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Are Americans Headed Toward a Civil War?

Are Americans Headed Toward a Civil War?

The cycle Kevin Phillips saw from the 17th century to the 19th may resurface in the 21st.

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Are Americans headed toward a civil war? We’ve already had one, so we know it’s within the realm of possibility. In fact, by one reckoning, the English speakers have had two other civil wars in the last four centuries, spaced out every hundred or so years. Is there some sort of deep cycle at work here? With, er, implications for our own troubled times?

Such questions are brought to mind by a book published back in 1998, Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. That volume connects three conflicts, the impacts of which were felt strongly on both sides of the Atlantic: the English Civil War of the 17th century, the American Revolution of the 18th century, and the American Civil War of the 19th century.  

Phillips, who died in 2023, was not an academic, which might explain why he could have a scholarly turn of mind and a keen eye for contemporary significance. Early in his career, he was a Republican politico, albeit one with lots of facts and figures. The book that made him famous as a wunderkind, The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), carefully traced, among other things, the partisan impact of the U.S. Civil War, even as it prophesied that the old Confederacy, once the citadel of the Democratic Party, would be the hub of the new GOP. He similarly foresaw that the Lincoln Republicanism of, say, Vermont would give way to Democratic liberalism. Yet while Phillips was a Tory at heart, he was anything but a Republican triumphalist; in later decades he steadily critiqued the New Right (going back a few New Rights ago), Reaganomics, Newt Gingrich, and the Two Bushes.

Yet whether it was voting patterns of German-Americans in the Midwest or the financial flows of Wall Street, Phillips always wrote with ethnographic knowingness. The Cousins’ Wars sprawls over 700 pages, delighting in detail. For example, he dwells on the continuities between East Anglia (the font of Puritanism, where Oliver Cromwell was born) and Massachusetts (the Puritan capital in North America, home of, to name one revolutionary descendant of Puritans, John Adams).  

Writes Phillips: “The long, wide public greens of Suffolk, Essex, and Hertfordshire—especially notable examples remain in Writtle and Matching, Essex, and Long Melford, Suffolk—were transferred to New England en masse,” to sister-towns across the Atlantic such as Braintree, Groton, Ipswich—and, of course, Cambridge.

Yet if Phillips is good at itemizing the trees, he’s also skilled at overviewing the forest. His larger woodsy argument is that the conflicts of Anglo-America across those centuries followed certain key themes: city vs. country, smugglers vs. tariff collectors, insider economic interests vs. outsiders, and, perhaps most or all, the fervor of faith. Writes Phillips of earlier eras: “Religion shaped the principal texture of men’s minds.” 

Such assertions might seem to put a cap on the contemporary relevance of Phillips’ work. After all, these days, in both the U.S. and the U.K., it can’t be said that Christian religion is the main texture. The decay of Mainline Protestantism is well-documented; less known is the decline of the Southern Baptists. Nearly a third of Americans don’t keep even the pretense of religious attendance. As sage observers have noted, the hardcore MAGA movement is not particularly attached to a church. That’s how an obviously secular figure such as Donald Trump can ride high with the right. Yet over on the left, can anyone say that Barack Obama was any less secular? As for Joe Biden, he takes “cafeteria Catholic” to its à la carte extreme, making all-out support for abortion a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak, the prime minister of Great Britain, is a Hindu who took the oath of office with his hand on the Bhagavad Gita. So much for the Test Act

Yet Phillips, who spent his career making sly appraisals and keen parallels, would have a ready answer to this irreligion conundrum.  Over the last two or so centuries, religion has been transmuted into new textures of ideology, including communism, fascism, environmentalism, and feminism. From ballot boxes to battlefields, these new creeds have been fighting faiths. Hence the wit of the wordplay “Great Awokening.” 

We can see this in the lineage of Puritanism, which morphed into Congregationalism and then into the United Church of Christ—which is now, of course, fully woke. To be sure, the ethnicity of Massachusetts and New England has changed enormously over the centuries; Albion’s seed is now the minority. Still, the people of the Bay State retain their Emersonian energy, forever scanning the horizon for things to either abolish or improve. It helps that on a per capita basis, Massachusetts is the richest state in the union; affluence enables one to climb high on Maslow’s pyramid, all the better to look down.

The spirit of high-minded meddlesomeness animates readers of The Boston Globe and The Harvard Crimson. It’s interesting to recall that, back in 1636, Harvard was founded to train Puritan preachers; today, Christianity is long gone, and the campus still fills with passionate intensity. According to a 2024 repressiveness rating compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, “Harvard University obtained the lowest score possible, 0.00, and is the only school with an ‘Abysmal’ speech climate rating.” The original Puritans—Winthrop, Cotton, and Mather—would be horrified at what Harvardian crusaders are doing today, but they might at least honor the zeal with which they are doing it. 

As Phillips writes, history is not made by class, it’s made by clash. That is, the conflict of one group against another, which can include rich against rich and poor against poor. Just as the Puritans mostly fought the Cavaliers (the forces of Charles I in England, the forces of Robert E. Lee in Virginia), so now the secularized New Englanders, broadened out to Yankees and other denizens of Democratic blue dots, find themselves in conflict with the Republican red zones.   

On the other side of the blue-red divide, contending beliefs flourish, and the reds are duly energized. Committed Christians, evangelical and Catholic, have hardly disappeared amidst the MAGA, and they have all joined together in the GOP. There they have been joined, like it or not, by a smattering of alt-right sectaries, including Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Groypers, and Pepe the Froggers. Just one thing unites this motley crew: antipathy to Blue.  

If we wish to update Phillips, we can see the fighting faiths that could be the basis of—portentous drumroll here—the next Cousins’ War. Will it be actual combat? Or just a lot of angry tweets? Two years ago, here at The American Conservative, this author wrote, “The United States has all the preconditions for a civil war today except one: the willingness to actually fight for the sake of disunity.” I still think that’s true, and I sure hope it is. I’ve written much about how the Diverse States of America could and should agree to a tacit separation, allowing red states to enjoy their reditude and blue states to savor their blueness while all 50 states remain in a loosened union that would leave all with more happiness and property.  

Indeed, as predicted here at The American Conservative on January 26, the Biden administration has chosen to back down on the “barbed wire” standoff in Eagle Pass, Texas. Washington chose to retaliate against the Lone Star State by limiting LNG, not by sending General McDowell. For his part, Texas governor Greg Abbot rallied 24 fellow Republican governors to his side. Evidently, D.C. Blues didn’t want to mess with Texas, or with this emerging Red Bloc. That might suggest hope for a peaceful, if strained, coexistence between Red and Blue. 

Yet Phillips would probably say that history won’t let us down that lightly. The stern motif of The Cousins’ Wars is…wars. As he wrote, the three wars in his chronicle have been “the central staircase” of Anglo-American history. Lest anyone miss his point, he added, “Bloodshed…is to lasting electoral arrangements what carbon has been to steel.”  

The point: Sometimes conflicts are so deep that they simply can’t be resolved through peaceable means. In the 17th century, the Puritans and other hardcore Protestants thought that King Charles I was a tyrant, a secret Catholic, and a lackey for arch-enemy France (and not without reason; Charles was in fact, a believer in divine right and was married to a French Catholic, the sister of King Louis XIII). It’s no wonder there was no middle ground.

Moving along in Phillips’ bloody trinity, the American Revolution, too was a hard nut. As the author and his myriad footnotes sketch out, the American colonies were so large, relative to the mother country—the population of the 13 colonies was about 2.5 million, the population of England, about 7 million—that the Americans had their own culture, economy, and special concerns (nobody at the Court of St. James had to worry about Iroquois raids). The mutual incomprehension was all the more acute because it took two months to get across the Atlantic. Hard to manage either taxation or representation from such a distance. And when King George tried to put his foot down, George Washington put a jagged nail up.  

That right there should provide a lesson to Blue: It’s hard to hold dominion over a peer power. These days, partisan Democrats have the edge over Republicans in Washington, although the real power of Blue is its wielding of the administrative/deep state as a hammer against Red’s folkways, e.g. separate bathrooms for boys and girls. Yet Red has figured out how to fight back, firing figurative shots heard ’round the world. Can Blue accept Red’s right to self-determination? Or will Blue fight to keep control? The fate of an empire hinges.   

Bismarck declared to the Prussian parliament in 1862, “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided…but by iron and blood.” Not everyone likes military solutions, but was the Iron Chancellor wrong?  Victory in war solved problems for the Germans in the 19th century, and defeat in the 20th century solved problems for Germany’s enemies—as well as for its victims. As Oliver Cromwell explained, sometimes bloody events are a “cruel necessity.” 

Will we, in fact, have a fourth Cousins’ War? To be sure, both sides, Red and Blue, cite a long train of abuses, and without a doubt we have an upcoming crazy train of elections and the inevitable disputes. Yet the Anglo-Saxons were always good at better angel-ing; they might have fought like the dickens, but in the end they stopped well short of outright annihilation and permanent vendettas. So let’s pray that post-WASP America can summon up the same spirit of pragmatism, updating the Puritan dream of a city upon a hill with a new vision: two cities upon the hill.

The post Are Americans Headed Toward a Civil War? appeared first on The American Conservative.

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