The Human Condition:

Choosing Sides – September 18, 2022

War devastation

I don’t want to be a Cassandra or a conspiracy theorist, but I can see clearly. The political situation in this country has become more divided, more fraught, more frantic, more weaponized than it has been in a long time. Maybe not since the 1930s or the 1850s. And once people’s divisions along lines of their core values and beliefs become deep and unbridgeable, we lose the possibility of reconciliation through political compromise, through voting, through any exercise of good will. The questions become existential: for one side to survive, the other must be destroyed.

That way lies insurrection,1 revolution, and civil war. It happened before in Russia in 1917, and dozens of times in smaller countries during the 20th century. It isn’t supposed to happen here, because we have the pressure-relief valve of a two-party system and the peaceful transition of power through the voting booth and assured elections every two and four years. Except that the last two general elections have been greeted with angry crowds on the Washington Mall, once in 2016 with angry Democrats proclaiming, “Not My President!” against Donald Trump’s election, and then again in 2020 with angry Republicans proclaiming, “Stop the Steal!” against Joe Biden’s election. Tens of thousands of people got up out of their armchairs, boarded busses, rode to the nation’s capital, and gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in bad weather to protest the election results. That’s enough of a crowd that anyone watching might think there was something wrong with the system.

Civil wars tend to have losers on both sides. But eventually one side, one set of values, one point of view comes out on top. And it doesn’t always represent the most reasoned, nuanced, equitable, and charitable version of that mindset going into the conflict. Instead, it tends to represent an absolute validation of the most exaggerated, most hard-line, almost caricatured, version of those values. If you think “Elections have consequences—we won, you lost—get over it” was harsh language in 2010, imagine the rejoinder to people complaining in the aftermath of a civil war. Such validation usually comes with a bullet to the back of the head.

If revolution2 and civil war come to this country over our current political divisions, the players about three steps into it won’t be the players who come out of it. The current cast—Biden and company in the current administration, Pelosi and Schumer in control of Congress on the Left; Trump, DeSantis, Abbott, and whoever else is vying for the Oval Office in 2024, and McConnell and McCarthy in the minority in Congress on the Right—won’t be the major players. They will be like Alexander Kerensky and the other liberal democrats who brought about the tsar’s abdication in the March 1917 revolution in Russia: igniters, not finishers.

Fighting the war, maneuvering forces, dodging and weaving, building and breaking coalitions, taking chances, winning and losing will all devolve to the truly hard men, to the Lenins, Troskys, and Stalins among the Bolsheviks in late 1917 and on into the civil war that followed. They will be the people not afraid of spilling blood and executing prisoners. They will be opportunists and warlords who can see that, once the peaceful, democratic structure of a republic is fractured, then the political and economic situation is wide open and available to whatever you can make of it and take from it. What comes out may not be anyone’s dream of utopia—or even a stable society.

We have not seen any of these potential “hard men” anywhere on the current political stage. They will only emerge once the system is broken beyond repair. In the same way, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were virtual unknowns on the Russian political scene or in the Duma; they were a mere splinter of an exiled revolutionary group until the liberal democrats brought down the monarchy.

I do not want a revolution or a civil war in this country. That is not a solution. It would be like overturning the chessboard rather than playing out the game. But the game of politics, played under normal rules, always involves compromise. One side proposes a program—perhaps even involving extreme measures—then the other side counters, and they meet somewhere in the middle. Everyone gets something; no one is completely satisfied. That is the way a nation’s political thinking and moral feeling move forward, by compromise and the promise of living with the results of negotiation.

Revolutionaries are radicals. To them, compromise equals failure. They want the whole program, root and bough, brought forth in a single convulsive act. And if the opposition remains unconvinced, they will go to war and begin killing in order to achieve their goals. Radicals are by definition unreasonable people. They will achieve their purpose, by any means necessary, or die trying. They really embrace a death cult.

As someone who tries to live in the middle,3 I can usually make peace and live comfortably in the midst of either the Right’s or the Left’s mindset. I believe in obeying the law and minding my own business. But I see around me—not on a personal level, but in the various opposing parties and their captive media—a different feeling. Positions in this country have become solidified, uncompromising, existential, do or die, victory or death. We are becoming like the old European order or a Third World country, ready to ignite.

Under these circumstances, no one can expect a reasonable outcome. The resolution of a civil war will be a brutalized state. The winning side will feel no compulsion to consider the mindset and political feelings of the losers. The only options for the losing side will be total capitulation, exile, or death. We’ve seen this result before, and the damaging effects live on to the third generation.

I only hope that, when we come out the other side of whatever convulsion is coming, we have a country I can live in.

1. For real—not the velvet-rope walk-on at the Capitol building, led by a guy in face paint and a buffalo hat, that we saw on January 6. A real insurrection would bring automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Think of Trotsky taking the cruiser Aurora to attack the Winter Palace during the October Revolution of 1917. Real insurrections are earnest and tend to be bloody.

2. Radical members of the Left in this country have been talking revolution and political mayhem since I was in college. They sang songs about it (the Beatles’ “You Say You Want a Revolution” and John Lennon’s “Imagine”) and called for it publicly (Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, the Cloward-Piven Strategy, and outright action by the Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army). Now that these elderly radicals and their progressive children have achieved control of urban centers on both coasts and at least two branches of the federal government—but apparently lost control of the third—they seem to be working toward the “orchestrated crisis” and economic and cultural collapse that will bring on a Marxist-style revolution. And how insane is that?

3. When I take those little online tests of political views, or try to find myself on one of those four-quadrant charts (representing, for example, the extremes of Left versus Right politics on the horizontal axis, and Authoritarian versus Libertarian principles on the vertical), I’m always about three points out of a hundred to right of center along the middle baseline. I am more fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and tend to see the need for both authority and liberty at work in society—or so I have been for the past forty years. But those distinctions are fast becoming obsolete. The trend now is all one way or nothing, up to one corner or down to the other. For example, I now hear it said that one cannot be socially liberal without embracing the rising taxation and resulting government spending needed to achieve progressive programs. The middle ground is sliding away under my feet.