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Civil war 2.0? A troubling number of Americans believe political violence is acceptable

A recent poll shows democracy isn’t cutting it for a lot of US citizens anymore

A new poll shows that Americans from both sides of the aisle favor shelving democracy and inflicting violence on their opponents, as trust in the government hits new lows. But is there a viable alternative for desperate Americans to another civil war?

On September 17, 1787, as the Founding Fathers were leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia after they had just finished laying the groundwork for the new nation, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That sugar-coated warning has never seemed more relevant than today, as the Republicans and Democrats are beginning to show serious contempt not only for their political rivals, but for democracy itself.

According to an October poll from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, 31% of Donald Trump supporters and 24% of President Joe Biden supporters believe that democracy is “no longer viable” and that America “should explore alternative forms of government to ensure stability and progress.” The fact that so many Americans see democracy as a failing enterprise is a troubling sign, especially given that ‘democracy’ constitutes a large part of the American people’s sense of pride and national identity, right up there with baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet (even though the United States is more of a constitutional republic, but don’t tell anybody). When people have lost faith in their national mythologies, nihilism and hopelessness will quickly fill the void.

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It would be interesting, and most definitely entertaining, to hear what sort of government the American people would opt for instead of ‘democracy.’ After all, the options are rather limited and not terribly attractive. Plato, writing in ‘The Republic’, described the five main types: aristocracy (rule by the elite minority); timocracy (rule by military, like in the days of Sparta); oligarchy (rule by the wealthy); democracy (rule by the people); and tyranny (rule by a despot). Judging by the results to the next question in the survey, it appears that many Americans are prepared to succumb to the strong arm of tyranny to resolve their myriad problems.

Before continuing, a brief word on statistics, since this piece is loaded with them. As I was researching this article, I found myself questioning the questions from the Center for Politics more than the results of the poll itself. Polls have a powerful, yet subtle way of shaping our grasp of the current realities, not only by the results they provide, but by the very questions they pose. For example, imagine if you were stopped on the street by a pollster armed with a clipboard and asked, ‘would you like to see the government take a greater role in the fight against wombats?’ You will naturally assume that wombats have become an issue, possibly in your own neighborhood, even though the nearest marsupial may live some 5,000 miles away. At the end of the day, the entire neighborhood will be talking frantically about the ‘threat of wombats.’ Is it possible that the pollsters ask certain questions to ‘prime’ the subconsciousness of the voters to prepare them for challenging political initiatives down the road (like gun control, for example, or wealth distribution)? In any case, since some of the questions found in this rather limited poll were never asked of the American people before, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree the answers are indicative of a genuine problem (The survey was conducted from Aug. 25 to Sept. 11 with 2,008 registered voters. It has a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points).

The Republicans and Democrats have enjoyed a duopoly on power since the Whig president Millard Fillmore left office in 1853. Since then, the two parties have had their share of bad blood between them, no doubt. The main difference between then and now, however, is not only the sheer number of new issues, but how radicalized those issues have become. Just several decades ago, the major disagreements dividing the two parties were abortion rights, civil rights, taxes, war, and a pinch of feminism. Today, the Democrats, once the party of labor and social justice, have thrown their support behind so-called ‘progressive’ issues never heard of before, like an open border, critical race theory, transgenderism, and the promotion of alternative sexual lifestyles found in the LGBTQ+ movement and its 57 (at last count) genders. Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore. To complicate matters even more, one side in this political showdown owns the bulk of the media, while the other side owns most of the guns. If there were a better way for a country stumbling into a civil war than that, I really don’t know what it is.

Judging by the survey’s responses (and questions), there are many hot button issues that could ‘go nuclear’ someday. For example, when presented with the statement, ‘the government should have the authority to restrict the number and types of firearms available to the public, irrespective of interpretations of the Constitution,’ Democrats responded favorably at 74% to the Republicans’ 35%. And this one: ‘Government policy should require corporations to have diversity at all levels of leadership.’ Once again, the Democrats took the lead (69%-43%). On the question of immigration reform, instead of the pollsters simply stating, ‘the government should build a wall on its southern border,’ the statement instead read, ‘Legislation should be enacted that restricts illegal immigrants’ access to both jobs and social benefits such as healthcare, welfare, and education.’ Despite the deceptive verbiage, 70% of Republicans and 32% of Democrats supported that statement. Strangely, the survey mentioned nothing about the teaching of alternative sex and transgender lifestyles to schoolchildren, which ranks as one of the most controversial issues for Americans today.

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When asked whether it is acceptable to employ violence to stop political opponents from achieving their goals, 41% of Biden supporters and 38% of Trump supporters responded in the affirmative. Meanwhile, 41% of Trump supporters and 30% of Biden supporters said they favor either conservative or liberal states seceding from the union. Hmm. Violence and secession. Where have we heard that before? Anyone with a basic grasp of History 101 knows that America’s last effort at secession culminated in the Civil War (1861-1865) as the Confederate States of America attempted a divorce from Washington. The result was the bloodiest conflict in US history that left up to 850,000 combatants from the Union and Confederate armies dead. Since then, the closest America has had to a ‘secessionist movement’ is in the form of Californians and New Yorkers fleeing their crime-ridden, high-tax states for conservative country, namely Florida and Texas.  

So, what does all this mean? Many people will look at these results and quickly conclude – possibly with great satisfaction – that America is walking into the mother of all divorces, another civil war. But a lot has changed since 1861. On the one hand, the average American has more to lose, but on the other, there are more outlets for venting disagreements. It is, after all, much easier and safer to shout at your political opponents on X than to take up arms, even if you believe that political violence is acceptable. Besides, you can always just move – to a state that shares your political colors or to even to that fancy ‘American village’ for families of conservative immigrants that’s apparently about to go under construction just outside of Moscow in Russia.

But with new generations after the baby boomers and Gen X become poorer and more desperate and moving further in time from experiencing first-hand the horrors of armed conflict, and the political climate getting progressively hotter without any sign of pressure relief ahead, nothing is off the table at this point.

 

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