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No, America Is Not on the Verge of a New Civil War

Clickbait headlines aside, there's little evidence that most Americans expect that it will take violence to settle our differences. And there's plenty of evidence that most favor compromise, common ground and progress.

Currier and Ives' "The Battle of Petersburg"
What an actual civil war looked like: Currier and Ives’ “The Battle of Petersburg”
(Library of Congress)
Science magazine recently published an article, linking to a preprint of a paper on political violence in America, with the clickbait headline that nearly half of Americans believe there will be a civil war in the United States in the next few years. Although the picture of neighbors fighting neighbors certainly garners attention, it is not the reality in America, even if the political elite — including politicians, pundits and the media— have everything to gain by such a portrayal.

Despite a best-in-class online panel for the survey underlying the paper, a large portion of the data cannot be credibly interpreted due to a clumsy question-drafting flaw. Best practices in survey writing dictate an equal number of positive and negative response options. However, in a series of questions focused on extreme views, Americans were given three nuanced ways to agree, just one absolute option to disagree, and no option for admitting that they didn’t have enough knowledge to answer — naturally leading to an overstatement of agreement.

If you look at the number of Americans who do have a strong belief in a coming civil war, it falls just under 14 percent, far below the crisis point hyped. As a comparison point, 14 percent of Americans believe in a wide range of theories outside of the realm of the likely, such as the CIA distributing crack cocaine to the inner cities in the 1980s or the U.S. Navy shooting down TWA Flight 800 in the mid-1990s and then covering it up.

Take instead a recent Morning Consult poll showing that 63 percent of registered voters would be more likely to vote for a member of Congress who finds compromise and common ground. Or a national poll by Scott Rasmussen showing that 62 percent of Americans believe our nation can learn from our mistakes and fix the problems we face. There is extensive research showing Americans want to and can agree on policy solutions but are pushed aside by politicians who retain power through divisiveness. Perhaps that is one reason that trust in government, run by these politicians, is at historic lows.

The write-up of the Science-linked paper, still awaiting certified peer review, did end with a mention of more detailed and discerning work on political violence. For their book Radical American Partisanship, for example, authors Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason conducted years of detailed experiments that draw much more promising conclusions than inevitable civil war. Evidence from Radical American Partisanship shows that many strong partisans find the most extreme rhetoric distasteful and may shy away from their party if it continues, and that individual instances of harsh and violent rhetoric from party leaders have little to no effect on Americans’ tolerance for violence as a political means.

It's true that research also finds that the strongest partisans on both sides have the highest approval of the use of violence to achieve political ends. But it also appears that receiving even one pacifying message significantly drops the acceptance of violence, even if it comes from the leader of the disliked party. The lesson is that finger-pointing is at best misguided and at worst calculated for show; each side’s political elites have the power to push our society in a peaceful direction — if they choose.

Americans want to be led to common ground and progress. Even the slightest nod from political leadership can redirect the most hardened partisans away from violence and to a place where compromise is acceptable. When our leaders choose this path, their base may tell them they are weak, but a majority of the country sees a sliver of hope that we may be able to rebuild our crumbling institutions and overcome the lack of trust in them.

Far more concerning than a handful of Americans foreseeing civil war is what happens when our leaders choose not to use their platforms to unify people. When aspiring politicians see the most famous and successful of their ilk achieve their stature by manufacturing and repeating reasons to be afraid of their fellow countrymen, it is little wonder why they might eschew calmer, pacifying rhetoric. If our elected officials make this personally beneficial but publicly disastrous choice, we must not stand for it. We need to replace them through the democratic means enshrined in our system.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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