America’s REAL Endless War
A recent poll by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed that 44% of Americans currently believe that the “U.S. seems headed toward a civil war in the near future”. The 44% total is comprised of 53% of Republicans and 39% of Democrats. The reality, however, despite the violent and virulent fever dreams of Republican camouflaged cosplayers, is that the chances of the federal government unleashing its military might against an organized collection of seditionist states is virtually nil. What both Republicans and Democrats really mean is that we are headed for yet another moment of reckoning in what is America’s true forever war – the perpetual battle between the aspirational ideals of liberty and equality embodied in our founding documents and the institutional structures our founders created that ensured power remained in the hands of white, primarily Christian, males.
Considering the events of the last few years, one might think it remarkable just how low these numbers are. A poll from earlier in the year showed that nearly 80% of Republicans profess to believe that Joe Biden was not elected legitimately. We all saw the former Republican president foment and coordinate a violent attempted coup, abetted by his extremist Republican supporters both inside and outside of government, in order to overturn a free and fair election and keep himself in office. That may not be a civil war, but it is not far off.
Republican policies, such as they are, primarily consist of simply “owning” the Democrats. They openly admit that if they regain power, their priority will be to exact revenge against their perceived political enemies, be that the Bidens, Pelosi, Fauci, Cheney, etc. As Joan Walsh notes, the Republican vision is “a world where marriage is between a man and a woman, the man is king, LGBTQ people have no rights, and women few. Where abortion is criminalized and the social safety net shredded—so that the women forced to bear children must lean on men or live in desperate poverty. Where guns are everywhere (parents and teachers should be armed to protect kids!), schools are private, medical care returns to private charities, and only the right (mainly white) kind of people vote. It’s an atomized world, where we rely on male-headed nuclear families, churches, the occasional self-interested generosity of oligarchs, and maybe local, homogenous mutual-aid societies—if we so choose. It’s the dystopian opposite of the world most Americans want”.
What’s interesting about this Republican dystopian world is how much it has not really moved beyond the thoughts and fears of the Founders: Black voters must be disenfranchised; women’s rights are restricted and they are treated as merely vessels for service and procreation; immigrants and the associated great replacement theory, as well as gay and trans people, have replaced Native Americans as the “merciless…Savages” who will bring “an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”; the interpretation of the Second Amendment to protect the states from slave revolts has been revised to protect individual white supremacy today; gerrymandering and unlimited campaign expenditures ensure white male political power in much the same way as the Founders originally restricted the franchise to land-owning white men.
Walsh, like many others, is worried that “we ultimately wind up two countries. Maybe we already are…Contrary to Barack Obama’s famous formulation at the 2004 Democratic convention, there is a Red America and a Blue America, and the leaders of Red America, and most of the Republican Party, hate the country we’ve become”. By many measures, we are indeed two nations. As Ron Brownstein writes, “The gross domestic product per person and the median household income are now both more than 25 percent greater in the blue section than in the red, according to Podhorzer’s calculations. The share of kids in poverty is more than 20 percent lower in the blue section than red, and the share of working households with incomes below the poverty line is nearly 40 percent lower. Health outcomes are diverging too. Gun deaths are almost twice as high per capita in the red places as in the blue, as is the maternal mortality rate. The COVID vaccination rate is about 20 percent higher in the blue section, and the per capita COVID death rate is about 20 percent higher in the red. Life expectancy is nearly three years greater in the blue (80.1 years) than the red (77.4) states”.
In many ways, however, we have always been two countries since our founding. By 1804, eight Northern states had already banned slavery or put in place laws to gradually abolish it. For the next 60 years, we were divided between free and slave states. After a brief decade of allowing Blacks the franchise post Civil War, the reactionary white supremacists ended Reconstruction and implemented Jim Crow autocratic rule that effectively banished Blacks from political life. Despite segregation implemented, enforced, and/or tolerated virtually nationally, we were still two countries divided by those states that had Jim Crow laws and those that allowed Blacks to exercise at least some political power as the Great Migration increased their numbers for the next 90 years.
Rather than the Civil War, it is this, the Jim Crow era, that the now Republican white nationalists long to return to and that we seem inexorably headed toward again. It was an era when their political enemies were legally barred from exercising power. Any civil opposition was greeted with force and intimidation, both legal and vigilante, often with both working in concert. We see the same combination at play again today. The 1/6 coup was the culmination of both a fraudulent legal and then violent effort to overthrow the 2020 election. The over 100 Republican state and federal election-denier candidates, along with the 147 who refused to certify Biden’s election already in Congress, are intent on creating a similar legal framework to ensure their power in much the same way legal literacy laws under Jim Crow ensured white political power by denying Blacks the right to vote for purely fictional reasons. Not for the first time, the Texas GOP platform again calls for the full repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which has already been severely limited by the radicals on the Supreme Court. That same platform calls for a state electoral college to further diminish the political power of minorities and urban Democrats in elections for statewide offices as well as a referendum on secession that will placate those Republicans pining for a new civil war. Republicans in a number of states are pushing the constitutionally questionable independent state legislature theory that would allow the legislature, which has often been gerrymandered into near permanent GOP majority, to simply override the will of the voters. Post-coup, we have already seen a Republican-controlled election board refuse to certify the results of a Republican primary simply because they want to.
The associated political violence of Jim Crow is today replicated primarily by the militia movement and by lone wolves radicalized by extremist rhetoric. Cesar Sayoc, radicalized by Trump rhetoric, targeted a host of Democratic leaders with pipe bombs. After the 2020 election, election officials of both parties, and even their families, were barraged by hundreds of threats of violence, and many have simply resigned in response. There have been at least two plots to kill Michigan Democratic Governor Whitmer. Liz Cheney has been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars on private security and is unable to hold any large rallies in her re-election campaign for safety reasons. Even Republicans who supported the benign bipartisan infrastructure bill have received similar violent threats.
But this combination of legal and vigilante violence is not just directed at the Republican base’s political opponents, whether they be Republicans or Democrats. It is now directed at virtually any so-called minority group that dares to express themselves in civic society – primarily Blacks, women, Jews, gay and trans people, as well as immigrants generally and Asians specifically. The Buffalo mass-murderer was an anti-Semite and was specifically radicalized by the “great replacement” theory to kill as many Blacks as possible. The Pittsburgh synagogue mass murderer believed Jews were committing genocide against “his people” (read white Christian males) and just wanted “to kill Jews”.
After decades of anti-abortion terroristic violence, the right to an abortion and therefore the right of women to bodily autonomy, and, to a large degree, economic freedom, has already been eliminated either by avoiding judicial review or by rulings from courts packed by Republicans. The Supreme Court just made it official. In Texas, women are being forced to carry babies who have died in the womb to term, risking death in the process. In addition, Republican-led states are labelling some birth-control methods as abortifacients, effectively ending contraception. Women are already being prosecuted for miscarriages or forced to give custody of their children to their rapists. The right-wing Heritage Foundation is even suggesting that women who get abortions should be committed to “mandatory psychiatric custody”. Autocracy-loving billionaire Peter Thiel, who is spending millions supporting his hand-picked Republican Senate candidates, has suggested that women actually having the right to vote has made American democracy worse.
“Don’t say gay” laws in multiple states are abetted by vigilante attacks like the Patriot Front attempted riot at the Idaho Pride event. As Justice Thomas made clear in his concurring opinion overturning the right to an abortion, gay marriage and gay rights in general will be the next target for the radicals on the Supreme Court as they eviscerate the right to privacy. States are investigating the parents of trans children for child abuse and prohibiting trans people from obtaining puberty blockers or gender-affirming health services, increasing trans suicides while also banning trans people from playing sports. States are also considering genital inspections if anyone questions the gender of trans female athlete. There is now an effort to pass a federal law that would allow people to sue the doctors who transitioned them when they were minors. Unsurprisingly, anti-trans legal efforts have been accompanied by surging anti-trans violence, with 2021 being the deadliest on record for transgender people. Immigrants have had to deal with everything from the Muslim ban to being held in cages to family separation (read kidnapping) to Remain in Mexico. Trump’s rhetoric about the source of Covid has led to an over 300% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.
Just like the Ku Klux Klan, the vigilante enforcer of Jim Crow white nationalism, was at its core an evangelical movement, so are today’s violent vigilantes fused with Christian nationalism. A popular Tennessee pastor who has led book burnings has also declared that you can’t be a Christian and a Democrat. He is truly building a Republican church. In Idaho, just before the aforementioned Patriot Front attempted attack on a Pride event, a local pastor stated that God wants to “put all queers to death” and demanded that homosexuals be executed. A South Carolina pastor running for Congress and endorsed by Trump has also stated that parents of trans children should be jailed for child abuse and anyone who discusses LBGTQ issues with children should be executed for treason.
Finally, again just like the Klan, many members of these violent white Christian nationalist militias are actually law enforcement officers themselves, merging legal and vigilante enforcement into one. Reportedly 10% of the Oath Keepers membership is current or former law enforcement or military and the Three Percenters actively recruit from both those groups. An assistant police chief in Washington openly displayed Nazi symbols on his office door. The “constitutional sheriffs” movement is basically an elected vigilante group who decide what laws they want to obey and enforce. And, of course, around 20 current or former police officers are among the over 850 individuals who have been charged in the January 6th insurrection.
For all Americans, the fundamental rights that you enjoy will now depend on where you live and making those freedoms universal again will take far longer than most realize as well. One of the primary reasons for that is because of another way our country has been divided into two countries since its founding – the power of propertied over people.
The property-owning requirement to vote was embedded in our founding. Even in 1840, after many states had changed the property requirement to a tax-paying requirement in order to vote, a full 10% of white men were still denied the franchise due to lack of property. Expressed in another way, it is just the political version of the division between labor and capital, exemplified by the enslavement and disenfranchisement of Black labor by white capital owners. Another variation is the urban-rural divide which was evident as early as 1791 when the tensions between poorer rural western Pennsylvanians and the more urban eastern Pennsylvanian Quaker establishment culminated in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Today, that urban-rural divide is the defining feature of American politics.
Even today, in the American electoral system, land equals power. And that puts the Democratic party at a critical disadvantage. Its minority base has been forced into small, usually urban, enclaves through decades and decades of segregation and redlining. Its educated voters increasingly cluster in small, again usually urban, areas that drive the economic engine of this country. This geographic concentration of Democratic voters actually limits their political power despite often being the majority of total voters.
Nowhere is that discrepancy more apparent than in the US Senate, a place the founders designed so that the popular will would not be allowed to infringe on white male supremacy. An institution that was framed as protection from the tyranny of the majority is really, and has been almost since its inception, the instrument to exert the tyranny of the minority. Today, over 50% of the US population lives in just nine states, leaving the remaining 50% to be represented by 82 Senators. Two thirds of all Americans are currently represented by just 30 Senators while the remaining third controls 70 Senate seats. 41 Senators representing just 25% of the population are enough to filibuster any non-reconciliation legislation. The current 50 Democratic Senators represent 41 million more Americans, or about 12% more Americans, than the 50 Republican Senators. Republicans haven’t won more votes for the Senate since the late 1990s, but have managed to hold the majority for nearly half the time since then.
While less egregious, the same bias toward land over voters exists in the Electoral College, another institution created by the Founders that limits the expressed will of the voters and protected white supremacy. Even today, it remains generally true that states with a higher white population tend to have more Electoral College power per voter. In the Electoral College, a vote in California or New York is worth around 28% of a vote in Wyoming. Democrats have won the popular vote in every election but one since 1988 but Republicans have controlled the White House for 12 of those intervening 34 years. In 2020, Trump came within a few tens of thousands of votes of winning the Electoral College despite again losing the popular vote by over 7 million votes and nearly 4.5%.
The bias toward white power in both the Senate and the Electoral College increases the odds that it will also infect our third branch of government, the judiciary, since the President and the Senate decide who sits on our federal courts. It is also why the Supreme Court has almost always been a reactionary force in American politics. As Ian Millhiser notes, “Supreme Court justices have shaped a nation where children could toil in coal mines, citizens could be forced into internment camps because of their race, and women could be sterilized against their wills by state law. The Court was the midwife of Jim Crow, the right hand of union busters, and the dead hand of the Confederacy. And the modern Court is not a vast improvement, with its incursions on voting rights and its willingness to place elections for sale…America ratified three constitutional amendments to provide equal rights to freed slaves, but the justices spent thirty years largely dismantling these amendments. Then they spent the next forty years rewriting them into a shield for the wealthy and the powerful”. Today’s radically conservative and power-mad Supreme Court is perhaps the greatest example of how the bias toward white power in our institutions works – it consists of five Justices, a majority, who have been appointed by presidents who originally lost the popular vote and were confirmed by Senators who represented a minority of voters.
Most Americans seem unaware that in the nearly 250-year history of this country, there has arguably been a less than 20-year period, the so-called Warren Court from 1953 to 1969, where the Supreme Court could be described as “liberal”. And an actual liberal majority only existed from 1961 to 1969, less than a decade. There was a reason that Mitch McConnell never even gave Merrick Garland a hearing or a vote and it was simply because it would have given liberals a majority on the Court once again, an intolerable result. In that sense, the Senate once again worked as intended to preserve white Christian domination.
Again, while few seem to realize it, the current conservative Court has effectively reversed most of the decisions of that “liberal” era. The Court’s abortion decision undercuts the core of the right to privacy established by the Warren Court. That will potentially affect everything from contraception to gay and trans rights. The Warren Court’s “one man, one vote” decisions have been effectively eviscerated by extreme partisan gerrymandering as well as by the increased voter suppression now certified by the current conservative Court. An example of just how thoroughly gerrymandering and population sorting has partitioned us, a study of 4,300 legislative districts in 34 states found that less than 450 of them were remotely competitive. This means that Democrats can win the majority of votes in legislative elections in a state like Wisconsin and not even come close to obtaining a majority. The Warren Court’s expansion of criminal defendant’s rights, like a Miranda warning or the use of evidence seized illegally, may not have been eliminated but have certainly been severely weakened. Similarly, while Brown v. Board of Education hasn’t been overturned, many school systems are just as segregated as they were decades ago and the inequity in funding education still exists. The Court’s recent decision that Maine’s school voucher system be required to fund religious schools will erode the church-state barrier and public education in general, while creating an explosion of now state-funded private schools, primarily Christian, that will be openly hostile to certain targeted minorities in an updated taxpayer-funded version of the segregation academies that proliferated in the aftermath of the 1953 Brown decision. Finally, the Court’s new Second Amendment fundamentalism will not only eradicate the Warren era gun control laws originally crafted and signed by Ronald Reagan but also give more power (and firepower) to the white Christian nationalist vigilante enforcers. And it is clear that this radical Court is determined to also roll back critical elements of the New Deal, especially the ability of government to regulate business by neutering federal agencies.
I don’t think most Americans realize just how bad things already are and just how bad things are going to get. For those unfavored groups living under this modern white Christian fascism, life will be filled with terror and chaos. For many, it already is. Sadly, Americans’ ability to tolerate the intolerable is also seemingly boundless. The abolitionist movement toiled away for 30 years and, even then, it took a real civil war to free the slaves. After a brief decade of respite, Americans tolerated (and encouraged) horrific segregation, basically ignored lynching, and allowed the continued disenfranchisement of Black voters for the next 90 years. It took over 75 years for the Supreme Court to admit that the internment of Japanese was actually unconstitutional. We are still waiting for real justice for the architects of war crimes in Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, East Timor, Chile, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well as the torture during the war on terror. In fact, some of those architects still hold respected positions in some of America’s most prestigious institutions. Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court, despite clearly being coup-friendly at best. And, of course, Donald Trump, the first president since Jefferson Davis to try and overthrow our elected government, is still playing golf at Mar-a-Lago and a viable 2024 candidate.
Because of the aforementioned institutional biases, it is certainly quite possible we may be looking ahead at decades of minority white Christian dominance, assuming our democracy even survives. What seems clearer is that the current Democratic leadership either doesn’t understand this or is incapable of responding adequately to it. In 2016, Masha Gessen told us that institutions would not save us. But today’s Democratic leadership are institutionalists to their core and doing something that might weaken the institution but advance (or save) our democracy is inconceivable to them. They are seemingly incapable of seeing that the institutions have failed.
As Jamelle Bouie writes, “What’s missing from party leaders, an absence that is endlessly frustrating to younger liberals, is any sense of urgency and crisis — any sense that our system is on the brink…[S]enior Democrats continue to act as if American politics is back to business as usual…They came into national politics in an age of bipartisan consensus and centrist policymaking, at a time when the parties and their coalitions were less ideological and more geographically varied. But this, too, was a historical aberration, the result of political and social dynamics…that were already well in decline…American politics since then has reverted to an earlier state of heightened division, partisanship and fierce electoral competition”.
Ian Millhiser adds, “The pattern in American civil rights history has been brief periods of rapid pro-egalitarian progress — think the post-Civil War period or the civil rights era — followed by much longer periods of retrenchment, when dominant groups claw back many of those gains”. These spasms of progress show the system can be reformed, but the inherent biases in the system will always favor retrenchment. We are clearly in an era of significant retrenchment that looks likely to last for an extended period. Creating a new era of egalitarian progress will require the same long-term dedication and creativity that the abolitionists and the civil rights leaders showed in their quests. It may also include deploying some of the same tactics that these radical white Christian nationalists have used to expand their power over the last 40 years.
It will require real grassroots organizing and probably massive and sustained civil disobedience. That means days or weeks-long targeted protests that create real economic and societal disruption. It will require message discipline and constant repetition. It will require an effective partisan media presence that matches Fox but deals in truth. It will require providing a path to those freedoms others are denied, for instance an “underground railroad” to get abortions or to deliver abortion pills. It will require offering a path to a better economic future in blue states much the way Northern states encouraged the Great Migration. It will require a new version of “freedom riders”. If history is any guide (slave revolts and the Children’s Crusade), it will probably include violence.
Above all it will take intense partisanship, the one thing current Democratic leaders are seemingly incapable of. That means harping on the fact that Republicans, not just Trump, tried to overthrow the most recent election. When a truly modest gun law passes with two-thirds or more of Republicans voting against it, that must be framed as Democrats delivering, not a bipartisan solution. Never again should we have to face the situation where the people in Kentucky say they love Kynect but hate Obamacare because Democrats are too afraid to tell them they are one and the same. It will require finding ways to provide services that are specifically branded to Democrats similar to the RNC Community Centers the GOP is using to sway minority voters or the Muslim Brotherhood’s social services. Finally, it will require Democrats to maximally use their power when they have it. The Emancipation Proclamation was the result of Lincoln creatively using the war powers he was given; Republicans refused to seat the secessionist Southern states in order to pass the 14th Amendment; FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court, while unsuccessful, still had its intended effect as the Court finally upheld critical elements of his Second New Deal. For Democrats, going forward, maximizing their power means expanding the Supreme Court or limiting its purview. It means eliminating or radically modifying the filibuster. It means exploiting every imaginable loophole in Supreme Court rulings in much the same way Texas basically eliminated abortion by avoiding judicial review.
There are some hopeful signs already. There has been a surge in unionization. Mie Inouye describes “a new militant minority, a layer of combative, politically conscious rank-and-file leaders within the labor movement. Their presence at Amazon and Starbucks suggests that we are witnessing an organic convergence of the college-educated middle class with the existing working class. This new militant minority, comprised of working-class labor leaders and left-wing college graduates, has the potential to unite the rejuvenated labor movement”. Virtually every Democratic challenger for a US Senate seat has vowed to eliminate the filibuster, either entirely or for specific areas of legislation like democracy and/or privacy rights. In addition, the almost total collapse in Biden’s approval rating compared to their strong support for Democrats in general seems to indicate that younger voters want a more partisan approach. And it is also possible that we may see Republicans engage in serious overreach.
But make no mistake, the years ahead could be very dark indeed. And it might behoove us to remember that the three greatest periods of advancement toward the ideals declared in our founding and reform of the political system that is rigged in favor of white Christian power – Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s – required extraordinary conditions. Reconstruction required a civil war; the New Deal required the Great Depression; and the civil rights era required massive civil disobedience and some brave Democratic leaders repudiating a significant part of their own party. Don’t count on the Republicans doing the latter anytime soon. America’s endless war between its promises and its realities will continue but that fourth period of advancement toward our ideals may be a long time coming.