Are We in the Midst of a New Civil War?

Uh, maybe...

Civil War Reenactment Photo
Civil War Reenanctent (Courtesy of Chris Chow on Unsplash)

As long time readers of my blog and subscribers to “Dirk’s Tribe” know, I’m periodically active of Quora, and if you’re familiar with how Quora works, you also know that active members on that forum frequently have questions find to them for answering.

One such question was recently forwarded to me for comment and is the catalyst for this post.

The question was:

It feels like we are living in the middle of a battle zone in a political civil war that never seems to end. When will it be over?

My answer (and opinion) follows.

It's over when we decide we want it to be

A lot to unpack in this question. Standard disclaimer/caveat emptor follows. This is just one history student, turned Marine officer, turned corporate trainer and (now) published author’s take.

The “political civil war” to which your question refers will be over when enough of us tire of focusing on what makes us different and acknowledge all that unites us. I grew up in fly-over country, spent half my military career overseas & the other half on the left or right coasts. I’ve lived in the Deep south & still has family living in Texas. And other than the odd (& inevitable) personality clash or two, I’ve not only been able to get along with pretty much everyone, but I also genuinely like them and recognize our essential kinship.

So the short answer…one I’m sure everyone has heard before in some form is:

The political civil war’s over when we start listening to understand instead of argue.

 Another respondent to the question observed that Newt Gingrich is one of the principal architects of the divide and he’s right. Gingrich is by no means the only one, but for the intellectually curious, I’ve included a link to an article written by McKay Coppins in Atlantic. It’s important reading for all, whether you’re a true conservative or a progressive.

In it the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism as we’ve come to know it and the operational calculus used to advance it are laid bare. Collectively, the conservative reaction to the Civil Rights Movement writ large is as the article suggests, is one of the principal barriers to the kind of fact-based civil discourse necessary to thrash out constructive solutions to the philosophical differences inevitable in a body politic of 300 plus millions constituents. And end the “civil war” referred to in the question.

But in order to answer the question adequately, might it be helpful to first consider whether the political civil war alluded to in the question is the disease or a symptom of it? Work with me here.

A Maelstrom of Change

It’s a blinding flash of the obvious to state that we are in age of great change. My own reading of history leads me to conclude that in modern history, only the Industrial Revolution comes close to the dislocations we are experiencing now. Change has become the lei motif of our age.

It’s not like we weren’t warned. Future Shock (Alvin Toffler 1970), & The Population Bomb (Paul R. Ehrlich 1968) are only two notable authors predicting some aspect of the changes we’re experiencing. And while they were often mistaken about some of the details, they were uniformly correct about the effect.

As Toffler predicted, when the rate of change exceeds our capacity to process it, we become disoriented and overwhelmed by it. Change erodes predictability and with it, any sense of security, with (ironically) predictable results. Rapid and unpredictable change affects how we deal with literally everything. It tends to lead to hyper-alertness bordering on paranoia. Watch any recent returning veteran from an active combat zone and you’ll precisely what I mean.

And as Ehrlich predicted, explosive population growth such as we experienced over the past 50 years, has strained not only our ability to feed the collective population if the world but placed increasing and unsustainable stress on the ecosystems by which support life itself and (obviously) the production of food necessary to feed the world.

Change erodes predictability, certainty which in turn erodes, the perception of security. The actual fact(s) of one’s security may not have changed all that much, but how we perceive them may…and profoundly.

So. Caught in the midst of multiple, overlapping paradigm shifts, (think climate change, the demise of a middle class and Covid-19) it isn’t difficult to understand how self-appointed political pundits and political operatives have made it their business to leverage our uncertainties & fears to stoke division. Whether you’re working in the for-profit media, a politician looking for a way to get or keep power, nothing lends itself to exploitation like fear, anger and desperation. And in times of uncertainty, it’s all too easy to stoke all three.

So...now what?

The obvious problem with doing that, however, is that the more you stoke those fires, the more likely it is that the fire will get out of control. Whether you’re a politician, a pundit or an organization with skin in the game, the immediate often overwhelms the necessary. The next election, the next podcast or the next quarter’s profits obscure what our hearts tell us we need to do.

As individuals, we’re as guilty as the politicians & pundits I mentioned earlier. Who among us haven’t neglected, sometimes for years, our duties as citizens to not only stay informed with respect to what our political operatives are up to, but what the (often) disturbing trends tell us about our long-term survivability and sustainability? The problem isn’t an “ism,” whether it’s capitalism or socialism, republicanism, or corporatism in and of themselves.

It’s how organizations tend to leverage those “isms” to for purposes of their own. Sooner or later, organizations co-opt their lofty original purposes…the ones that attracted adherents in the first place…for self-serving agendas of the self-appointed thought leaders at the top. Leaders who often take those “isms” to the illogical extremes. All organizations do this and it only when we the people who have leveraged the power many to increase our own tell them “enough is enough!”

Only when we decide not to “otherize” each other will this civil war to which you refer end. When I see you and you see me and we all seek truth together will we be free not only from the internecine civil war to which you refer but from the slavish adherence to oversimplified talking points and ad hominem mischaracterizations of each other.

D.B. Sayers is a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer/manager and author of four books with two more on the way. You can subscribe to his newsletter, “Dirk’s Tribe” here.

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