Americans are sleepwalking into the maelstrom. Sergio Flores/AFP/Getty Images

January 16, 2024   6 mins

In the silence of the Civil War’s Antietam battlefield on a winter day, bucolic hills give way to rows of small, white gravestones in the nearby cemetery. Wandering over the deadliest ground in American history, a melancholy visitor may be excused for wondering if this November’s presidential contest poses the greatest threat to the nation’s future since the election of 1860.

After his victory in Iowa, Donald Trump is the favourite to become the Republican nominee. Leading commentators on the Left warn that, should he get re-elected, he will become a dictator and end democracy. On the Right, meanwhile, the belief is unshakeable that Joe Biden is mentally incapable of fulfilling the duties of president and won’t survive a second term.

These raw emotions are not simply the quadrennial outbursts of partisan feeling that emerge in an election season. Rather, they are portents of a much deeper dislocation in American society. For over two decades now, Americans have been battered by non-stop crises at home and abroad — from the long War on Terror to Covid and the George Floyd protests — leading to what feels like national exhaustion and a deep pessimism about the future of democracy.

Our pessimism has resurrected the once-unthinkable idea of disunion, or in today’s parlance, “national divorce”. In a 2021 poll conducted by the University of Virginia, more than 80% of both Biden and Trump voters stated that elected officials from the opposite party presented “a clear and present danger to American democracy”. Most shockingly, 41% of Biden voters and 52% of Trump voters stated that things were so bad, they supported secession from the Union. Two years later those numbers remained essentially the same in an Ipsos poll, with a fifth of Americans strongly wanting to separate.

For those who believe that such concerns are simply hysteria, we should remember that America’s road to the Civil War took decades. In March 1850, southern statesman John C. Calhoun gave a prescient warning to the Senate: “It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected by a single blow. The cords which bound these States together in one common Union, are far too numerous and powerful for that. Disunion must be the work of time.”

It took roughly 40 years — from the first passions unleashed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the shelling of Fort Sumter in April 1861 — for the cords to snap. Since Bush v. Gore in 2000, America is now nearly a quarter-century into a process of delegitimising national elections and demonising our political opponents and fellow citizens. An entire generation has been raised on the cynicism of their elders, fed by social media and sensationalised news media.

The tragic story of the gradual split of North and South offers stark warnings for today. The election of 1860 reflected the culmination of decades of failure to reach an acceptable settlement over the expansion or restriction of slavery in new territories of the West. The 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act all were grand attempts at coming to a stable modus vivendi. Yet they led ultimately to feelings of betrayal and suspicion, as old agreements, such as Missouri, were undone by later manoeuvrings. Worse, each side felt the other was trying to destroy its way of life, especially in the case of southerners, who knew they were falling behind the North economically and demographically, and who saw any attempt to restrict the expansion of slavery as part of a move ultimately to end slavery everywhere in the Union.

That year, Abraham Lincoln was the nominee of a new political party, the Republicans, and an avowed opponent of the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Though he repeatedly promised to do nothing to threaten slavery where it already was legal, Lincoln nevertheless was labelled as a “Black Republican”, an anti-slavery zealot. Southern activists and leaders all warned that should Lincoln be elected, the South could ensure its survival only by seceding from the Union. Within a month of his victory, South Carolina took the fatal step, followed over the next few months by most of the Lower South. A month after his inauguration, the Civil War erupted with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbour.

A century and a half later, what seems to be shaping up as a Biden-Trump rematch will further divide the nation. If we are to avoid a potential repeat of 1860, we must remember the powerful warning of Lincoln, in his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us… If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

For the past several decades, American citizens and their political class have chosen to court the danger Lincoln identified. Why this is so remains a puzzle. Clearly, the wounds of Vietnam and Watergate never fully healed. Some observers, such as Christopher Caldwell, blame a now-endemic entitlement mindset; others, such as George Packer, point to the unwinding caused by an inequitable social and economic system. Back in the mid-Sixties, Philip Rieff warned of the “triumph of the therapeutic” that unleashed emotion over reason. Whatever the cause, the former middle ground has been blasted apart.

The more America devolves into a nation of extremes, the more difficult politics becomes. A president who encourages his followers to march to the Capitol and a Speaker of the House who physically rips up the president’s State of the Union speech on national television both weaken the bonds of civil society. Zero-sum politics is not politics at all, but rather the result of a failure of politics to create a shared if not entirely satisfactory feeling of compromise and accommodation. Power will wax and wane for both sides, but each increasingly will feel oppressed by the other. As the historian David M. Potter noted in his magisterial history of the coming of the Civil War: “Southern nationalism was born of resentment and not of a sense of separate cultural identity.”

If left to fester long enough, such feelings of oppression and resentment either lead to the belief that one side must utterly triumph, as Lincoln thought, or that the only solution is disunion. As Lincoln warned during his 1858 Senate campaign, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. The steady poisoning of public opinion in antebellum America fatally undermined a sense of common national identity. Instead, citizens embraced divisive stereotypes of the other side that reinforced feelings of alienation. “This process of substituting stereotypes for realities could be very damaging indeed to the spirit of union,” Potter writes, “for it caused both [sides] to lose sight of how much alike they were.”

The same is true in today’s America, where both sides see the other party as illegitimate and its supporters as “deplorables”, as immoral if not evil. But there can be no national community when there is no sense that one’s political opponents are at the same time fellow citizens with legitimate beliefs. As our knowledge of American history declines, we are in danger of forgetting that in a republic there is always another side to accommodate to some degree, or else politics is simply about power, leading to unending and worsening struggle.

Those who shout down opinions they oppose, who advocate to curb speech with which they disagree, who intimidate or silence political opponents, or who censor the free flow of information bear a heavy burden for the looming breakdown in our society. Dogma drowns out reason and less strident voices, making it increasingly difficult to find the middle path that alone ensures the survival of a republic.

Most of us, however, do not want to think about all of this. In going about our daily lives, we can be lulled into thinking that this is simply the new normal, or that it is entertainment, or that nothing truly serious will ever happen, and that we will never see widespread civil unrest or actual disunion during our lives. Such insouciance may be a fatal mistake. As Potter reminds us of antebellum America: “The very familiarity of crisis — its chronic presence during three decades — had bred contempt for it. So many rumblings had been heard without a sequel that men began to take the frequency of warnings as a reassurance that nothing would ever happen, rather than as an indication that something ultimately must happen.” Henry Adams wrote a half-century later in his Education that, except for a small minority of secessionists, “not one man in America wanted the Civil War, or expected or intended it”. And so, despite all the frenetic political activity of the 1850s, Americans largely sleepwalked into the maelstrom.

As hate and panic spreads, is the terrible prospect of citizen pitted against citizen in our current society truly unthinkable? Exactly how 21st-century disunion or civil war would play out is beyond the knowledge of any of us. It could not repeat the course of the 1860s — for we face today not a distinct sectional division, but rather a clash within each city, each state. Even deep-red states have hard-blue cities, making a replay of state secession nearly impossible.

What about a general social breakdown that pits neighbour against neighbour? Again, the infinite complexity of such a conflict may keep it from ever breaking out, but in Spain during the Thirties, regular clashes between Leftist Republican supporters of the government and conservative Nationalists eventually led to all out civil war in 1936, with the army itself splitting into opposing forces. Have we seen the beginnings of that in our cities since 2020, after George Floyd and now with anti-Israel protests?

The point is, once a people decides that it cannot live together or when a citizenry divides into clearly opposed blocs, it is impossible to predict just how conflict may erupt. But to say that it cannot happen is to ignore history. Even Lincoln downplayed the threat of southern secession during the 1860 campaign, not believing until it was too late that the South ever would take such a final step.

Today, for all the hope that enough citizens will come together to recreate a middle ground, it is hard to avoid the feeling that whatever the outcome this November, large swathes of the country will see the election as illegitimate, their fellow citizens as the enemy. While this time we may escape the full force of a social hurricane, it will likely take its toll, wearing down our defences for the next assault.

Michael Auslin is an historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and author of Asia’s New Geopolitics.