American Decline

Half the U.S. Believes Another Civil War Is Likely. Here Are the 5 Steps We Must Take to Avoid That

Coleman, PhD, is a Professor at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace. His latest book is The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.
An astonishing moment occurred at the apex of the horrifying violence that erupted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Michael Fanone, a Washington D.C. police officer and military veteran, was yanked out from behind a police barricade and thrown down into a mob of incensed, feverish pro-Trump rioters and then viciously beaten, tasered, doused with chemical irritants, and threatened to be murdered with his own firearm. His screams of anguish and desperation had little affect on the horde, until finally he pleaded, “I have kids.” Somehow, this seemed to matter. A moment later, a small group from the mob surrounded Fanone, buffered him from the violence, and ushered him through the mayhem back to the safety of his fellow officers.

These events on the Capitol steps offer both a harbinger of the violent political unrest to come in our country and a glimpse of how we might avoid the worst and navigate back to a functioning democracy.

First, it is paramount to understand that what occurred at our Capitol that day was not an anomaly. It was an orchestrated attempt, long in the planning, that capitalized on decades of deep existential grievances, intensifying partisanship, political manipulation, and a media ecosystem that preys on outrage.

This power grab is playing out in the context of a decades-long trend of increasingly toxic political polarization that is addictive, change-resistant and making us sick. A recent poll found half of Americans experience their family as more divided than 5 years ago. Most Republicans (68%, or 97% if they trust far-right news) believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Today, 85% of Democrats believe the Republican party has been taken over by “racists,” while 84% of Republicans believe the Democratic party is controlled by “socialists.”

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