James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for April 28th, 2012

The coming U.S. civil war

Posted by James McPherson on April 28, 2012

“I fear we are headed for another civil war in this country,” wrote the author of a letter in my morning paper yesterday. I sighed audibly. That again?

I’ve been reading about the possibility of “Civil War II” at least since Obama was elected president–usually on blogs (other examples here, here, here)  or on YouTube, often in the form of prediction, sometime expressed hopefully. Sometimes I used to reply, “So who do you see as the ‘sides’ in this imaginary civil war?” I never got a good answer, but the goofy intellectually lazy “threat” keeps popping up. Even since Glenn Beck, one-time king of the conspiracy loons, has slunk into near-oblivion.

Frankly, the idea of a new U.S. civil war is ludicrous. Of course I’m not talking about the assorted conspiracy nuts who claim that we’re already in a civil war, even if most of us don’t know it. Nor do I classify economic inequity (which may be every bit as deadly) or our current battles over social issues as true warfare, as some do.

Still, the tone of our politics has prompted even a few folks beyond the fearful or crazy cyberspace cadets to raise the idea of a new rootin’-tootin’-shootin’ civil war. A former national editor of politics for National Journal even did so last year in an interesting piece that makes some comparisons between 1861 and 2011. Still, to her credit, she doesn’t predict civil conflict and does write: “After all, at the heart of the Civil War was a great conflict over human bondage. By comparison, today’s debate between the Democrats and tea party Republicans seems, picayune.”

Uh, yeah. And that’s the key point. Those who talk about how “bad” things are now, how “divided” we are, seem to have forgotten their history (no big surprise there, considering how little of it journalists seem to know). Economic divisions were greater before and during our two Great Depressions. Political divisions were wider in the 1950s and 1960s, with battles–some bloody–over civil rights and the Vietnam War. And Americans were far more willing to die for causes during our two world wars.

In fact, even if most of us could figure out who the two “sides” would be–keeping in mind that most Americans agree on more than they disagree about–the vast majority of Americans today lack the desperation (fortunately), the energy (unfortunately) or the focus (sadly) for any “war” that goes beyond words. Especially when those words tend to be regurgitated talking points of the far left and the far right, as relevant to most people as back-seat cup holders were for Mitt Romney’s Irish Setter.

It is true that people will continue to bicker, and some, like Beck, will take advantage of the rhetoric to enrich themselves or to incite others to acts of violence. Congress will continue to dither and achieve little, and Americans will keep dying needlessly.

But those Americans will die because of a pitiful health care system and stupid wars abroad, not because of a civil war at home.

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