If you think Northern Ireland is in a pretty chaotic state, just compare it with the scale of turbulence in America. President Biden at last accepted the challenge of the lies of Trump on the anniversary of the Capitol riot.
He said he was “crystal clear” about the dangers facing the nation, and accused Donald Trump and his political allies of holding a “dagger at the throat of America, at American democracy”. In the course of the 21-minute speech, delivered from the US Capitol, Biden offered himself as a defender of democracy in the “battle for the soul of America”. “I will stand in this breach,” he promised. “I will defend this nation.”
What he actually intends to do or can do, is far from clear. While the scale and complexity of developments in US massively outdoes anything in our little corner of the world, nevertheless there are parallels and comparisons that have attracted recent writers. Some might even think US politicians are in no position to lecture us on own perverse behaviour when they contemplate their own country
The looming threat of a civil war is almost the only thing that unites pundits and politicians across the political spectrum. Two new books, one by the Canadian journalist Stephen Marche and the other by the conflict analyst Barbara Walter, argue that the conditions for civil war are already in place. Walter believes that America is embracing “anocracy” (outwardly democratic, inwardly autocratic), joining a dismal list of countries that includes Turkey, Hungary and Poland. The two authors’ arguments have been boosted by the warnings of respected historians, including Timothy Snyder, who wrote in The New York Times that the US is teetering over the “abyss” of civil war.
Walter, an experienced foreign policy academic and adviser, focuses on the risk to the US, noting with alarm that after the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, her country was officially downgraded to anocracy status. She makes a convincing case that a second American civil war is entirely plausible in the near future.
The ingredients are there: a political system increasingly focused on racial and religious factions; too much power invested in the president’s role (countries with proportional representation almost never have civil wars); and a polarised populace losing interest in listening to anything the other side has to say. In one survey Walter cites, 20 per cent of Republicans and 15 per cent of Democrats said that the country would be better off if large numbers of the other party died.
A narrow Democratic presidential win in 2024, combined with a Trumpian opponent who refuses to back down, and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, could easily lead to unmanageable chaos.
What, then, can be done to prevent such a tragedy, and more broadly to halt the global retreat of democracy? The lack of compelling ideas in the thin chapter offering solutions is even more depressing than the descriptions of the problem.
One potential solution — only briefly covered — is using the power of online communities to incentivise pro-social behaviours. Walter cites Citizen University in the US, which tries to build networks around the idea of civic duty. In the UK we have the National Citizen Service, which brings together teenagers from a wide range of backgrounds. But these feel like fragile roots in the face of politicians’ self-interest and the balance sheets of Facebook and Google.
A country can meet a whole checklist of conditions and not erupt into outright civil war (for example, Northern Ireland in the 1970s) or meet only a few of the conditions and become a total disaster. It’s not only possible for the US, a rich, developed nation, to share certain similarities with an impoverished, conflict-ridden country and yet not become one; it’s also quite likely, given that for much of its history it has held together while being a violent, populist-driven society seething with racial and religious antagonisms behind a veneer of civil discourse. This is not an argument for complacency; it is simply a reminder that theory is not destiny.
In the Atlantic magazine, Fintan O’Toole takes a personal slant in his contemplation of Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War; Dispatches from the American Future.” He doesn’t underplay the gravity of the US situation but warns that ““these prophecies have a way of being self-fulfilling”.
in 1972 when I was a 13-year-old boy in Dublin, my father came home from work and told us to prepare for civil war. He was not a bloodthirsty zealot, nor was he given to hysterical outbursts. He was calm and rueful, but also grimly certain: Civil war was coming to Ireland, whether we wanted it or not. He and my brother, who was 16, and I, when I got older, would all be up in Northern Ireland with guns, fighting for the Catholics against the Protestants.
What made him so sure of our fate was that the British army’s parachute regiment had opened fire on the streets of Derry, after an illegal but essentially peaceful civil-rights march. Troops killed 13 unarmed people, mortally wounded another, and shot more than a dozen others…
However, the belief that there was going to be a civil war in Ireland made everything worse. Once that idea takes hold, it has a force of its own.
Particularly intriguing is that of course, the fundamentalist right in America shares a common tradition with its equivalent, its progenitor even, in Northern Ireland.
Much of American culture is already primed for the final battle. There is a very deep strain of apocalyptic fantasy in fundamentalist Christianity. Armageddon may be horrible, but it is not to be feared, because it will be the harbinger of eternal bliss for the elect and eternal damnation for their foes. On what used to be referred to as the far right, but perhaps should now simply be called the armed wing of the Republican Party, the imminence of civil war is a given.
Do we hear an echo here in the counsels of the DUP?
It is also true that the American system of government is extraordinarily difficult to change by peaceful means. ..It is not hard to imagine those future historians defining American democracy as a political life form that could not adapt to its environment and therefore did not survive.
Arguably, the real problem for the U.S. is not that it can be torn apart by political violence, but that it has learned to live with it.
The basic case against a US civil war anything like that in the 19th century is that there is no neat territorial division like the north- south Mason- Dixon line of 1861. This however is cold comfort and no protection against the threat of mass paramilitary action, sometimes even under the authority of a state authority like the governor of Florida who is threatening to set up his own militia. It has long been a wonder to me that the US has not experienced the development of a systemic black terrorist movement. They have even more reason than perhaps they realise to be grateful for the achievement of Martin Luther King and a different wing of evangelical Christianity.
Picture courtesy NBC News
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London