Tuesday, November 29, 2016

You and whose army?

"Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun"
- Mao Zedong

I recently read a very good history of the Spanish Civil War, entitled -- appropriately enough -- "The Spanish Civil War," by Paul Preston.

You should get it and read it, especially if you live in the U.S. Everyone talks about 1930s Germany as a parallel for what the U.S. is going through right now, but I'm pretty sure 1930s Spain is by far the better analogy.

Although you should read the book, let me try to give a brief summary. 

By the 1930s, Spain had been in decline for about three centuries. Its last imperial possessions had been lost in the Spanish-American War. It was economically backward and highly unequal. Big landowners controlled the economy, and the Catholic Church controlled the culture. Lots of people wanted this to change, and joined various leftist movements - communists, socialists, and anarchists. In response, lots of other people joined right-wing movements - fascists, religious fundamentalists, and monarchists. A shaky democracy was established in 1931. At first the leftists won, and implemented some reforms, but two years later, the rightists won and reversed all the reforms. Then the leftists won again, and the rightist-dominated military decided that it was time to stop messing around with all this democracy crap, and launched a coup. 

The coup succeeded in about half the country, and the two halves then proceeded to go to war with each other. The rightists got help from Hitler and Mussolini, the leftists got more halfhearted help from Stalin. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but the rightists were somewhat worse. The leftists fought among themselves, while the rightists were generally unified. The rightists, with greater population, more military veterans, more unification, and more effective outside help, steadily defeated the leftists. They shot hundreds of thousands of people, raped untold numbers of women, and in general terrorized the parts of the country that had supported the leftists. They then maintained a fascist regime for a few decades until people got tired of it, and democracy returned.

OK, so now you know about the Spanish Civil War. How is this a parallel for America?

Like Spain in the 1930s, we have a country geographically divided into "red' and "blue" regions. Like Spain, we are suffering from a relative decline in international power and prestige, as well as deep-rooted economic and institutional dysfunction on many levels. Like Spain, we have an increasingly bitter, intransigent conflict between the right and the left. 

And like Spain, the military leans to the right (though perhaps not quite as much). In America, the right also controls most of the roughly 300 million privately owned guns

This means that if the U.S. had a civil war along currently existing left-right lines - i.e., Republican voters vs. Democratic voters - the right would win. It would probably win more quickly and decisively than the Spanish right won. This is not just because of military sympathies and gun ownership, of course. The American right has a population advantage among men, who are more likely to fight in war than women. It also has greater organization, being mostly unified by religion (Christianity), race (white), and a shared vision of history. As for foreign intervention, Russia would probably be on the side of the American right, while there is no foreign great power that would obviously intervene to help the American left.

What would be the consequences of a rightist victory in that kind of civil war? Lots and lots of people would die, many more of them on the left than on the right. Nonwhites, religious minorities, and suspected leftist sympathizers would be the victims of many massacres. Right-wing paramilitaries would rape many leftist and minority women, as in Spain. The U.S. economy would crater, hurting red and blue America alike. A dysfunctional, repressive regime would set in, with atrocities probably continuing for decades. The country might break up, or might eventually have a Spain-like democratic restoration, but the U.S. would be a much poorer country and certainly a second-rate global power. (As for me, if I'm still alive, I'll be in Canada or Australia or Japan writing angry, drunken blog posts denouncing the right and lamenting the fall of America - like Pablo Picasso, but without the artistic talent.)

I think many on the intellectual, elite left in America fail to realize this danger, or the probability of this scenario. From most left-leaning intellectuals I see only increasing stridency and demands for ideological purity. I see increasing demands that anyone affiliated with the left denounce the founders of the U.S. as white supremacists, paint American history as one of genocide and atrocity, and see politics mostly through the lens of identity. Even on the center-left, there is an increasing tendency to paint all Republican voters as irredeemable racists, who can only be overcome by the weight of demographic numbers. 

I worry about this stridency. I worry that this attitude, and these tactics, depend crucially on the assumption that we live in a constitutional, democratic regime that is so unshakably stable that raised fists, angry op-eds, and the ballot box will always be able to prevail. I worry that they have forgotten Mao's adage that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun," and that the other side - as the sides are currently drawn - has all the guns.

Does this mean I think the left should buy guns, join the U.S. military en masse, and prepare to win a civil war? Well, I think greater military participation by those on the left wouldn't be a bad thing, for any number of reasons, but overall, no. I think that realistically, there's no way for the American left to reach military parity with the American right in the next few decades. And since a civil war would be so devastatingly bad for everyone in America (as it was for Spain), it should be avoided for the sake of all Americans, not just the prospective losers.

Instead, I think the left should focus on reaching out and broadening its tent. Instead of relentlessly enforcing purity, I think the left should try to win over many of the folks who switched their votes from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. 

If Paul Preston's book has one big weakness, it's that it ignores the normal people who fought for the right in the Spanish Civil War. There is endless discussion of the social conditions that led leftists to take up arms, but when it comes to the right, all of the focus is on Franco and the other military leaders. Yet Spain's right had more of the nation's populace on its side than did the left, and ordinary people joined Franco's army in large numbers. What drove these people to fight for Franco? Was it religion and tradition? Economic fear of the power of organized labor? I'll have to read more books to find out. But the point is, something drove all those people to support Franco. 

Surely there are levers of persuasion, coalition, and rhetoric that could have been employed to bring some of those Spaniards over to the side of the left. And surely there are levers of persuasion, coalition, and rhetoric that could prevent large chunks of conservative America from supporting a rightist putsch, should it come to that. If the part of the American right willing to fight a civil war could be limited to the racist "alt-right", then those who stood for democracy, constitutionalism, and the continued existence of a free and lawful republic would surely prevail.


  1. We need to build a broad anti-trump coalition and we need it now. I am not sure how to do that but there are plenty of anti-trump republicans who can help in crafting a message that will appeal to the red parts of the nation.

  2. Interesting but a key difference, I think, is that in Spain socialist, communist and anarchist leftist movements really did threaten to turn the interests of the "economic elite: upside down and the elite was for that reason unified and right wing (similar in Chile 1973). There is no comparably radical left in the United States (nor one in sight), more of a fragmented movement of interests. In the US more than 2/3rds of the industrial output is in the blue states and the economic elite at the top of those industries would rationally have more to fear from anything that the US right would serve up than by anything the US 'left' ever would (local business interests in red states, another thing). A right wing coup would be bad for Wall Street, bad for media and technology companies, bad for US multinationals and exporters (read farmers), and in many ways bad for US military presence abroad so some elements in the military, and constitutionalists in general, would strongly oppose. That's not to say some version of your scenario is not possible with puschist groups in the military and red-state gun owners taking up arms... We've had armed white militias terrorizing a good part of the country before. it's just that it's not at all clear that the 'economic elite' would support such a thing. More likely the blue state banking interests and economic elites would be painted as villains which brings us back closer to the German experience.

  3. Anonymous6:04 PM

    My guess is that general dickishness and the thrill of punching down animated Franco's adherents. And path dependence from there.

    1. Anonymous9:24 PM

      "Even on the center-left, there is an increasing tendency to paint all Republican voters as irredeemable racists"

      Replace racists with sadists. That is you, other anonymous commenter.

  4. Why right? A number of reasons I think. Order over chaos. Certainty over uncertainty. Stability over change. Simplicity over complexity. Reassurance of custom, hierarchy, past, place, status, tradition, over anxiety of unknowns. Fear of loss over any gain. Terror of anarchy followed by tyranny rather than being a part of an existing order even if tyrannical, being in rather than out. There are always more rebellions than revolutions but few of either turn out well.

  5. Harambe6:07 PM

    How about the right's turn to radicalism? This is a trend going on since the religious wing took over the republican party? What if, despite the left's moderation of speech the right continues to radicalize?
    I've seen several pundits on the left making similar arguments about moderation but i haven't seen anything similar coming from the right.

  6. You're generally right about Spain. Third Republic France comes to mind.

  7. Anonymous7:29 PM

    Actually, the rightward tilt in the military is mainly within the officer corps. The enlisted ranks are much closer to the electorate at large. And if you spend anytime at all with the military (I work for DoD), then you'll also notice that minorities make up way most of the enlisted ranks.

    While it's true that far right folks own most of the guns, it's also true that those same gun owners are not exactly physically fit, so it's not clear how much use their guns would be. And a relatively small number of people own almost all of the guns.


    Finally, I suspect that a much more realistic scenario is one where blue states and red states form regional confederations. Eventually the federal government withers away, so to speak. In fact, we're starting to see a lot of that. Scotland is effectively becoming an independent state. Belgium is in the process of breaking up. Czechoslovakia already did. Who knows how many times Yemen will break up and make up and break up. Even Canada has been flirting with a break up. As someone with a physics background you should know about the principle of entropy. It also applies to governments. It takes a lot of energy to maintain political order.

    1. "Even Canada has been flirting with a break up. " - Anon

      What does this mean? From my understanding, Quebec separatism was a much stronger force 15-20 years ago in Canada.

      There are movements for sovereignty among indigenous peoples, but I don't think it's anywhere near the level where we can talk about Canada being radically decentralized and "broken up".

  8. Wow. I must say, you really go to extremes Noah. First your objective view of Steve Banon. Now you say the U.S. is like Spain in the thirties.

    You are quite a great intellect, but the situation is not as dire as you say.

    No doubt the history of the Spanish Civil War is engrossing. But I would suggest rather another book, closer to home. It is by William Manchester and it is called "The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972".

    I picked the book when America's Dad Tom Hanks mentioned in a program. An I must agree with Mr. Hanks: Things today are not as bad as they seem, and we need to look at things in perspective.

    Hate crimes against minorities? Cops being shot in the street? This has happened before, in the late sixities and ealy seventies, much more violent and common.

    As for presidential campaigns, the levle of mud slinging and nastiness of the previous one pales in comparison with those in the past, like the one of 1828, so vicious that it literally drove the incoming First Lady, the wife of ANdrew Jackson, to death.

    So let's put things into perspective. The United States is far the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, and with strong democratic institutions that include a military which submits to the will of demoratically elected leaders. It's a far cry from the past, of this country or any other.

  9. Oh and don't forget to mention the crimes of the Left during the Spanish Civil War: the desecration of churches and cementeries, the shooting of priests. And the even the purges among themselves, like the ones Stalien carreid out against the Trotskytes.

  10. When you work out why the normal people who fought for the right in the Spanish Civil War did so, please let us know.

    1. Well, for once the behavior of the Left in that same civil war. Their virulent anti catholicism.

      And also, the experience of the USSR, with the great famine of 1931-32 in Ukraine, and their own Civil War. The Left in Spain wanted to install a soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat.

    2. Jorge, You repeat exactly the right's propaganda at the moment and ex-post: "They are going to bring us the dictatorship of the proletariat".
      But in fact normal people din not know anything about famines in Russia or proletariat's dictatorships. Furthermore, when You (and Noah) write "The left", you are including a lot of center-left and simply democratic liberals (in the European sense) at the time.
      I agree with you in the "virulent anti-catholicism" badly controlled by the authorities as a force behind regular people support to Franco.
      Finally, I wanted to stress that the Spanish Civil War was not a only confrontation between Left and Right. Mostly, it was a mixture between French and Russian Revolutions, all at once. The result was that the country went three centurys backwards.
      Turkey, beware.
      A Spaniard

    3. This is... incomplete. First, the anti-Catholic violence began over 100 years earlier. There's a historical reason that cathedral in Barcelona is bare inside. The reasons for that violence were very well founded. Second, there was no "Left"; there were a variety of factions, including a hard line tyrannical one actively supported by the USSR, and more localized democratic ones actively undermined by the USSR. Homage to Catalonia is useful for its personal account.

      At this time, the "Left" in the US, such as it is, is not being cynically manipulated by powerful outside interests. OTOH, it's not a stretch to say that, while not controlled by them per se, the Right is certainly using resources provided by outside actors, e.g. Wikileaks.

      I think the idea that US system is somehow uniquely resilient compared to other systems that descended into Right tyrannies is... naive. I very much hope I'm wrong.

  11. JustBob818:20 PM

    Noah, your analogy is based on the geographic and ideological similarities of Civil War Spain and the United States. Your analogy does not seem therefore to have much to do with your recommendation, which seems to be based on the assumption that Civil War is the result of an internal plebiscite, wherein alienating (generically stated) enough people empowers one side to engage in civil strife.

    I would carry your analogy further to suggest that we already operate in a country where Right and Left alternate in government, but only the Right can legitimately govern. For example: appoint Supreme Court Justices or not be the relentless target of partisan congressional investigations. The reason that this is the case is the same as was the case for pre-Civil War Spain, which is that the Right have decided that this is the reality and the populace have accepted it by failing to reject them.

    You make your analogy, I think, to raise alarm and to make a call for stark realism in the face of a threat. I think you blink from that realism by putting control over avoiding the conflagration in the hands of the left, which neither our current situation nor the history of the Spanish Civil War really supports. It's just victim blaming that comforts us that the crime can be avoided because it was in our control the whole time.

    1. This is correct. The institutions with the power to acquiesce or deny are the Right majorities in Congress and (soon) SCOTUS. The data from the last two weeks provide insight into which way it's going to go.

      "the populace have accepted it by failing to reject them"

      Roughly 60% voted. The other 40% were ok with either outcome. Thus 29% + 40% are ok with the implications of the reign of Trump, and 31% opposed. That's the reality.

    2. gruaud11:29 AM

      And of that 40%, how many were suppressed?

    3. According to Obama, not very many.

      I am fully prepared to believe credible studies that millions of votes were suppressed by recent R legal tactics. I haven't seen any; have you? However, I have seen data that seems to credibly indicate that there was a negative correlation with voter participation with white/non-white ethnicity in Philadelphia. Presumably, that was also a higher to lower income correlation. I'm dubious that (Democratic) Philadelphia was actively suppressing low income voting, but maybe it was.

      Anyway, to belabor the point: assume that 20% of the vote was suppressed, and it would have broken 80% toward D.

      We have 31 + 0.8*20 = 44.8% opposed, 55.2% ok with the implications of a Trump reign.

    4. Anonymous11:35 AM

      "Roughly 60% voted. The other 40% were ok with either outcome. Thus 29% + 40% are ok with the implications of the reign of Trump, and 31% opposed. That's the reality."

      That's some very - ah, interesting math you have there.


  12. "I think the left should moderate its message and try to win over many of the folks who switched their votes from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016"

    Could you write up a blog post describing what that would look like? "Oh, yeah, we decided that it would be fine if David Duke were president." "Oh, yeah, we re-evaluated your unrealistic approach to bringing back manufacturing jobs and even though it won't work, we are now fully behind it." "Oh, yeah, even though AGW is going to cost tens of trillions of dollars in 30 years and we could minimize the affects for billions of dollars today, we have decided to burn all the tar sands in Canada. Oh, and crank up the coal fired power plants; we no longer mind people dying from particulates."

    No, dammit. We should not moderate. We should do a better job of advertising.

    1. No, dammit. We should not moderate. We should do a better job of advertising.

      This is exactly what the GOP said after 2008 and 2012.

    2. "This is exactly what the GOP said after 2008 and 2012." I can't tell whether you agree or disagree with the "No, dammit," comment, but I think he is absolutely right.

      What happened to the GOP in 2010 and 2014? Also, Candidate Obama won in 2008, but President Obama governed, and "moderated".

      Critically important: we absolutely must not moderate on global warming and climate change.

  13. I don't know the history well myself, but I suspect if you want to understand the "normal people" on the Spanish right in the '30s, it would be useful to study Portugal's Estado Novo during the 1926-1936 period.

  14. Anonymous10:31 PM

    I don't know too much about Spain, but I've been reading a fair bit about Germany and Russia in this period, and judging from that I think some amount of the motivation for supporting the right was probably just fear of the left coming into power and killing lots of people, the way it did in Russia. (Which I think supports your analogy, because it shows that polarization is dangerous.)

  15. Anonymous11:39 PM

    One specific hitch your theory: the military in the US has a VERY strong tradition of civilian control. Possibly more so than in any other country, in that it has literally always been run by civilian, democratically-elected leaders. I think it is enormously likely that, in your hypothetical civil-war scenario, the military would side with whomever happens to be running the government at the time. And if there were an armed rebellion against the government in the US, it seems to me much more likely to me to be a right-wing rebellion against a government of the left. Why? Two reasons: 1) The right, as you point out, owns way more guns, and 2) The US right has been delegitimizing left-of-center governments for over 20 years now - a substantial portion of the right seems to already view government by the left as illegitimate in and of itself. A similar phenomenon does not exist on the left, at least not in a large scale.

    So if a left-right civil war were to break out on the US, it would likely be started by the right against a government of the left. And the military, despite its political proclivities, would almost certainly side with the existing government. So the left would probably win, because no matter how many guns the right has, they're no match for the US military.

    That said, while this is an interesting analogy, a left-right civil war in the US is staggeringly unlikely. I do think there is a disturbingly high chance of some major catastrophe occurring in the US and/or the developed West sometime in the next 20ish years, but "violent civil war within the United States" is very low on the list of possibilities.

    1. Anonymous2:47 PM

      The US military is geared towards fighting conventional armies. It would have difficulty fighting armed domestic civilians, especially when this is the primary base which it recruits from.

  16. Anonymous12:13 AM

    I have no framework upon which to hang this crazy argument except to believe it is motivated by the false, alt-right/white nationalist narrative that the tabloids thrived upon is a scourge to our country.

    The Huffington Post is far more damaging to the nation than Drudge ever was.

    You have aligned with bad people. I can't call them Nazis, so we need a new name for them.

    Don't look for rhyming history to guide us. It has never worked and it will never work. Rhymes of history only work in retrospect.

    Trump won because both parties were crazy. Nuts. Yes, both.

  17. As to your last para. This book looks interesting. https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/07/righteous-mind-jonathan-haidt-review

  18. "Like Spain, we are suffering from a relative decline in international power and prestige"

    The United States is the most powerful country on Earth by a long margin. Any loss of prestige is because the prestige has been squandered - primarily by the George W. Bush administration. There is still substantial goodwill towards the United States. Trump seems determined to squander that.

  19. So, all of the violence during and since the election has been anti-Trump, but the right wing is dangerous? This is silly.

    And about the left joining the military. Some of them do, and many of the ones that do cease being leftists. Military experience has a way of doing that.

  20. "I think the left should try to win over many of the folks who switched their votes from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016."

    Do we think there are lots of them? Or really, any meaningful number? Seems to me like the more likely story is new people came out to vote from Trump while part of the Obama coalition stayed home.

  21. Rather than look for analogies in Spain from the 1930s I think the question is: is there an upper limit on the population a country can have and still be effectively governed?

    The experiences of the Soviet Union and Europe and the current state of the USA suggest strongly that there is and that the number is in the 100 to 150 million range. This has obvious implications for the future of India, China and the United States.

    1. You know, if you did the same analysis back in, say, 1860, you'd conclude that the upper limit on effective governance was clearly a population of 15 million or less. Just look at the larger countries:

      USA (31 million) -- increasing tensions leading to full-scale civil war

      France (37 million) -- Revolution of 1848 leading to Second Republic; coup by the President in 1852 leading to Second Empire

      Spain (16 million) -- coups in 1820, 1843, and 1854; seven-year civil war from 1833 to 1840, with a lesser civil war from 1846 to 1849

      and so on.

  22. I find the attempts to make parallels with 1930s Spain rather dubious.

    The US has suffered a very minor decline in international power from the high point of the 1990s; no territory of any kind has been lost. Spain, on the other hand, suffered dramatic declines all through the 19th Century: French occupation during the Napoleonic era, loss of most of her colonies in the early part of the century, French invasion and imposition of a new government in 1823, and then the loss of most of her remaining colonies during the Spanish-American War.

    Another difference is that coups as a way of changing the government were extremely common in 19th Century Spain. In addition to numerous failed coup attempts, there were successful coups and/or revolutions of one kind or another in 1820, 1843, 1854, 1868, 1873, 1874, and 1923. There were numerous rebellions and/or civil wars, such as the First, Second, and Third Carlist Wars. There is no such tradition in the US; the only real (failed) rebellion was 150 years ago.

    And it's rather misleading to say that Spain was "geographically divided into "red' and "blue" regions." Spain was divided into linguistically distinct regions, some of which had strong movements for autonomy or independence. These didn't even necessarily align with the conventional politics: while the Catalan separatists were genrally quite leftist, the Basques separatists were staunchly Catholic and socially conservative, but they both sided with the Republic against Franco.

  23. Where do I sign up for premature anti fascism?

  24. There is so much derp and so many ridiculous tropes in this post it's hard to even know where to begin. Didn't you like used to live in Michigan or something? You were literally surrounded by left leaning Democrats with guns. I've been there to shoot grouse. Surrounded.

    Like polls about Trump, people don't give an accurate answer when asked about firearms or valuables. When a random stranger calls and asks whether I have gold, guns, jewelry, or valuable electronics in my house, the answer is always no.

    Besides, there is no more need for a civil war. Trump will roll back climate regulations and the midwest will start belching CO2 again. The seas will rise, downing the coastal elite.

    Leftists don't need guns, they need boats.

    You really need to get out more Noah. Exit the safe space, prick the bubble. See how the other half lives.

  25. Your analysis is pretty shallow and sloppy with comparisons. Left and Right in the USA is very different from Left and Right in Spain at that time.Spain had a long history of monarchy right up to its end in 1931 - there were many people still tied to it. The Spanish left was heavily socialist/communist/anarchist and this was during the start of the Stalinist purges in Russia and following the big anarchists bombings and unrest in Europe and America. There is nothing like that history here.

  26. The left is riddled with racists. Just get another black guy to run for Pres. next time and you'll win.

  27. Anonymous12:27 PM

    Paul Krugman is doing a great job of reaching out to people who aren't as pure as he is.

  28. Noah, thanks for the recommendation this sounds like a very good book to read. I've been more a student of Weimar Germany and there are some parallels there in terms of the left/right fight for power and a military that was heavily anticommunist. I know you are being very provocative and that's fine.

    I just watched a bit of the Trump news conference at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis and it was really disturbing in terms of global trade. Whether his vow to build the wall, reiterated again today, or do away with NAFTA, also restated remains to be seen. I think he's ignoring all the foreign based multi-national companies that his jingoism won't work on.

    I'm less worried about your scenario than the Randian Atlas Shrugged Apocalypse which in my mind is worse.

  29. Anonymous5:08 PM

    Noah, this is one of your more interesting blogs. It may have an air of unreality about it but it is thought provoking given the whiffs of fascism emanating from the burgeoning Trump administration.

    Is it sensible to ask whether the American Civil War ever ended? The shooting has stopped (more or less). It could be argued that the hostilities did not and the divisions are raw as ever.

    And again, given the large Hispanic population in the US and the gathering confrontation with Mexico, could the precursors of a modern Spanish American War be in the making? Perhaps this is too way over the top to contemplate.

    To the extent Trump governs inclusively then perhaps extant divisions will be neutralized. He will have to walk a fine line. But given Trump's proclivities and the vocal and physical dissension his rise to power has seen, you would have to say the temperature knob has been advanced a notch.


  30. "Yet Spain's right had more of the nation's populace on its side than did the left"

    They did? At least by the 1936 elections, the left had more votes

    "and ordinary people joined Franco's army in large numbers. "

    Again, they did? My idea is that, excluding some localized groups (like Requete in Navarre and Basque Country), the Franco's army was simply the regular army of Spain, not an army specially recrutied for the purpose of fighting the civil war.

  31. Richard12:43 AM

    OK, we're a far ways away from the Spanish Civil War scenario in the US. As many people here have pointed out, Spain had had a lot of decline and a bunch of coups even before their Civil War.
    Something like our Civil War should be looked at instead. Civil Wars are started by political actors who can command militaries, usually.

    For the regular Army to be used in the US, the strong commitment by military officers to Posse Comitatus would have to be overcome (note that the German military never staged a coup). Before there can be a civil war, there would have to be a ideological purge of the military ranks (which the Nationalists in Spain did), so watch for that.

    And I agree with the person above who noted that any new American civil war scenario is likely to be a far-right revolt (the right-wing fringe is far more primed for violent revolution with the GOP delegitimizing of the Left, and more comfortable with using violence, more prone to distrust of governing institutions, more prone to manipulation by Russia, etc.) against a left-wing central government, and the military/police apparatus almost certainly will side with the central government. The ATF and FBI vs. some far-right nuts in the countryside isn't a civil war, however. For a civil war to start, you'd need some state governments calling for secession (just like how the US Civil War started) and the Blue States still have a lot of faith in American institutions.

    If there is a civil war, there has to be an issue like slavery, and the only one on the horizon is climate change. If a leftist government comes to power vowing to shut down the oil and coal industries, we could see various oil & coal states try secession if they think such a move is viable (they'd need ports, which means one of Texas/Louisiana almost certainly has to be involved).

  32. Anonymous2:50 PM

    "(As for me, if I'm still alive, I'll be in Canada or Australia or Japan writing angry, drunken blog posts denouncing the right and lamenting the fall of America - like Pablo Picasso, but without the artistic talent.)"

    Isn't that part of the problem? Presumably, after you move, you'd continue to promote more liberal and leftist policies and more immigration for the new country you moved to. Which if adopted, would have destabilizing social effects like the scenario you describe here for the US. If people have to personally face the consequences of their views, they will tend to be more prudent and careful. If people can flee and avoid the consequences, there's no personal feedback and the negative externalities are borne by other people.

    1. Well, I don't recommend Japan have mass immigration. I think that would be bad for them, on balance, because of exactly the destabilizing effects you mention. Japan should take only high-skilled immigrants, which it is now doing.

      America is a different story, since it's had mass immigration in the past and been fine. If the current wave ends up destabilizing America significantly, that would be a first. The Irish/German/Swedish and Polish/Italian/Jewish/Czech/Hungarian waves didn't destabilize America very much, so I'd be surprised if the Mexican/Chinese/Indian/Filipino/Korean wave does so. Immigration policies should be country-specific - different countries react differently to different types of immigration.

    2. Mass immigration in America was under a different regulatory regime: Few labor laws, few environmental regulations. We had massive demand for unskilled labor. We also had a massive amount of land, in many cases we sold it extremely cheaply, so you could move out west or to Alaska and be a homesteader.

      We no longer have an economy running on unskilled labor, where anyone who shows up at the work site able-bodied can get a job. And if you hate your neighbors you can move to Montana. Mobility has been greatly restricted by the housing/financial crisis too, since many people are or were underwater on their homes.

      Times change. Now if people want to roll back labor laws and environmental laws so that we have greater unskilled labor demand, that is a choice we can make.

    3. Well, on one hand, DWB, I'm not sure you're right about that. Much of the immigration from Mexico has been low-skilled, and almost all Mexican immigrants have found jobs here. Evidence also shows that they have displaced very few native-born low-skilled workers, either. So at least until the 2008 crisis, our economy did still run on unskilled labor, at least enough to accommodate the immigrants we were getting from Mexico.

      However, that said, I believe that we should switch to a Canada-style points-based immigration system that takes in mostly skilled immigrants. This will help push up wages for low-skilled Americans, and will also probably risk less social disruption, while keeping our population young and our economy strong (which also reduces social disruption). It's the best policy, and I've been advocating it for years.

    4. Anonymous11:24 PM

      Well your post is about social instability and a potential civil war, following a period of significant immigration. It's obvious that immigration is one of, if not the, primary grievances of the right-wing populace in the US. Trump basically won the election exploiting this grievance.

      As far as America's past, I think America having a frontier until the end of the 19th century mitigated some of the social instability of immigration, but there was still significant ethnic conflict and instability, and there were reactions and backlashes. There was lots of anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigration legislation in the late 19th century, and in the 1920s, following a great wave of immigration, there was a major piece of anti-immigration legislation that basically stopped mass immigration for the next half century.

      So I don't think the American experience of mass immigration is that simple, and I think it's less relevant today. You probably wouldn't be writing a post about angry right wing gun nuts waging a civil war if it weren't for the wave of mass immigration of the last 30 years or so pissing off these right wingers, because let's face it, that's really what's bothering them. I mean, who are we kidding? We can try to talk around it and pretend otherwise by talking about "jobs" and "the economy", but they're really just a swarm of angry bees and immigration was the kick to the bees' nest.

    5. That's possible. But it's also very possible you're wrong. Spain certainly didn't need any wave of immigration to have its civil war. And Muslim immigration, which the right is most exercised about, is a tiny percent of the total inflow. What's more, Americans in general have become more pro-immigration lately, according to polls.

      You're right that the two big previous waves of immigration did spark waves of anti-immigration sentiment. That makes me think the recent Mexican wave will eventually be accepted into the mainstream like the others were, and the furor will die down.

    6. Interestingly, note that people on the West Coast, and increasingly in the rest of the Sun Belt (especially Texas), have many more Hispanic and Asian immigrants, but are far less worried about immigration than people in the Northeast, where immigrants are fewer. To me this says that if the country can avoid breakdown over the next couple of decades, the current wave of xenophobia will pass.

    7. Anonymous1:58 PM

      Spain isn't a counterexample because nobody argues that instability and conflict can't happen without immigration.

      I don't think it's actually true that the right is necessarily most aggravated by Muslim immigration. Rather I think being opposed to Islam and Muslims is relatively more politically correct and acceptable than being opposed to other groups, and that opposition to Muslim immigration often serves as a proxy for being opposed to immigration more broadly.

      The previous furors died down following things like mass deportations, significant anti-immigration legislation, long periods of no mass immigration, not to mention that various forms of discrimination were allowed. I don't think any of these things are likely to pass in the near term, so I don't see why the furor would die down.

      There's been significant migration out of the West Coast recently, so the opinions of people there aren't very reliable indicators:


    8. When did we have mass deportations in America? As far as I know, Obama's recent deportation of 2.5M undocumented immigrants is by far the largest in our history, in percentage as well as absolute terms.

      The early 20th century immigration wave ended with immigration restrictions, but the early 29th century boom did not. Immigration paused during the Civil War but resumed very strongly right afterward. The foreign-born percent of the population stayed very high during the whole 19th and early 20th centuries; the mid-20th-century pause is the only pause in American history.

      As for internal migration, check out this map of where white Americans moved to and from in the 2000s:
      As you can see, most of the big gainers were places that have turned increasingly Democratic - Northern Virginia, Austin TX, Research Triangle, Colorado, Northern Georgia, Washington State, and Oregon. That suggests that economics, not fear of diversity, is behind outmigration from California. (Also, you claimed people are moving away from the West Coast, but they're moving *to* the Pacific Northwest).

      So I think you're going off at least a couple mistaken facts, here.

      Here's some data. Currently, white Americans overall are evenly split on immigration:

      A poll of white Americans recently found that overall they're slightly negative toward Latin American and African immigrants, solidly positive toward Asian immigrants, and overwhelmingly negative toward Middle Eastern immigrants:

      This confirms a lot of other studies I've seen showing that fear of terrorism and of Islam is first and foremost in the minds of anti-immigration voters.

      Immigration from Latin America tends to be low-skilled (though not always). People instinctively know that low-skilled immigrants compete with low-skilled Americans (though data suggests the competition is actually far less intense than many believe). The positive attitudes toward Asian immigrants are probably driven in large part by the fact that these are high-skilled immigrants, who will compete with educated native-born Americans but not with the working class.

      This is why I support a switch to a Canada-style points-based immigration system. This would be much better than having another immigration "pause" like we did in the mid 20th century. A pause now would put our entitlement and pension systems in danger, since we have much lower fertility than we did in the mid-20th century. It would also deprive us of essential talent for our economy - since we're no longer a dense manufacturing hub like China, our main exports and tentpole industries are knowledge-intensive industries, so we need lots of smart folks. And we need to import a lot of smart folks, since our smart folks don't have many kids.

      So switching to a Canada-style system really is the perfect, Goldilocks policy to address the immigration issue.

    9. "Evidence also shows that they have displaced very few native-born low-skilled workers"

      I don't find these studies nearly as persuasive as you seem to. Besides the fact that a lot are dated to a time like the 1990s when growth was higher, many if not most try to tweak out the effect of immigration on wages within local areas, between natives and non-natives. Many of these studies do not show evidence of no displacement, they merely fail to find evidence of displacement. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

      Immigrants are inherently far more mobile than native low-skill workers. As an example, one does not see a whole lot of high-school dropouts from Baltimore moving to Dallas or North Dakota to take jobs. You might, however, see a lot of Mexican immigrants doing exactly that. Immigrants, being more mobile, follow labor demand. It would be hard, if not impossible to measure the impact of foreign immigration to Dallas on Baltimore natives' wages and labor force participation. The labor force participation rate and unemployment rate in Baltimore and a large number of cities is horrendous by the way.

      Geographic immobility has a dollar cost, which means that wages need to rise before people are willing to move.

      I think it's hard to reconcile the lack of evidence on immigration with other data like the large gap between the wages of unskilled and skilled labor, and the poor labor force participation rate in many cities.

    10. Also, it's dangerous to assume that the current anti-immigration trend is driven by xenophobia. Assuming people are acting against their own self interest (i.e. stupid and xenophobic) is nothing but hubris and arrogance.

      People are just not going to vote for an increase in the labor supply when wages are stagnant. It's just not rational for me to vote to increase competition for my job.

      Smart economists will assume people are voting in their self interest, not blame mass hysteria and xenophobia (see Tim Duy). The rest will be condemned to irrelevancy.

    11. I agree that bad economic conditions severely worsen the tendency to fear and distrust immigrants. But xenophobia is a real thing, as plenty of research shows. Fortunately, I think it's much less severe in America than in most other countries.

  33. First, I've seen pictures of the red-blue divide by much smaller regions than states. The blue and red is much more scattered than the blue-state-red-state divide would appear. At least in part, there's urban, suburban, and small town.

    About military takeovers: right-wing military takeovers of third-world countries are traditional (and are the bane of the third world), and one possibility might be a right-wing military takeover of a leftist president. However, I can envision three possibilities just as scary:

    1. Trump's rule becomes so crazy that the military overthrows him.

    2. Trump himself overthrows democracy by staying in office after his elected term(s) expire, by destroying Congress, or by declaring a self-coup.

    3. Number 2, followed by a military overthrow of Trump, but not restoring the US to the US Constitution.

    All of these would destroy our country, and possibly generate a civil war as well. Military takeovers (as well as self-coups by leaders, and "martial law" declarations) of democratic countries must be absolutely forbidden. The military overthrow in Number 3 is justified and necessary, but still dangerous.

    These are seriously scary times, and one can look to history for various approximate parallels.

    1. Nathanael1:41 AM

      The blue-red divide is almost entirely urban (blue) vs. rural (red) with the swing vote being suburban. Note that the rural population is insignificant, so it's basically a question of how much suburbanites are deluding themselves into thinking that they're rural.


      Though to be fair there are rural areas which vote Democratic (mostly near the Canadian and Mexican borders and on Native American reservations). There are basically no urban areas which vote Republican, with the exception of a few urban neighborhoods which think of themselves as suburban and which I'd basically classify as "the racist vote":


    2. Anonymous4:58 PM

      Finally, a realistic framework. Not that speculative historical analogies aren't fun, but the lenses of rural vs. urban and white vs. minority are far more powerful. Right wing wingnuts and eggheads aside, the word "ideology" doesn't even exist in american english. Both sides in the (american) civil war were "christians". We white americans prefer racist violence straight up, no mixer. Causes and "ideology" are for effeminate europeans and protesters in Nazi/KKK costumes. The day when white american racism can be restricted to a finite area on a map of political ideology, will be the very same one its reign is finally inconsequential. Our only hope is to fear and hate the chinese enough to postpone fearing and hating each other. I don't want to persuade Trump voters to be on my side. I don't like them. And if they outnumber me I guess my consolation is knowing that in the long run they're dead too. Long live China.

  34. "I believe that we should switch to a Canada-style points-based immigration system"

    As a Canadian, I think our government should be trying to attract the best of the "Dreamers" who Trump is saying he will deport. :-)

  35. Noah, while your scenario cannot be completely ruled out, we do need to put things in perspective.

    The US survived McCarthyism, Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, the Cold War, assassinations of JFK, the upheavals in the civil rights era, rampant crime in the inner cities in the 70s and 80s, etc. Sounds to me the deep division and volatility during the cold war era was definitely more dire compared to now. But eventually things improved.

    The good news today is that younger generation is more tolerant and liberal than the older generation. So the future is probably not as dire as many people imagine.

    The deep polarization today has deep roots and the process of reconciliation will be long and painful. But there is hope.

  36. All revolutions and disruptions are results of elite failure, not the failure of the mass. It's definitely to the interests of economic elites to have stability and not actively undermine the system. I think there're enough elites know this. Currently the threat to the system comes from the radical right. There is no radical left in the US.

    Trump is a 70 year old rich guy whose main goal is to enrich himself and his family. He is definitely not an idealogue and has no illusion of becoming a dictator of this vast country. He is part of the elite and will go away after 4 years of satisfying his huge ego. With not much governing experience, the next 4 years will be governed by the party establishment most of the time, with some concessions to the populist wing. A president Ted Cruz would be far more dangerous than Trump.

    I agree that some of the extreme rhetoric regarding race on the left is troubling. I strongly dislike viewing the whole US history through the lens of racism alone, and negating 90% of our history.

    I also agree that the left should reach out to the right and try to at least understand their concerns, not simply dismissing them. A large portion of the people on the right are probably reasonable, rational people who can be persuaded. The left talks about "healing" and "binding the wounds" all the time but never does such thing.

    The time is on the side of center left. We need to have patience and reach out and build a coalition as large as possible. React with anger and bitterness makes us not much different from the angry right.

    Overall, the left right struggle might be a good thing, since either side is capable of going to the extreme and make everybody's life miserable.

  37. The radical left in the 1930s did threaten to physically eliminate the economic elite, which is not the case today.

    On some level I think election of Trump might be a good thing by diffusing some of the destructive energy on the radical right, by showing them that their voices can be heard through the normal electoral process.

  38. I doubt that there were many Obama voters switched to Trump. From what I heard Democrats lost because of lower democratic turn out this cycle. This is understandable. Hillary is the face of the establishment. Her husband signed NAFTA which is attacked this cycle from both the left and right. Hillary lost for the same reason that Romney lost in 2012: people's disappointment and anger towards the establishment.

  39. I think the Number 1 mistake of Hillary was not to have picked Bernie as running mate. Democrats need both Hillary voters and Bernie voters to win. They lost because enough number of Bernie voters revolted, by staying at home or voting third party.

    Hillary embodies status quo. There is not much she can do to convince voters otherwise. Only Bernie can turn out his base, who are fed up with the status quo, same as Trump voters.

    Hillary definitely underestimated Trump and misread the voter mood. She is too cautious and conventional a politician and failed to energize democratic voters, who outnumber republicans. Democrats paid a heavy price by losing a very winnable and crucial election.

  40. Holy scary.

    "Does this mean I think the left should buy guns"

    You say no because you assume this implies moving towards civil war. However, might it not make sense at some point for the left to buy guns as to make it not such an easy war to win for the right, as a form of deterrence, to _prevent_ civil war? Or at least to prevent the left from being easily rounded up and put in camps?

  41. You think it's bad now, wait until some county official in Michigan or New Hampshire finally suspends their disbelief, goes back to count the physical ballots for the 2016 election in a few of their precincts and finds that they don't add up to the results the machines reported by a fair margin, and that the difference is all in Trump's favor.

    If Trump has already been fraudulently inaugurated by then, then bloodshed will be inevitable.

    As others have noted, you're making several very big assumptions in your Civil War scenario:

    First is that the enlisted men and women of the military, which is significantly less White then the population at large, will actually go along with a right-wing coup.

    This is unlikely.

    Second is that you are assuming America's "Red Territories" have the macroeconomic capacity to sustain a war against the more populous "Blue" ones. It probably doesn't.

    Third is that you are assuming a Civil War within the USA will be allowed to continue without NATO intervention. This is basically impossible, and the NATO governments are unlikely to bail out a Far-Right US government or assist a Right Wing insurgency. Especially if it's President Trump and it becomes clear that the 2016 election was completely fraudulent.

    The Spanish Civil War (and the current Syrian one) lasted as long as it did because of outside interference, and the threat that open intervention to end it would provoke a Great Power War.

    If it ever seemed as though there were the slightest possibility of a Fascist America being the result of the success or failure of an armed uprising, you can depend on it that the rest of the world would not stand by idly.

  42. Nathanael1:33 AM

    A few points:
    (1) Demographics. It is known that the right had more popular support in the Spanish Civil War. It is known for a stone-cold fact that the left has more popular support in the US than the right at the moment. It is also known that support for the right in the US is biased heavily towards the old, so that the advantage of the left increases every year as young people turn 18 and old people die.
    (2) The great sort. The advantage of the left is even stronger in states such as California, or all of New England. It seems completely implausible that the right would be able to conquer them.
    (3) They tried before. The US Civil War. The right-wingers -- the slaveholders -- were a minority of the population. They were vastly overrepresented in the military. They lost decisively.
    (4) Economic productive capacity is centered in the "left-wing" states, and the left wing has very serious, very powerful, and very rich backers. Which was not true in the Spanish Civil War. Jeff Bezos controls a logistics operation bigger than the US Military: think about this.
    (5) The US right wing is ripping itself apart in internecine fighting. The neocons, the theocrats, the pro-Somalia libertarian types, and the plutocrats don't agree with each other on anything. The coalition which they had under Reagan is cracking up; they're going to be the ones squabbling. Meanwhile, the left is actually unifying. This is the opposite to the dynamic in the Spanish Civil War.