An American Civil War?

Ray Dalio has concluded that ‘The Failure of Kevin McCarthy is Another Step Toward Civil War.’ Is it?” – The Lonely Realist

Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates’ founder and author of The Changing World Order, believes that “we are progressing towards the perfect storm.” His research into recurring historical patterns has led him to conclude that five generational cycles are simultaneously coming to an unpleasant end a head: excessive national debt has reached a level where it cannot reasonably be repaid; armed conflicts between countries are escalating; a changing global climate is causing irrevocable life-changing damage; technological developments are reaching an apex of disruption; and America’s internal conflicts have passed a tipping point. Even though his views are largely mirrored by cycle theorists Neil Howe, George Friedman, Peter Turchin, and John Mauldin, Dalio sees a near-term catastrophic outcome where others are neither so bold nor so negative. A trigger for Dalio’s pessimism is the “intensifying domestic levels of conflict” arising from the recent ouster of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House, causing Dalio to be “more concerned about … the choices that are being made to fight rather than to cooperate…. Bipartisan thoughtful disagreement that leads to compromises and voting on the basis of one’s beliefs about what is best for the country are passé.” He views McCarthy’s removal “as another step away from democracy and toward civil war,” noting that Republicans and Democrats “are squaring off into monolithic blocks that are controlled by uncompromising, win-at-all-costs extremists.”

Although Dalio’s observations concerning rabid partisanship are valid, his warning that a ”Second American civil war” is approaching is not. America’s disagreements will not lead to armed conflict between extremists, regions or States, and America’s political and economic decline will not accelerate so dramatically as to pit armed groups against one another. Yes, America’s two-party system is undergoing upheaval. Yet history points to a more benign outcome. After all, vitriolic partisan conflicts are as old as America and are a pattern common to all democracies. Historically, America has experienced periods that were far more divisive and far more destructive than today’s, none of which – with the exception of the Civil War – led to physical warfare. Although assaults against MAGA-ism, socialism progressivism and cultural beliefs raise temperatures, they do not challenge the core religious, ethnic or racial values that would physically threaten the majority’s lives or livelihoods. What is notable in America is that its two political parties are more extreme than its voters. Because Democrats and Republicans are driven by extremist minorities at both ends of the political spectrum, elected officials do not follow the policy goals of the American majority. There were high levels of division in the 1950s and 1960s with large, powerful minorities on each side posing existential threats that persisted for decades. Yet the outcome demonstrated that the threat of true civil strife requires more than the mere existence of extremist minorities with seemingly irreconcilable differences.

The dominant conflicts in the 1950s and 1960s were racial segregation and the anti-communist “Red Scare.” “Separate but equal” divided America along any number of regional red lines. It manifested itself in State government-sanctioned violence that threatened secession by rejecting Supreme Court rulings, including its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1963 acted as spokesperson for a majority of white southerners and their Congressional representatives by calling for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” echoing the policies and practices of southern governors who labeled Federal actions as “tyranny.” During the same period, the motto of anti-communist extremists was “Better Dead than Red,” which pit a dedicated minority against “liberal dupes” supporting “free speech.” The Red Scare was characterized by McCarthyism and blacklistings, creating massive social turmoil. Although anti-communist extremists drew the line at murdering American communists, extreme segregationists drew no such line when it came to race. Conflicts were so intense that President Kennedy found it necessary to deliver a warning in October 1961 to the “discordant voices of extremism”: “Those on the fringes of our society [are] fanatics [who] have achieved a temporary success among those who lack the will or the wisdom to face unpleasant facts or unresolved problems.” Those “fanatics” nevertheless continued their divisive actions for years, leaving telltale scars that are recognizable today. Those actions, broader and more intense than today’s, did not lead to violent civil war. Their scars serve as a reminder of democracy’s resilience.

Structural tensions nevertheless feed divisions. America’s primary-election process for selecting candidates has combined with the gerrymandering of districts to create disproportionate Congressional extremism. The result is a relative paucity of unifying national leaders in a position to fight for the priorities of America’s moderate majority. In the absence of leaders who can bridge that partisan gap – someone of Dwight Eisenhower’s stature –, TLR in December 2020 proposed that a small core of Congressional moderates should take on the mantle of leadership, becoming swing voters in determining whether controversial legislation should become law and whether executive and judicial appointments should be approved. The need for such a bipartisan grouping is even more pressing today, and would create the equivalent of an American shadow parliament second in power only to the President. Interestingly, Dalio also is urging such an approach: “There is only one path that will succeed in preventing civil war and promote working well together to make real improvements and that is to have a very strong middle. This strong middle would consist of bipartisans who are bound together to beat the extremists and then go on to reform the system and deal with our structural problems — i.e., to reform the system to work well for most people by creating broad-based capabilities, productivity, and prosperity.”


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Finally (from a good friend)

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