The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Speculation fun thread: Civil War II

February 14, 2006

Robert Farley points to an insanely stupid scenario for a second Civil War, one that may make it onto network television:

pocalyptic Scenario #3: American Civil War – Part Deux!
“A House Divided” – Network: ABC
Writer: Andrew David Chapman
Odds You’ll Be Seeing it in the Fall: I’ll put this one at 30%.
In the near-future, the unthinkable has happened. A Liberal President is back in power. How liberal? Well, he’s raised taxes to the point where Middle America has had just about enough. A small group of farmers have decided “Hell No!” They’re not paying anymore. One of these farmers, a good-natured retired Gulf War II vet, just trying to get by and raise his family, through a series of highly believable government mishaps, and the manipulations of a well-stocked Kansas militia, ends up becoming the head of this escalating conflict. As the pilot ends, Northern Kansas succeeds from the United States.
What’s great about “House” is that my one-paragraph summary barely scratches the surface of what’s going on in this pilot. Once I was done reading it, I realized I had no idea where I really stood in this hypothetical conflict. There is no right side and wrong side in this one. It’s complicated. It’s relevant. It’s worth having on the air, just so the angry talking heads on cable news have something in Hollywood to bloviate about once Brokeback-mania dies down. It’s incendiary stuff, and it’s solid, powerful writing.

It should go without saying that higher taxes play an important role in the outbreak of civil wars. They often do. Even many of the “religious” civil wars in early modern Europe had, at their heart, disputes about the level or mechanisms of taxation.

Instead, I say that this sounds insanely stupid–in the absence of other information–because such conflicts almost always involve deeper questions of local versus central control, adjacent repertoires that are highly polarizing, and a structural context in which normal political processes appear incapable of resolving the issue. The last is very difficult to imagine in the context of a “very liberal” President raising taxes. Furthermore, we need to be looking at a situation in which the rebels–or potential rebels–have the capacity to resist the central government. This seems very hard to imagine given not only the imbalance of federal-state military power but also the threshold required for other actors to jump ship and support a tax revolt in, say, Kansas. This doesn’t sound like a “Second Civil War,” but more like a “Second Whiskey Rebellion.”

Thus, I ask readers to suggest better scenarios for a “Second Civil War.” I’ll suggest my own “formal” criteria, but feel free to take issue with me:

1. The issue–or constellation of issues–should be sufficiently polarizing as to (a) appear impossible to resolve through routine political processes or lesser forms of contentious politics and (b) draw a significant part of the US population into the pool of secessionists;
2. The polarization created by the issue should map onto other, long-standing disputes such that resolving the core issue (or issues) threatens other entrenched interests;
3. The balance-of-power has to have shifted against Federal power such that a great many secessionists–and potential secessionists–believe they have a chance of winning the conflict. This could result from exogenous shocks that weaken Federal power, structural changes in the American polity (a robust “New Federalism,” for example), fragmentation of the US military and its chain-of-command, or concerted outside support for the rebellion of a kind that the Feds cannot preclude or nip in the bud.

I suspect that the temporal ordering of these factors might be significant. Any plausible speculative narrative might want to take that into account.

Any ideas? Additional criteria? Take your best shot.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.