In the wake of the political violence in Charlottesville, The New Yorker asks, “Is America headed for a new type of civil war?” To answer that question, staff writer Robin Wright spoke to five Civil War historians and cited a troubling Foreign Policy survey in March, when that magazine asked national-security experts about the likelihood of a second civil war: “[Keith] Mines concluded that the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years. Other experts’ predictions ranged from five per cent to ninety-five per cent. The sobering consensus was thirty-five per cent.”
The term “civil war” is being used in very elastic ways here. According to Wright, “Mines’s definition of a civil war is large-scale violence that includes a rejection of traditional political authority and requires the National Guard to deal with it.” If that’s the case, then America has been at civil war for huge chunks of its history, since the National Guard has been called in repeatedly to quell large-scale violence (notably during the desegregation push in the 1950s and the race riots of the 1960s, as well as the labor unrest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century). Yet Mines is conflating that sort of situation, bad as it is, with the actual Civil War, which involved massive armies fighting over control of territory. As Mines told Wright, “It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.”
Racist terrorism is a problem. In the months leading up to Charlottesville, there were a string of attempted killings and actual killings by radicalized “lone-wolf” racists. This is all the more disturbing given that President Donald Trump is reluctant to criticize white nationalists, likely because he sees them as part of his political coalition. It’s easy to imagine the United States teetering into a situation where persistent lone-wolf attacks are the norm. But this sort of terrorist problem is very different from a war with actual soldiers fighting over sovereignty. Such a war would require national consciousness and trained armies on both sides. There is no evidence that anything like that is on the horizon. America’s festering problem with racist violence is bad enough that we don’t need to exaggerate its scale.