Arnold Kling  

Civil War Scenarios

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Peggy Noonan writes,

I suspect some conservative used the Romney campaign's listless response as a stand-in for what they'd really like to say to Mr. Romney himself, which is, "Wake up, get mad, be human, we're fighting for our country here!"

And if you want to see equally venomous comments coming from the left, just visit the links that Mark Thoma posts every day (and realize that he likes these things).

I am pondering civil war scenarios. Here is one:

1. There is a close election in November, and the losing side has a credible case that the winning side cheated in some way. Some voters on their side were turned away from the polls because of technicalities, or some votes on the other side were counted that should not have been. Whatever.

2. The losers launch a campaign not to accept the results of the election. They organize a massive rally in Washington to try to block entrances at government agencies and Congress.

3. Similar protest movements break out at state capitals.

4. The winners get angry at the protesters. They launch counter-protests.

5. Confrontations take place, and people get hurt. Powerful resentments build.

6. Significant segments on both sides arm themselves in order to retaliate for the perceived wrongs of the other side. Fighting escalates.

Yes, it is far-fetched. But I would argue that it is even more far-fetched, even if the election result is not in dispute, that the losing side will politely accept it and adopt a constructive, compromising stance.

This year's pre-election hatefest is already out of control, in my opinion. It will not end well.

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The author at Negative Railroad in a related article titled This Means War writes:
    Arnold Kling strays from economics to politics and concludes: This year's pre-election hatefest is already out of control, in my opinion. It will not end well. I agree. We differ by his belief that a Brief Period of Violent Upheaval is unlikely, while [Tracked on August 16, 2012 3:09 AM]
COMMENTS (32 to date)
Peter writes:

Kennedy v Nixon and Bush v Gore are recent test cases. Nothing at all happened. And that was before our military (ahem) enhanced it's countermeasures for such things.

I imagine in the olden machine days election results were unreliable. Again, civil unrest didn't come over elections, rather over specific policies (see Baltimore during Lincoln).

In the grand scheme, I don't think the stakes are near big enough. Maybe someday, but not soon.

Rob writes:

I am sorry but calling the shot before it is fired is silly and at the extreme end of negativity at this point. What other options for scenarios are out there? How about Constitutional Conventions, civil disobedience, or some sort of mutual agreement between both sides?

I agree that the rancor is very high but look who the cheerleaders of it are -- the folks in office. Our talking points against each other come from pols and talking heads, not from us talking to each other as the citizens from which the power flows. Surely some people have a sense of this. I certainly am less inclined to vote because of what the big shots are saying but not to berate other people to the point of getting violent.

sieben writes:

Bush's steal of the election made people angry, but it died down quickly.

topcat writes:

Why are government agencies stockpiling so much ammo?

According to one link:

"The federal government is clearly gearing up for the likelihood of civil unrest on a scale that could outstrip what we’ve already seen in countries across Europe."

Almost all the venom is coming from one side. (Noonan's comments do not reach that level.Biden's comments yesterday inciting racial division do.)
Unfortunately that's the side stockpiling ammo.

allen writes:

I'm with Peter and Rob on this one - nothing of consequence will happen. A couple of hotheads may get out of control but even that's a stretch.

Did someone watch a rerun of "Mad Max" recently or are the regulars being treated to a bit of ribbing?

Not that there isn't a nearly-palpable degree of desperation on the left as they see their grip on the electorate evaporating but civil war's the product of the sort of desperation the American left doesn't believe exists.

Theirs is the desperation of a spoiled child almost getting what they want.

But the left doesn't consist of spoiled children but adults who enjoy the luxury of acting like spoiled children. There's a yawning gulf of difference between darkly predicting dire results if justice isn't served by the re-election of Barack Obama and actually pulling a trigger. Not enough American lefties are willing to cross that gulf to realize any sort of civil war scenario.

Thucydides writes:

It was "venomous" of Noonan to suggest that Romney ought to show some anger at having been unjustly accused of causing a woman's death from cancer? In fact he has shown a strong response, calling on the President to "get his campaign out of the gutter," and "take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago."

But this is not "venom," but normal give and take. We may deplore the fact that campaigns are not conducted like academic seminars, but as campaigns go, is this anything out of the ordinary? A little knowledge of history shows we have regularly survived far worse than all this without its leading to violent insurrection.

Revolutionary conditions occur when there is a breakdown in social order brought on by severe economic privation. That doesn't seem imminent.

8 writes:

Both 2000 and 1960 were during a period of positive or only just turning negative social mood. It was a surprise outcome, not something expected. If Arnold's scenario happens, it would be like 2000 happening in 1968 or during the 1930s, except I think the current mood is even worse than those two periods.

I don't actually think anything nefarious needs to happen in the election itself. The two sides are willing to fight, all that is needed is the appearance of conflict. i.e., even if one side clearly wins, but it is very close, there will be allegations. The way to look at it is that social mood is the driving force here, not the election. People are in the mood to fight.

Ted Craig writes:

The Army took extra precautions for the inauguration of Rutherford Hayes, fearing violence from the supporters of Samuel Tilden.
I read a comment once that the level of animosity today started when the Baby Boomers rose to power. You can watch the Quayle-Gore debate on YouTube to see the first such skirmish.

Ken B writes:

I'm with Thucydides. Noonan -- an Obama voter btw -- was not venomous. Venomous would be an ad saying "Romney killed my wife", or mocking McCain for his inability to type. Venomous would be telling a mostly black audience the other party wants to "put y'all back in chains."

Scott M. writes:

The Bush v. Gore election is STILL quoted as being stolen by Bush, although many news organizations, including NY Times, recounted and found that Bush won.
The Civil War analogy has played out at State levels. In Kansas in the late 1800's the Populists claim that they won over the Republicans for the Kansas House. Both sides nominated a Speaker and held competing sessions. It was well armed and became a standoff. The courts finally ruled that the Reoubs won and it went back to normal.

Shayne Cook writes:

I just love John Wayne westerns. There is one ("Hondo") that has a series of scenes that seem particularly relevant right now - and to Arnold's post.

The scene sets up like this: Hondo (John Wayne) comes to a farm - with a dog. The dog is inherently and intentionally mean and nasty. There is a kid on the farm, who sees the dog, assumes the dog is like any other dog, and wants to pet and embrace it.

For purposes of this illustration, lets say Hondo represents us Libertarian types. Let's also say the dog is Big Government. The kid, of course, is the U.S. voting public. Remember, Hondo KNOWS the dog is mean, the kid doesn't.

The scene plays out ...
The kid approaches the dog, and Hondo warns him the dog will bite.
Some time passes ...
The kid approaches the dog again, wanting to pet and embrace the dog. Hondo warns him again, the dog is mean and will bite.
In the final relevant scene, the kid pleads with Hondo to let him pet and embrace the dog. Hondo replies, "I've told you several times the dog is mean. But you go ahead and do what you want." The kid tries to pet the dog, and gets bit.

I have exactly zero faith in any politician, completely irrespective of what letter they have behind their name on the ballot.

I have precious little faith in government, completely irrespective of size.

I have nearly ultimate faith in the American public, once they've finally learned that Big Government ISN'T a 'friendly dog' - by getting bit by it, and bit hard.

Vote Obama.

Bill writes:

I see events diverging from your scenario between Phase 1 and Phase 2. Speculation was that violence, destruction of property, violations of the rule of law, etc. would occur after the Wisconsin statehouse sit ins and Scott Walker’s recall election. Phases 2 through 6 didn’t occur.

I think whether we see anything like what you are describing depends on the allocation of power between the parties after the election (i.e. I predict Obama will squeak by to victory and Republicans will control or at least solidify influence in Congress) and on the state of the economy as reported (i.e the trend of the unemployment rate, unrevised GDP, corporate earnings).

Mike writes:

Disagree if you wish with the specifics and severity of the scenarios, but at least concede Dr. Kling's pessimism. I know elections have never been policy debates, but as the shrieking and scab-picking get more amplified by the internet, and the polarization deepens, the push for voters to segregate themselves indefinitely becomes even stronger.

I'm all for public choice theory, but compared to the voters and the journos, the candidates are the most positive and civilized people in this game right now.

Ken B writes:

At least it's better in Canada! They're so nice. Right?

Michael Rulle writes:

I will accept that anything is possible, even Civil War. But when you quote Peggy Noonan as an example, you really are misreading the Tea Leaves.

Despite the emotions expressed in blogs, these do not translate into action. We have had riots and could have them again. A close Gore/Bush election can set them off. But the riots would have to be supported by state national guards and/or the Pentagon to elevate to true anarchy or war. I cannot see that happening. Our differences are economic, primarily, but the differences on the margin are conducive to blog wars not real wars.

Clinton is the first ex-president I can recall who sought to stay in the spotlight. If Obama loses, he will become the second president to do so. He can go one of two ways. The Clinton way; make a maximum amount of money by being a blowhard; or; set his sights on getting back in office. He will be willing to do things we have not seen before.

But I do not think he is Fidel Castro.

Mercer writes:

I think you are overreacting.

Go read some history of the 1960s. Civil rights activists being murdered in the south. Hundreds of cities having riots - some of which last for days. Bombs being set off by antiwar protesters. How can anyone think it is worse today?

Some people today think it is a gross violation of their liberty to have to buy health insurance. Back then people were forced to fight in war zone by the government and blacks were denied the right to vote in the south.

collin writes:

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Yancey Ward writes:

I think the internet makes it easier to actually notice the extreme partisans, not that they have actually increased in numbers or vehemence in recent times.

Emily writes:

What kind of odds would you take on this?

Steve Sailer writes:

That's typically how it happens in Third World Countries lately with elections leading to conflict, but, overall, the trend line regarding war is down, down, down.

Consider the Mexican presidential elections in 1988 and 2006. Most outside observers believe the Left had the 1988 election blatantly stolen from them, and the Left candidate in 2006 staged demonstrations for months claiming the election was stolen from him. Neither election dispute led to much violence in Mexico.

So, if major election disputes in Mexico don't lead to violence, how likely would that be to happen in the U.S.?

The general global trend, as Steven Pinker has argued, is away from violence. (I have suggested different causes than he emphasizes, but the trend line is pretty clear.)

Joe Cushing writes:

It's not the scenario I would imagine but I think it is telling when the idea of civil war is being considered by a people from several angles. Libertarians who ware fed up are worried that a civil war may be unnecessary to protect us from the overreach of government. The federal government is militarizing the local police and stationing troops at home for missions at home. Now respected, Ph.D. economists are speculating on the chances.

It's not my favorite choice but it's also possible there could be an executive/military or a military by itself Coup d'état.

My pick for most likely is that we are already approaching a dictatorship and that freedom loving people will revolt. Maybe the revolt will be triggered by a dollar crash or maybe the government will massacre protesters. In any case the trigger will be caused by government failure or government violence and the freedom fighters will have the last shot. It doesn't mean we will be free when it is over. Most revolutions result in dictatorship or pretend democracy.

MingoV writes:
This year's pre-election hatefest is already out of control, in my opinion. It will not end well.
The hatefest predominantly belongs to the left wing. It will end if Obama gets reelected. It will exacerbate if Obama loses, and it will make what happened after Gore lost to Bush seem like a happyfest.

If Obama loses, I predict court challenges in every state where Obama lost by a small percentage of votes. I also predict that the left wingers and the mass media will shriek if Romney challenges the results in any states where he lost by a small percentage, despite the fact that for decades Democrats have cheated far more than Republicans. An Obama loss also will trigger civil disobedience, but I don't believe it will come close to civil war. (That would require action by Obama himself. He might wish for a civil war, but I doubt he has the wherewithal to lead it.)

John Fast writes:

A civil war?

Here's a hypothetical that is about as likely as the one you suggest: What if the government required all mutants to register?

Here's another one about equally likely: "A modest proposal: the Red election precincts should secede from the United States."

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I don't think there will be rioting in the streets, at least from conservatives (can't speak for the other guys). But I do think it will be a close election and Obama is then likely to "deem" himself to be president while the process plays out in the courts. I think the media-formerly-known-as-mainstream will support him in this.

If the election is a blowout, Obama will simply step down ungracefully.

Vangel writes:

This year's pre-election hatefest is already out of control, in my opinion. It will not end well.

I don't like saying this but I agree. But what do we expect when you have Socialists on one side and National Socialists on the other? Until Americans can break the two party monopoly things will not get much better.

Rob writes:

Not one of AK's strongest posts recently.

Matt C writes:

Are you really saying the Noonan article was venomous? That's a little odd.

That aside, I agree the tone of political debate has gotten pretty nasty. Maybe Yancey is right and it's just a difference in perception, but I don't think so. Someone has probably already run the analysis showing how we're getting socially stratified by politics as well as class. It's easier to demonize the opposition if you hardly ever interact with one face to face. Along those lines, maybe the internet makes things worse, since people feel free to act like jerks online.

It's kind of comic to watch the outrage in this election, since Romney and Obama seem so similar to me.

Yes, civil war seems unlikely as a consequence of this election, however that goes. But we have a fiscal crisis coming that's going to hurt worse than this extended recession. My *guess* is we're going to muddle through, but those are going to be interesting times.

Ken B writes:


But what do we expect when you have ... National Socialists on the other [side]?

Well it's not like anyone is calling one side nazis or anything like that. That really would be feeding the hatefest. Don't you agree Vangel?

Cryptomys writes:
Scott M. writes: The Bush v. Gore election is STILL quoted as being stolen by Bush, although many news organizations, including NY Times, recounted and found that Bush won.
The most authoritative recount was the NORC Florida Ballots Project, which found that Gore won most, but not all of the counting scenarios. Florida State Political Science Professor Lance DeHaven-Smith's The Battle for Florida also concluded that Gore won, primarily on the basis of the overvotes.

I think the best historical example of a possibly averted civil war was the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

There is another remote possibility that has not been alluded to because it hasn't happened since 1824: a decision by the House of Representatives. I do recall suggestions in 2000 that allowing the House of Representatives to decide the election would create a "constitutional crisis," which is more than ironic since this method is explicitly provided for in the constitution.

Normally, one would think of this scenario occurring when there was a third party candidate (e.g. Wallace in 1968) sufficiently strong to win the electoral votes of a state or states. But there is another way the election could be thrown into the House of Representatives: a 269-269 tie between the major party candidates. Nate Silver computes the probability of that happening in 2012 as 0.2%.

Jim Glass writes:

The main problem with the whole scenario is that the electorate -- the voting populace -- is the *least* partisan and polarized of any on record.

Polls show that more voters today are independent -- not committed to either party -- than at any time since modern polling started and the question was first asked. The voting public is less ideological and more moderate (and, as independents typically are, more apathetic) than ever.

That's not a populace that starts a civil war.

The idea that politics today is more polarized than ever is a total myth. Frankly it relies on huge ignorance of history.

(In my own memory: student protestors shot dead by the national guard ... mobs outside the White House, "hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" ... domestic-grown terrorists blowing up buildings ... regular summer race riots in the big cities ...)

The voters are less polarized than ever. It is the *partisans* who are polarized, and the *pundits* -- out of self-interest. A moderate electorate doesn't help the partisans conquer their enemies or the pundits get famous and rich -- so *they* are trying to whip up the masses.

But while the partisans at MSNBC and Fox spew, their combined total audiences are tiny and dwarfed by the masses watching American Idol.

dhlii writes:

I do not think this election is particularly unusual in vitriol. Reason did an excellent job presenting the nastiness of the 1800 Jefferson Adams election.

I also do not think this election will be close.

If the economy strengthens - even a little Obama will win, probably decisively. I think that is unlikely. Conversely if the economy continues to weaken - even a little, Romney will win decisively.

What is unique is that this election is potentially pivotal. Like 1980 it is a conflict of ideas. It is a potential sea change in direction.

Obama is the last gasp of Progressivism.
Romney is a poor standard bearer for the quasi libertarian small government fiscal conservative tea party civil war that is playing out within the GOP. Regardless, the battle lines are between that world view and the progressive one.

This conflict did not start this year and will not end with this election. But it will be decided by voters at the polls - not with violence in the streets.

It will end when those elected are able to implement changes that significantly improves the country. Progressives even if they win, can not do that. There ideology does not work, and are problems are sufficiently intractible, and absent real change not going away that a progressive victory only postpones and possibly magnifies the coming shift. Conversely even the weak tea libertarianism of Reagan altered the nation for three decades.

We are already in a civil war, but that war is and will be fought, in our hearts and minds and at the polls.

johnrobert writes:

I think everyone is dancing around the one real possibility for violence in the streets leading to serious civil disorder, and we're dancing around it because it's a very real and therefore very scary possibility: Obama wins the election and is then assassinated by some Tea Party nutjob. I'm sorry if some on the Right are offended by the fact that I haven't tried to dress this up as a neutral, either-side-could-do-this, we're-all-equally-guilty sort of scenario, but it just isn't. The Right has a big lead in armed nutjobs who respond to nonsense rhetoric like Noonan's by actually believing that the future of the US is at stake if Obama wins.

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