The fantasies of the fundamentalist Christian right in America fuel fears of a civil war. They are not to be imitated in Northern Ireland
If you think Northern Ireland is in a pretty chaotic state, just compare it with the extent of the turmoil in America. President Biden has finally accepted the challenge of Trump’s lies on the anniversary of the Capitol Riot.
He said he was “crystal clear” on the dangers facing the nation, and accused Donald Trump and his political allies of holding “a dagger at the throat of America, of American democracy.” During the 21-minute speech, delivered from the Capitol, Biden stepped forward as an advocate for democracy in the “Battle for the Soul of America.” “I will stand in this breach,” he promised. “I will defend this nation. “
It is far from clear what he actually intends to do or can do. While the scale and complexity of developments in the United States massively exceeds anything happening in our little corner of the world, there are nonetheless parallels and comparisons that have attracted recent writers. Some might even think that American politicians are not in a position to teach us a lesson about their own evil behavior when considering their own country.
In the Sunday Times, Amanda Foreman in the Sunday Times reviews two books
The looming threat of civil war is almost the one thing that unites experts and politicians from across the political spectrum. Two new books, one by Canadian journalist Stephen Marche and one by conflict analyst Barbara Walter, argue that the conditions for a civil war are already in place. Walter believes America is embracing “anocracy” (outwardly democratic, inwardly autocratic), joining a dismal list of countries that includes Turkey, Hungary and Poland. The two authors’ arguments have been reinforced by warnings from respected historians, including Timothy Snyder, who wrote in The New York Times that the United States is teetering on the “abyss” of civil war.
Walter, an academic and veteran foreign policy adviser, focuses on the risk to the United States, noting with concern that after the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, her country was officially demoted to anocratic status. It convincingly demonstrates that a second American Civil War is quite plausible in the near future.
The ingredients are there: a political system increasingly centered on racial and religious factions; too much power vested in the role of president (countries with proportional representation almost never have civil wars); and a polarized population losing interest in listening to everything the other side has to say. In a poll cited by Walter, 20 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of Democrats said the country would be better off if many of the other party died.
A narrow Democratic presidential victory in 2024, combined with a Trumpian opponent refusing to back down and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, could easily lead to unmanageable chaos.
What can be done then to avoid such a tragedy, and more generally to stop the global decline of democracy? Even more depressing than the descriptions of the problem is the lack of convincing ideas in the short chapter offering solutions.
One potential solution, briefly discussed, is to use the power of online communities to induce prosocial behaviors. Walter quotes Citizen University in the United States, which tries to network around the idea of civic duty. In the UK we have the National Citizen Service, which brings together young people from a wide variety of backgrounds. But these appear as fragile roots in the face of the personal interests of politicians and the balance sheets of Facebook and Google.
A country can meet a whole list of conditions and not go into outright civil war (for example, Northern Ireland in the 1970s) or meet only a few of the conditions and become a total disaster. It is not only possible for the United States, a rich and developed nation, to share certain similarities with an impoverished and conflict-ridden country and yet not become one; it’s also highly likely, given that for much of its history it has held its own while being a violent, populist society bubbling with racial and religious antagonisms behind a veneer of civil discourse. This is not an argument for complacency; it is simply a reminder that theory is not fate.
In Atlantic magazine, Fintan O’Toole takes a personal approach in his contemplation of The Next Civil War by Stephen Marche; Dispatches from the American future. He does not minimize the gravity of the situation in the United States but warns that “these prophecies have a way of being self-fulfilling.”
in 1972 when I was a 13 year old boy in Dublin my dad came home from work and told us to prepare for civil war. He wasn’t a bloodthirsty fanatic, nor was he prone to fits of hysteria. He was calm and contrite, but also grimly certain: Civil war was coming to Ireland whether we wanted it or not. He and my brother, who was 16, and I, when I was older, would all be in Northern Ireland with guns, fighting for Catholics against Protestants.
What made him so sure of our fate was that the British Army Parachute Regiment opened fire on the streets of Derry, after an illegal but mostly peaceful march for civil rights. The troops killed 13 unarmed people, fatally wounded another and shot more than a dozen others …
However, the belief that there was going to be a civil war in Ireland made everything worse. Once this idea takes root, it has its own strength.
Particularly intriguing is that, of course, the fundamentalist right in America shares a common tradition with its counterpart, its very ancestor, in Northern Ireland.
Much of American culture is already ready for the final battle. There is a very deep tendency of doomsday fantasy in fundamentalist Christianity. Armageddon can be horrible, but it is not to be feared, for it will be the harbinger of everlasting bliss for the elect and everlasting damnation for their enemies. On what was once called the far right, but perhaps now it should just be called the armed wing of the Republican Party, the imminent civil war is a given.
Do we hear an echo here in the advice of the DUP?
It is also true that it is extremely difficult to change the American system of government by peaceful means. ..It is not difficult to imagine these future historians defining American democracy as a form of political life that has not been able to adapt to its environment and therefore has not survived.
Arguably, the real problem for the United States is not that it can be torn apart by political violence, but that it has learned to live with it.
The base case against an American Civil War something like this in the 19e century is that there is no clear territorial division like the North-South Mason-Dixon line of 1861. This is, however, only cold comfort and no protection against the threat of paramilitary action. mass, sometimes even under the authority of a state authority like the governor of Florida who threatens to create his own militia. It has long been a wonder to me that the United States has not seen the development of a systemic black terrorist movement. They have even more reason than they might think to be grateful for the work of Martin Luther King and a different wing of evangelical Christianity.
Photo Courtesy of NBC News
Former journalist and manager of the BBC in Belfast, Manchester and London, editor-in-chief Spolight; BBC NI Political Editor; Editor-in-chief in charge of current affairs BBC Radio 4; Political and Parliamentary Program Editor, BBC Westminster; former London editor of the Belfast Telegraph. Honorary Principal Investigator, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London