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A recent opinion poll by Georgetown University addressed the question of civility in American politics in the lead-up to the 2020 election. An article on the results lead with the headline “7 in 10 say US ‘on the edge of civil war.'” Given that this is a thought that I’ve expressed before, you’d think I’d revel in the confirmation bias of it all. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t quite match the headline.

The text indicates that the 7 in 10 is really a rounding off of a 67% number, already leaving me feel a little cheated. But even the 2/3rds isn’t really explained. To get to where that number comes from, you’ve got to drill down into the Georgetown University documents to grab a “Republican Analysis*” of the results. In that we see that the number is actually an average (mean) of numerical scores where pollees were asked to rank the country on an incivility scale of 0 (no political division) and 100 (edge of a civil war). With this understanding, the headline isn’t just cheating, it is flat out wrong. The poll says nothing like what the headline implies.

As to the poll, it has some interesting features. Predictability, the partisan identification of the respondents determined where they focused their blame. Short answer; it’s the other guy who created this uncivil atmosphere. Republicans blame Democrats, The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Democrats blame Donald Trump. Well, they also blame Republicans and Fox News, but mostly Donald Trump. A slight majority from both sides blame Facebook and Twitter. No surprises thus far. However, there was one pair of questions that I think really has a tale to tell. Remember, respondents indicate whether they agree or disagree.

  1. Compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders.
  2. I’m tired of leaders compromising my values and ideals. I want leaders who will stand up to the other side.

It almost seems like a choice. Which do I want? Do I want political harmony achieved through compromise? Or do I want a strong advocate that protects the nation from the ideas which will do it harm? The answer? Both, thank you very much. Support for both statements is in the mid-80% (a number that is almost synonymous with unanimity when it comes to poll data). There is a slight variation based on party affiliation, but everyone favors both more and less compromise simultaneously. In fact, over 60% of respondents strongly favor both. Although it isn’t reported in the summary how many said yes to both, simple math says it is probably a super-majority. Sadly, this also shouldn’t surprise me.

The original article, with its disturbing headline, quotes the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, Mo Elleithee. I’m not sure from where they extracted the quote but, in this case, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Elleithee explains the apparent contradiction, articulating my own interpretation but describing better than I have been able. He says, “It seems to me what they’re saying is, ‘I believe in common ground, it’s just that common ground is where I’m standing. As soon you move over to where I am, we’ll be on common ground.'”

But lets set aside the actual poll results for a moment and return to that titillating headline. The prospects of an impending civil war is actually discussed a little in the “Democrat Analysis,” so the statement isn’t entirely disconnected from the source report. As that analyst points out, Democrats rank incivility at slightly higher (i.e., slightly closer to war) than Republicans. I’ll extrapolate from poll results and say if we temper the results by discounting those that say that civil war is inevitable unless Donald Trump is immediately removed from office, we have essentially a consensus across the political spectrum.

So let’s assume, despite the absence of confirming results in this poll, that roughly 2/3rds of Americans have a distinct fear of impending armed conflict within our society. I’m going to propose that this group could be further divided into three subgroups. The largest, roughly half, is concerned about what they see as growing chaos in civility and public discourse and worry about where that will end up. The other half, we’ll divide equally (for lack of a better idea). This group has a clear idea about who will be starting the war, should it come; but they are split on whom to blame. One half sees violence as coming from the “other.” They see those people, who aren’t them or like them, escalating the rhetoric and incivility into violence and open conflict. The remainder, by contrast, sees people like themselves being pushed beyond a breaking point.

The link that I followed to get to the article about the poll (on log at the bottom of the sea) comments on two likely triggers for escalation and how these triggers are stated policy of one of the parties (quite possibly the electoral-favored party at that). It reminded me of a mental exercise that I’ve gone through.

Let’s go back to that 25% cited above that believe that civil unrest is imminent and that it is the irrationality of the “other side” that will be the cause. For example, to a progressive who is actively fighting against conservative policy and politics I would ask; “Is there a cause so dear to you that you would defend it by any means necessary?” It strikes me that for anyone who is not a dedicated pacifist, there must be something, for you, that crosses the line. Something that you can say, “If you do this, I will fight you. I am willing to break the law or resort to violent resistance if you [insert intolerable action here].” The point is to frame the exercise so that you are not thinking about those irrational others. No “Antifa is horrible, WE would never do that” to cloud your judgement. You must think about what would put you and yours over the edge. I might also ask conservatives, but I think I already know what they would say.

Not having done the actual questioning, I presume to predict the answers. For the left I think their top three issues would be, in ascending order of severity:

  1. An assault on reproductive rights.
  2. Oppression of gays.**
  3. Oppression of racial minorities.

For the right I guess the top three issues (again, ascending order) would be:

  1. An assault on religious freedom.
  2. Dismantling of the Constitutional structure of government.
  3. Gun confiscation.

As Uncle said, these last three have emerged explicitly in the platforms of Democrat presidential candidates, in one form or another. Or, at least, that’s how I see it. As to the three causes of the left, I understand that the left perceives these to be the goals of Republicans in general and the Trump presidency in particular, but I think they are incorrect.

Of course, if I’m going to be intellectually honest, I’ll have to say that were I of the opposite persuasion I’d probably make exactly the opposite statement. I can cite specific legislative initiatives that touch on all three of my liberal hot-button issues. Efforts to redefine the start of life so as to restrict abortion are indeed happening. There is considerable resistance to the bringing in, under the umbrella of protected civil rights, the issues of gender identity. Similarly, the arguments over Voter ID, citizenship, and even the welfare state all have a racial component that one can see as more-or-less important. Worst case, a significant political loss (including something as imminently possible as a Conservative replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsberg) could trigger all three of my end-of-the-world scenarios. On the other hand, the threat of my (were I from the left) policy to the right is not nearly so severe as the polemic of my opponents would imply.

Former presidential-candidate*** Beto O’Rourke’s assertion that he would deny favorable tax-treatment to certain religious groups can hardly be likened to the burning of churches or feeding worshipers to the lions. Similarly, changes to the Constitution are themselves part of the Constitutional government. Particularly where we can determine that a 230-year-old structure no longer serves justice, aren’t we duty-bound to improve upon it? The election of Senators was changed to be of a popular vote, and that didn’t destroy**** our Republic. Finally, even the most strident (O’Rourke again) gun confiscation language isn’t a wholesale gun ban; the target is a specific subcategory of rifle*****.

One last, barely-related thought. It seems to me one difference between a “civil war” and simply “unrest” is the existence of a alternate governmental entity.  In the American experience, that has consisted of legitimately-elected State governments within the colonial or Federal system. For most modern civil wars, there is an identifiable faction (a subset of the government, such as the Army or political party, or, in today’s Middle East, an organization structured through its religious beliefs). Civil Wars that predated America’s often had the sides coalesce around nobility with (more or less) legitimate claims to power. Without that structure, you probably will get no more than a series of street demonstrations which are eventually “put down” by the government. Even if that government is eventually replaced through democratic or pseudo-democratic means, that’s hardly a “civil war” or even a “coup d’état.”

I’m not sure what this all means in our present context. Are we really headed for “civil war” or just “civil unrest.” I’ve read the assertion that revolution won’t come until the people are desperate and starving – which may or may not be true for massive civil unrest, but seems entirely unnecessary for civil war. Civil war requires the combination of organization and willpower from that alternate government. That entity may use civil unrest as a impetus for their action, but I don’t think it is a necessary condition. Extended periods of civil unrest (or, for that matter, an unresolvable civil war) may lead to a “failed state” situation. That is, the existing governmental structure can break down to the extent that individuals or regions are left to their own devices. One assumes this would be accompanied by an escalation in criminal activity as well as harm to the economy and freedoms of the regular people caught up in it.  It is this last that many “preppers” imagine as the situation they are preparing for and likely, in this country, would be identified by most as a state of civil war.

But, like I said, I’m not sure what that means.

*I reference the Republican Analysis mostly because that was the first one I clicked. In a cursory reading, the analyses are broadly similar, although I happen to find the language of the Republican version a little clearer. Read both to try to avoid bias.

**I use the term “gay” knowing, right off, that it isn’t what I mean. I feel that to try to be more accurate means wading into the politics of sexual identity, and I don’t want to go there. This term is used instead understanding its implicit reference to the politics of years-gone-by.

***I feel good about writing that.

****No longer trying to have an open mind toward the progressive cause, I actually think the direct election of Senators was a huge mistake. The addition of the 17th Amendment in 1913 is probably one of the most significant contributors to the influence of big money in U.S. elections.

*****Or perhaps pistol. Apparently, Uncle Joe Biden now wants to ban all 9mm caliber handguns. Picking the most popular caliber of rifle and pistol and then saying it is THAT which needs to be confiscated… is this crazy, stupid, or crazy like a fox?