As a mental exercise, I occasionally ponder what is the worst that could happen in a given situation. Although I am naturally more than a little gloomy and melancholy by temperament, the main purpose of this exercise is not to get mired in morbid and obsessive rumination–although that is always a danger–but rather to test my capacity for imagination to see if the worst that I come up with is in fact worse than that which actually happens. When you have stared into the abyss as long as I have, there is a fairly ready tendency to see the potential for great evil in the friction of this world, even though, mercifully, the worst or anything close to the worst does not happen very often .
Let us take a short journey into the past and remind ourselves of the context of the American Civil War. The year is 1860. A divided Democratic party split over the irreconcilable demands of the voting public in the North and South over slave codes and the expansion of slavery and oppression into the free territories has virtually assured the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose name is not even on the ballot in ten Southern states, and the loss of control for corrupt slaveowning elites on the federal government in the Supreme Court and executive branch is too much to bear for proslavery radicals, who decide that the time to rebel against the seemingly inevitable pull of demographics that has doomed their region, in their minds, to a permanent minority, and the result is the American Civil War. As a child faced with the ruin and dissolution of my own family, I read a lot about the Civil War and it is one of several related and interconnected matters that has haunted my existence . The subject of divided houses, in other words, is one that strikes very close to home.
Could such a thing happen again? It is unlikely to happen in the same way or even the same place. It is unlikely, for example, that it will be precisely the same factors that lead to another bout of civil conflict within the United States that occurred in 1860-1861. Additionally, the civil conflict is unlikely to be done in the same pseudoconstitutional means as was done by the rebels of the Deep and Middle Souths. That said, there is a clear and worrisome decline in the arts of dealmaking and consensus building within the American political order, and there are signs that Democrats, at least, are increasingly unwilling to accept the adverse verdict of the American populace. After all, I was threatened by a lynch mob in 2000 for being a relatively conservative person from Florida when my roommate played “We Are The Champions” in poor taste on election night in Southern California . More to the point, the Supreme Court case of Gore v. Bush in 2000 and its possible repeat in 2016 demonstrate the lack of willingness of the Democratic party and its standard bearers to accept defeat and the peaceful transfer of power, something that, as their current standard bearer has said before, is a threat to our republic.
So, how could such a civil conflict arise in our day and time? Given the geographic and demographic base of the modern Democratic party, and given the patterns of unrest it has shown in recent decades, we can imagine a scene like the following. While attempts at legal challenges to an adverse election like that of 2016 are going on in Washington DC and a few state capitals, there are massive and coordinated protests in cities like New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington DC, Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle aimed at demonstrating an unwillingness on the part of progressives to accept political defeat according to the rules established in the Constitution . Unwilling to concede defeat to the mobocrat tendencies of these protesters, a combative right-wing candidate is awarded the victory thanks to Republican majorities in the House and Senate and the protests reach such a level and threaten the well-being of his presidency to such an extent that it is thought necessary to use force to restore order and deal with the rising leftist insurgency.
What would the geography of such an insurgency look like? By and large it would be a town vs. country sort of conflict, with capital cities, college towns, and the largest cities tending to support the insurgency while the rural areas are strongly pro-government. The suburbs would, unfortunately, be caught in the middle, and it is fairly easy to imagine a rising sense of panic and concern as some innocents try to leave dangerous areas and refugees against the political worldviews of their neighbors try to find more congenial territory. Depending on which side chose to take the aggressive there would be a clear asymmetry between the large amount of sparsely populated territory featuring agricultural and mining and extraction territory that would be in favor of the conservative government, including the vast majority of the military and its leadership and bases and the small but densely populated territory that would be in favor of the leftist progressive insurgency. Conservative forces could trade space for time and lure insurgents into territory they are unfamiliar with through a knowledge of the back roads and superior knowledge of terrain and a large supply of guns and ammunition for self defense of their countryside, while insurgent forces would control most of the cities and threaten attacks with brutal urban guerrilla warfare, which means the initial situation may seem as somewhat like a stalemate. How would that stalemate be broken? That is a subject we will leave for another day.
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