“How Civil Wars Start,” a new book by the political scientist Barbara F. Walter, was cited all over the place in the days around the anniversary of last winter’s riot at the Capitol. 

The book begins with a story from the fall of 2020: the kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, hatched by a group of right-wing militiamen who opposed Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions. Fortunately “the F.B.I. was on to them” and foiled the plot, but the alleged kidnapping conspiracy, Walter argues, is a harbinger of worse to come. Periods of civil war often “start with vigilantes just like these — armed militants who take violence directly to the people.”

Here’s a skeptical question, though: When we say the F.B.I. was “on to” the plotters, what exactly does that mean? Because at the moment, the government’s case against them is a remarkable tangle. Fourteen men have been charged with crimes, based in part on evidence reportedly supplied by at least 12 confidential informants — meaning that the F.B.I. had almost one informant involved for every defendant.

Presumably we’ll find out more about all this when the case comes to trial, but for now it’s reasonable to wonder whether Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers would have been prepared to go all the way with their vigilante fantasies, absent some prodding from the feds.

And those doubts, in turn, might be reasonably extended to the entire theory of looming American civil war, which assumes something not yet entirely in evidence — a large number of Americans willing to put their lives, not just their Twitter rhetoric, on the line for the causes that currently divide our country.

Overall, the academic and journalistic literature on America’s divisions offers a reasonably accurate description of increasing American division. The country is definitely more ideologically polarized than it was 20 or 40 years ago; indeed, with organized Christianity’s decline, you could say that it’s more metaphysically polarized as well. 

The drama of protest politics in 2020 is often analyzed in a way that minimizes the revolutionary symbolism of the left’s protests — the iconoclasm and the toppled statues, the mayhem around federal buildings and the White House, the zeal to rename and rewrite — and focuses intensely on the right’s response, treating conservative backlash as though it emerges from the reactionary ether rather than as a cyclical response.

The other bias in the civil-war literature is toward two related forms of exaggeration. First, an exaggerated emphasis on what Americans say they believe, rather than what (so far, at least) they actually do. It’s absolutely true that if you just look at polling data, you see a lot of beliefs that would seem to license not just occasional protest but some sort of continuing insurrection. This includes not only the Trumpist stolen-election theories but also popular beliefs about recent Republican presidents — that George W. Bush had foreknowledge and allowed Sept. 11 to happen and that the Russians manipulated vote tallies in order to place Donald Trump, their cat’s-paw, in the White House.

However, an overwhelming majority of people who hold those kinds of beliefs show no signs of being radicalized into actual violence. For all the talk of liberal “resistance” under Trump, the characteristic left-wing response to the Trump administration was not to join antifa but to mobilize to elect Democrats; it took the weird conditions of the pandemic and the lockdowns, and the spark of the George Floyd killing, to transmute anti-Trumpism into national protests that turned violent.

Likewise, despite fears that Jan. 6 was going to birth a “Hezbollah wing” of the Republican Party, there has been no major far-right follow-up to the event, no dramatic surge in Proud Boys or Oath Keepers visibility, no campaign of anti-Biden terrorism. Instead, Republicans who believe in the stolen-election thesis seem mostly excited by the prospect of thumping Democrats in the midterms, and the truest believers are doing the extremely characteristic American thing of running for local office.

We are first told that “civil war” is coming, but then it turns out that the term is being used to mean something other than an actual war, that the relevant analogies are periods of political violence like the Irish Troubles or Italy’s “Years of Lead.” And then if you question whether we’re destined to reach even that point, you may be informed that actually the civil war is practically here already — because, author Stephen Marche writes in his new book "The Next Civil War," “the definition of civil strife starts at 25 deaths within a year” and acts of anti-government violence killed more people than that annually in the later 2010s.

That kind of claim strikes me as a ridiculous abuse of language. The United States is a vast empire of more than 330 million people in which at any given time some handful of unhinged people will be committing deadly crimes. And we are also a country with a long history of sporadic armed conflict — mob violence, labor violence, terrorism and riots — interwoven with the normal operation of our politics. If your definition of civil war implies that we are always just a few mass shootings or violent protests away from the brink, then you don’t have a definition at all: You just have a license for perpetual alarmism.

But there are also lots of countervailing and complicating forces, and the overall picture is genuinely complex — at least as complex, let’s say, as the informant-riddled plot against Gretchen Whitmer. And as with that conspiracy, it’s worth asking whether the people who see potential insurrection lurking everywhere are seeing a danger rising entirely on its own — or in their alarm are helping to invent it.

Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.