Our Civil War About Nothing

 With the most divisive president in our history receiving 74 million votes, about 47% of the voting population, and with some portion of those voters ready to rise up in violent insurrection, we seem to be a hopelessly divided nation. It appears we can’t resolve our differences the way constitutional democracies are supposed to: by legislative compromise or judicial decision. Our time has been compared to the period just before the Civil War, when the country was on the verge of breaking apart.

 But it’s not the same at all. Then, there were real differences based on a tangible clash of interests. Today, we are on the brink of the Civil War about nothing.

 At the time of the Civil War in 1861, the plantation owners who controlled Southern politics wanted to expand their economic model, based on slave labor, to the rest of the country, convinced that they needed new territory to continue their way of life. Lincoln came into power in 1861 with no intention to abolish slavery, even though he personally opposed it, but firmly committed to the Republican platform of preventing its expansion. The clash of interests was real, and the economic conflict was intensified by the moral conflict over slavery. That’s why Senator William Seward, who would become Secretary of State under Lincoln, called this clash an “irrepressible conflict.”

 Today, there is no comparable clash of interests. Instead we have a conflict instigated by phantasms, by fictitious, social-media inspired conspiracies. The immediate cause of the Capitol insurrection was the big lie, persistently repeated by Trump and his enablers, that the election was stolen from him. Then there is the diet of falsehoods that the right wing has been feasting on for years: that Democrats are keen to take people’s guns away, want to impose Socialism, are intent on destroying religion. We hear the constant invocation of the slippery slope argument: if you are allowed to do X, which is not so bad, that will inevitably lead to Y, which is terrible. This paranoid style of discourse undermines our ability to craft democratic legislation, the basic premise of which is precisely that we can draw lines based on balancing competing values, that we can do this but not that, that we can ban military-grade assault rifles without touching your hunting rifles and pistols.

 The latest controversy over mask wearing during the pandemic exemplifies our predicament. People's refusal to wear masks, against the best public health advice, would be silly if the consequences were not so lethal. Masks are the best way to both curb the pandemic and restart our economy, twin goals with which every sane person agrees. We wear the mask to protect others, and ourselves, in exchange for minor inconvenience (my glasses fog up!). The fight over mask-wearing is based on nothing real, only delusions denying the reality of the pandemic and a crazy egotism masquerading as love of liberty.

To be sure, those who voted for the ex-president have legitimate grievances. Elites of both parties failed to remedy the pain and displacement caused by bad trade deals and other manifestations of globalization. Rural communities and small towns have been neglected by a national government dominated by big city coastal elites. But there’s no real partisan political divide here. Many Democrats either opposed those trade deals, or now see the error of their ways, and are even more likely than free-market Republicans to rectify the problems created by globalization and to invest government resources to uplift neglected localities.

 The reasons for the phony war being waged now has been often discussed. The usual suspects include wealthy donors who pressure politicians to support policies that perpetuate the enormous economic inequality in our society. Then there are the media opportunists who exploit grievances and exaggerate divisions for their own profit and fame, the likes of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and yes the ultimate media grievance exploiter, Donald Trump. They know that there’s gold in them thar’ ills. And there is the fear of change, fear that the dominant white Christian culture is being displaced by our increasingly diverse society, even though most economists would agree that allowing racial minorities and immigrants to succeed will have an overwhelmingly beneficial effect for all. And of course we can’t underestimate Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms that have turbocharged our divisions. 

 We are on the brink of civil war based not on any real clash of interests, but on unfounded fears fueled by campaigns of disinformation that some people find convenient and profitable. It’s time to call off this Civil War about nothing real. Violent extremists have to be prosecuted, disinformation dispelled. But most importantly, we have to get down to the business of solving our common problems by returning to a more constructive social dialogue that would benefit us all.

Robert Katz

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County. 

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