let it go to waste” will be the deciding factors on whether they attempt to do by force what doesn’t happen via the ballot box. Given the reaction to the 2016 election and the personalities involved on both sides, it doesn’t look good to me but I hope that can change.

  12. David: Academia is the canonical example of “not the real world.” And I believe the average person in that parallel world does spend 12+ hours online.

  13. One might argue that all the Far Left whining is simply noise — evidence of friction in the system, but ultimately irrelevant.

    What will really drive the future are the Gods of the Copybook Headings. Governments have incurred debts that will never be repaid, and made promises that will never be fulfilled. This is the case for the US, but also for most of Western Society. Eventually, the pension checks will stop coming and the SNAP cards will cease working. That may not be the end of the world — the people of the former Soviet Union endured something similar and survived — but it will be the end of the current Davoise.

  14. “Academia is the canonical example of “not the real world.””

    Yet there are 1.8 million university faculty members in the US…for comparison, about 150,000 steelworkers and 1 million autoworkers (including those at parts suppliers.) So it is enough people to exercise huge influence over the national dialogue.

  15. It’s not 1861. Perhaps it’s more like 1848 when anti-royalist mass movements ushered in the system of Western liberal nationalism. Only now that system, long since purged of any notions of liberty, is itself about to be thrown on its head whole hog and transformed into something else. The most important accomplishments of 1848, freeing the serfs in the Habsburg Empire and extending the franchise to all classes and religions in Western Europe, are echoed today in the Middle Classes fight for liberation from the modern aristocracy of state bureaucrats.

  16. Gavin, you wrote “the people of the former Soviet Union endured something similar and survived.”

    Our situation isn’t quite parallel in two important ways.

    For better and worse, the USSR had been hammering home how everybody was a joyful member together in the new kind of state. We’ve been hammering home how different everybody is and how important grievances are.

    Thanks to a potemkin economy, the subjects of the USSR had to manage for themselves in many ways. We’ve been rich enough that I can easily find people who, without the economic machine to supply them, will have no idea how to survive.

    Except, of course, the ideas offered by the inevitable demagogues.

    Plenty of people, maybe most, will find ways to manage. A lot won’t. I think there will be enough of the latter to make a lot of mischief.

  17. James — Good points! Certainly, Soviet citizens in the early 1990s were more used to privation, and to doing thing for themselves, than the average Antifa today in the West. Tough people — the Soviets, not the Antifa.

    One of the huge differences between now and the US Civil War is that large numbers of people in those days were rural and (in a pinch) more self-sufficient. People on Southern plantations not only grew their own food, they made their own clothes, made their own shoes, made their own soap. Today, we have a much higher standard of living because of labor specialization — but that also makes us totally dependent on each other. Even the farmer today would quickly face starvation without electric power and diesel fuel.

    This may suggest that any future civil war would have a much higher death toll than the last one — but would also be over much more quickly. It would perhaps feel more like the Ukraine under Stalin’s Communist rule than the South under General Sherman. The rule of threes — we can survive 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food.

  18. I wonder if any mass rising on the left would survive the inevitable surge pricing on Uber. My overwhelming impression is that the “right” has a huge preponderance of people that can actually accomplish things in the real world while competence on the “left” is limited to determining the best ap for ordering in Chinese.

    Our BU educated economist apparently eschewed a lucrative career in finance to curate adult beverages. I’m sure any number of investment banks and hedge funds were impacted negatively by the decision.

  19. What will really drive the future are the Gods of the Copybook Headings. Governments have incurred debts that will never be repaid, and made promises that will never be fulfilled. This is the case for the US, but also for most of Western Society. Eventually, the pension checks will stop coming and the SNAP cards will cease working.

    This is why I think it critical that we revive the ability to make things. Manufacturing is what makes life tolerable. The rich in today’s economy are the manipulators of money and ideas, like Facebook and Google plus hedge fund managers.

    Those people make nothing. Their assets are as ephemeral as Myspace was.

    If the economy collapses, I expect we may end up with a more analog society. At least for a time.

    The US industrial expansion in World War II could not happen right now.

    We are seeing a revival of that economy right now but the left is trying very hard to kill it.

    I’m not sure why so many technical people are leftists. Almost none are small business owners, which teaches basic economics. I suspect they think more like artists.

    In Germany, students in Mechanical Engineering, were forced to do a year of apprenticeship. Maybe we could do something like that. Something to take the place of the Draft in young peoples’ experience.

  20. “I’m not sure why so many technical people are leftists. Almost none are small business owners, which teaches basic economics. I suspect they think more like artists.”

    Part of it…not all, by any means…is that so much of the ‘tech’ industry is concentrated in a single geographical area.

    Quite a few technical people *are* small business owners, if you count independent consulting as small business.

  21. Much as I dislike writing commentary and much prefer reading commentary I feel impelled to inject a different perspective into this discussion. It could be that the President (yes, I will break with current practice and always address ‘Trump’ as the President, which barring impeachment he will be through 2020 and maybe beyond) is just the type of person who can get the trains running on time while refraining from assuming dictatorial powers.
    Skipping much of the intellectual underpinnings which I find so attractive on this site, might I suggest that the President’s appeal stems from his ability to renovate a skating rink in New York, a task beyond the ability of the local politicians. I would further suggest that the so-called abrasive elements in his behavior are more of an intelligent reaction to the mountains of criticism heaped on him, and like it or not his tweets and counter-attacks are very effective.
    What we have here is for the first time in American history, although an attempt was made with George “W”, an effort to negate the results of an election. Whether it is the trillions of dollars of vested interests, the rejection of Socialism almost at hand, the disdain of professional politicians for an amateur or a host of other reasons whether valid or strictly emotional, I have no intention of deciphering the reasons behind the phenomenom at hand.
    What VDH is discussing in his article will probably not lead to Civil War or anything more than sporadic violence, but it does indicate a split in the country which may be long-lasting. Hayeck pointed out the importance of social conventions in maintaining the character of a people, and we have lost or are losing this. My message is simple. You do not have to respect President Trump as a person or approve of anything he does, but you do have to respect the Office, as you respect the Flag and the National Anthem. You have to suck it up and hope for better times if you disapprove. Otherwise you end up with a perpetual and significant minority of whatever persuasion considering themselves justified in subverting the laws of this Country and its institutions, if not overtly then surepticiously.

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