The Human Condition:

You Say You Want a Revolution – February 5, 2012

Politics has always been a serious business in the United States, as in most of the world. I believe that’s a good thing. People should air their different beliefs and preferred policies, discuss them, analyze them, and try to find a compromise, a middle path, a solution that will work for—if not everybody—as least for most people. That was the original intention of democracy: messy and less than satisfying, but still more congenial than life under a monarchy or dictatorship. That’s the way it has worked for about 200 years in this country.

Apparently, not anymore. It seems that in the last decade the two political parties have drawn fixed lines and dug deep trenches, not unlike the battlefields of World War I. The center of gravity on each side has moved from somewhere near the middle and amenable to compromise, out to fringe positions and extreme statements that border on obsession and blindness. The Democrats are now firmly and openly hostile to the private sector, personal wealth, and religion; firmly and openly in favor of government control of the economy, redistribution of personal assets, and a behaviorist view of human nature. The Republicans are now firmly and openly hostile to government regulation, taxation, and social engineering; firmly and openly in favor of unfettered market forces, capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction” come what may, and a hierarchical view of human nature.

Positions are so solid that any move toward compromise is viewed as treacherous and shameful, a complete loss of faith. Our side is the earthly beacon of light and sanity. The other side is the original author of all stupidity and wrongheadedness. Anyone who lifts his head above the trench line will get it shot off, and the middle ground is a no-man’s land with death in the crossfire.1

In the last year or so I’ve heard the words “civil war” used by bloggers and people I tend to respect. They are usually referring to these battle lines of social and economic difference, and they imply we’re in the middle of such a war already.2 But to my mind, we’re still at the talking stage: airing differences and seeking solutions. It’s not a real war, yet.

If the people of right and left were homogenously intermingled, so that neighbor was talking to and arguing with neighbor, I wouldn’t be so worried. People who have to rake leaves and shovel snow together usually have a hard time imagining each other as “the enemy” at the working end of a gun—especially if they’ve held a few block parties over the years. But there is that map of the red and blue states. Colloquially, people talk about the two coasts as being more liberal or progressive, while the heartland, or “flyover country,” is more conservative or libertarian. However, if you look at the map, the East Coast is true blue only in the Northeast, and the Midwest is deep red only below Illinois.

If our differences become irreconcilable, if the policies of the party in power become intolerable to the party on the outs, and especially if the economy is crippled or collapses because of the federal debt burden or the demands imposed by our foreign lenders—then this is the strategic map for secession and civil war.

I wrote fancifully about a second civil war in America in my novel First Citizen. Of course, before the country fell apart in that story, it had suffered some serious insults: a decapitating nuclear strike on Washington, DC, by forces unknown, and a series of constitutional amendments that repudiated the federal debt and limited the federal power to raise revenue through taxes. In our current situation—with a robust and expanding federal government—any move toward secession would face almost insurmountable hurdles. Here are some examples.

Social Programs Almost every American citizen, except those covered under alternative government programs, has paid into Social Security and Medicare. Financial advisors routinely incorporate expected payouts under these programs into people’s retirement planning. Any state that secedes from the Union must expect to supplement this support or face opposition from its older, more established citizens. Medical facilities and personnel are also heavily dependent on federal payments under Medicare. Seceding states will be hard pressed to manage health care on their own.

Infrastructure Support Roads and highways, waterways, water supply systems, airports, public schools and universities, and urban development all draw heavily on funds provided by the federal government. Any state that secedes will have to support itself in terms of infrastructure. Yes, the state government will be able to absorb the taxes its citizens formerly paid into the federal treasury. But many states—particularly those among the less populous red states—usually get back more from the federal government than their citizens pay in taxes. Making up the difference will be hard.

Military Systems Any state that secedes can appropriate the military bases inside its borders, but that will yield only the land and buildings. Certainly, the U.S. military will fly its aircraft out, remove its heavy weapons like tanks, artillery, and personnel carriers, and sail its ships away. If the state should happen to appropriate any of these assets—so what? These days, weapons are not the planes or ships but the systems of appropriations and contracts that allow them to be maintained, fueled, armed, and prepared for battle. Individual states won’t have access to these systems. Any assets they do claim will become inert within about eighteen months. And while nuclear weapons are hard to remove on short notice, they too are inert without the launch codes. All of this is going to be bad news if the federal government opens hostilities to recover the seceding states.

Commercial and Financial Systems The economy of the United States is remarkably cohesive, knit together by interlocking systems of commercial exchange, credit, and finance. Your bank accounts, credit cards, and mortgage loan are possibly managed by banks in one or more other states. The bread, meat, produce, and all the processed foods in your local grocery store probably came from several states away, carried in by train and truck. The natural gas you burn in your furnace and stove and the gasoline in your car probably come from wells and refineries in other states. Your cell phone and internet connections are managed through switching and routing systems that may be managed by firms in other states. In the midst of secession, access to these necessities may not cease but certainly will be slowed by a new set of rules and regulations. If secession leads to civil war, access will almost certainly stop. Look for a much lower standard of living.

In 1860, the South could secede from the Union because most states were self-sufficient.3 Foods, fuels, finance, and other necessities were usually produced and consumed locally. The federal government was small and relatively weak. A cannon or a musket was just a metal tube that could fire a variety of ammunition, and anyone could make black powder. A horse was a horse on either side of the border, ready for saddling and riding. Being a part of the Union was more a matter of politics and pride than necessity. And when pride overrode reason, well, a gentleman could opt to leave the club.

The world of the 21st century is much more connected—and more fragile. Close the borders to interstate trucking, and your grocery store empties out within 48 hours. Cancel the credit cards and close the accounts of out-of-state banking customers, and people become paupers in 24 hours. Close the switches on interstate electric transmission and the valves on interstate gas pipelines, and cities go dark and cold by sundown.

If you don’t get your way in politics, you may consider secession. But you’d better hope there’s not another Lincoln around, refusing to let you go in peace. It’s always daring and dramatic to talk about civil war. But the reality will be the collapse of a society it has taken us a century of technological advances to knit together.

Faced with that, politics and pride hardly matter at all.

1. As someone who lives mostly in the middle ground—fiscally conservative to a point, socially progressive to a point, falling about “center right” on the political scale—I find all this distressing. The two parties are drawing to the right and left of the spectrum so quickly that I feel like an astronomer of the far future, when dark energy has expanded the edges of the universe into a thin, cool emptiness. Where have all the galaxies gone? Where have all the stars gone?

2. President Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform” the country seems to have kicked off some of this angst and anger on both sides. The politics of gradualism, winning a position step by step, is easier for most people to accept than sudden and irreversible transformations—which can cause major and irreversible dislocations.

3. Although, as Rhett Butler pointed out, the South was remarkably deficient in cannon foundries.