Some 50 winters ago, the UK home secretary Reginald Maudling gave up on the outright defeat of Irish Republican terrorism. What might be feasible, he said, almost spoofing the British art of managing decline, was to keep the bloodshed down to “acceptable” levels. What was at the time a quite sensational gaffe went unmarked on its semicentennial last month. This was a sheepish admission that he had not been callous or defeatist, but prescient.
A year on from the US Capitol siege, there is talk, even among unexcitable scholars, of a second civil war. That remains an epic stretch. Red and Blue America do not map on to contiguous geographic blocs, as the Confederacy and the Union did. The central state is unrecognisably stronger than it was in 1861. There is (for now) no single precipitating issue to equal South Carolina’s declaration of secession. In the medical parlance of today, what is more plausible than war is disorder of a chronic and endemic nature. What is plausible is an “acceptable” level of violence.
Find this alarmist or much too optimistic, according to taste. But the first of these objections (that January 6, 2021, was not so bad, and anyway a one-off) is harder to take seriously. It is often paired with the kind of giggling taunt about liberal hysteria and “Trump Derangement Syndrome” that stopped being conscionable when people died on the Capitol grounds.
There are several reasons to worry about the future. One is the past. It would not take an exotic sequence of events for violence to become a feature of politics in the coming decades. It would just take a regression to, if not quite the mean, then a recurring theme in US history. In the half-century after the election of Abraham Lincoln, there were three presidential assassinations and a civil war that claimed almost as many lives as all other US wars combined. Ethnic violence flared between the world wars. The 1960s brought a new round of assassinations and urban riots so bad that some northern cities only half recovered. If anything was aberrant, it was not January 6, then, it was the relative calm of recent decades. And even that lull included, in Oklahoma, the nation’s worst ever act of domestic terrorism.
It would be easier to relax about these precedents had the siege shocked Republicans into better behaviour over the past year. At first, there were tantalising signs. Kevin McCarthy, who leads the party in the House of Representatives, was full-throated against what he called the “mob”. He has since been on a journey. The “majority party”, he said this week of the Democrats, are still ducking the “central question” of “how the Capitol was left so unprepared”. I suppose that is one definition of the central question.
As bad as it was, the turbulence of the 1920s or 1960s was not aligned to a particular party or candidate. That freed up any politician to confront it without being seen to betray their own side. If that has changed, it is another reason to fear for the tenability of America’s civic peace.
But still not the main reason. A year on, the most distressing thing about politics is that even those who recognise the threat are lost for an answer. Voting reform, social media regulation and the better teaching of civics in schools are still put forward as fixes. Each is worthwhile on its own terms. None can do more than tinker at the edges of the problem. In her data-rich new book, How Civil Wars Start, the academic Barbara F Walter sees a US ripe for terrible internal violence. But no chapter is scarier than the one that tries to hold out hope. The mismatch of disease and treatment is huge, and not through lack of imagination on her part.
All it takes for evil to triumph, Edmund Burke is meant to have said, is that good people do nothing. Even aside from the likely misattribution, the quote is wrong-headed. It implies that cowardice is the eternal problem. More often, it is just a lack of good answers. A large minority of Americans regard the opposing political party as more or less illegitimate. Few are old enough to remember that politics can be so dangerous as to start total wars. If neither of these issues is unique to the US, they are compounded by one that is: the state has no formal monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. What exactly is to be done about factors so vast and ingrained? How a Chronic If Not Existential Level of Violence Starts is a drab thesis. It is also a grimly credible one.