What’s All the Fluff About a New Civil War?

From a New York Times column by Sarah Vowell headlined “What’s All the Fluff About a New Civil War, Anyway?”:

BOZEMAN, Mont. — The idea was to be permanently chastened by the Civil War, that the relief of emancipation and reunification would always be tempered by the shock of 600,000 corpses. And yet “civil war” has lately become one of those zeitgeist phrases that rattle around the internet, like “quiet quitting” or “Pete Davidson.”

After the F.B.I. searched Donald Trump’s home for archival documents, a white nationalist proclaimed, “Civil war is imminent.” These whiffs of civil war from people more enthralled with Fort Sumter than Appomattox Court House are, like the re-emergence of the word “secession,” escapist fantasies of reliving the four years this country was two countries, officially estranged.

Liz Cheney said in her Wyoming concession speech that she takes courage from Ulysses S. Grant’s resolve to turn his army south toward Richmond in 1864. Mentioning that Abraham Lincoln lost House and Senate races “before he won the most important election of all,” she announced that her new political action committee to resist election denial is called the Great Task, a reference to the last line of the Gettysburg Address. How far will she take her Civil War analogies? If she’s running in the 2024 presidential primary, “Let’s burn down Atlanta” might not be an optimal vote-getter in Fulton County.

As for Ms. Cheney’s likening herself to Abraham Lincoln, I have seen, at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the bullet that killed him and fragments of his skull. I’m no life coach, but I wouldn’t call following in his footsteps a particularly upbeat career goal.

Ms. Cheney might pull off being our generation’s Millard Fillmore — every girl’s dream. In choosing majority rule as her life’s work, she has landed on the only either-or issue in the United States (aside from pineapple on pizza).

Defending the premise that, after a fair election, the legitimate Electoral College winner becomes the president-elect — an idea so basic I literally learned it in first grade, when the kids who preferred Gerald Ford in our mock election just sucked it up and congratulated Jimmy Carter’s gang of 6-year-olds — is our most important issue and explains the ginned-up rumors of war, especially since Ms. Cheney’s nemesis on the topic is something of an attention-getter. On everything else, the United States in 2022 feels more 1850 to me than 1861.

The country circa 1850 was trapped in a trilateral predicament in which President Fillmore, presiding over a Unionist center aiming to prohibit slavery’s extension into the new western territories, was caught between a far left and a far right, some abolitionists being almost as keen on secession as the slaveholders — an outcome that would have benefited the latter.

Recent polling on the growing support for secession echoes that 1850s-style tripartite political divide. Last year the University of Virginia Center for Politics issued an unnerving report in which 41 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans “somewhat agree” that red and blue states should secede from the Union and form separate countries. Eighteen percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republican respondents “strongly agree.” Thus secession is one of those subjects where each party’s extremists are de facto allies, like forsaking the First Amendment or provoking every educator and librarian in America to resign.

My nephew used to play a video game in which he gave digital haircuts to bears. That is less absurd than founding two new separate “blue” and “red” countries. The party leanings of states can be fluid. Colorado, for instance — it’s almost as if a secret cabal of tech millionaires shoveled a mountain of cash into turning a Republican state into a Democratic one. The federal government owns almost 50 percent of the land out West, so how to divvy it up without antagonizing thrifty New Englanders? What would happen to swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania? Do they form a third Republic of Wishy-Washy?

Somewhere around 40 percent of us do not live in the state where we were born. The ability to move from one state to another is not only an essential freedom that Liz Cheney should definitely look into, it is also an economic imperative. How much of Florida’s economy is New Yorkers and Midwesterners waiting around to die? Moreover, interstate migration is a foundation of our arts and culture. Pittsburgh’s Billy Strayhorn wrote “Take the A Train” after following Duke Ellington’s subway directions to Harlem.

This is the story of the United States,” said T Bone Burnett. “A kid walks out of his home with a song and nothing else, and conquers the world.”

A poll of more than 8,000 Americans released by the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and the California Firearm Violence Research Center found that half of the respondents agreed that “in the next several years, there will be a civil war in the United States.” First of all, yikes. Second, how would bringing Shiloh to the suburbs even work?

Full-blown wars tend to get bogged down in geography pretty quickly. The arc of George Washington’s command of the Continental Army can be told largely from the banks of rivers. A topographic map of Afghanistan now looks like a prophecy.

Yes, the 2020 Electoral College map gives the impression that there are still dependable, contiguous regions of this continent with natural or psychological boundaries akin to the Mason-Dixon Line of yore. But the county election results maps tell a messier story of who we are and where we live. More Californians than Texans voted for Donald Trump. And even Richmond isn’t Richmond anymore — now that the city removed all the Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue, it’s just a bunch of Joe Biden voters driving past a statue of the tennis star Arthur Ashe.

Here in Montana, a state as deep red as a Flathead cherry, I’m a Democrat living in a blue county bigger than Delaware. Still, Republicans live among us and they look just like people. (Hi, Larry.) It’s hard to pick them out unless they step in front of the C-SPAN camera to fist-bump Ted Cruz.

Mid-pandemic I stood in line for hamburgers between a snarling blonde who chewed me out for wearing a face mask and a high school classmate’s brother keen to talk about the Times linguistics newsletter writer John McWhorter. Both of my neighbors ordered French fries cooked in the same vat of oil. Where is the demarcation line in that scenario — the milkshake machine?

The Texas Republican Party, ever aspirational, put secession from the United States into its most recent platform. And yet secession is technically illegal — thanks to Texans. In 1869, in Texas v. White, the Supreme Court ruled secession unconstitutional and declared the Union “perpetual.”

Hence the intoxicating appeal of these continuing fantasies of partition and civil war: We are stuck with each other. We are stuck. With each other. Perpetually.

Sarah Vowell is the author of “Assassination Vacation” and the producer of an oral history of the Montana Constitutional Convention of 1972.

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