In THE NEXT CIVIL WAR: DISPATCHES FROM THE AMERICAN FUTURE, Canadian novelist and essayist Stephen Marche examines America’s crumbling political foundations and imagines a series of scenarios that could spark a civil war. As with DON’T LOOK UP, many reviewers tut-tutted about its tone and nitpicked its plausibility. Personally, I thought it was frank, honest, and accurate in its analysis of why America appears caught in a fantasy and unable to solve its problems. It did miss one important element, however, in my view, which I’ll explain in a bit.
First, let me describe the book. Marche evaluates several fictional near-future scenarios that could start a civil war. He regards a civil war as likely occurring everywhere, a war largely fought between rural and urban, which I totally agree with and used in my novel OUR WAR. In THE NEXT CIVIL WAR, we have a standoff between the Army and a coalition of hard-right militias at a bridge, the assassination of an unpopular president, climate change producing mass migrations from coastal regions, a dirty bomb blowing up in Washington, DC, and outright secession and breakup of the union. Each scenario is loaded with background information for context.
This background info is the real education in the book, information I’d consider essential reading for Americans wondering why the country seemed stuck in a hostile malaise even before the pandemic made everything ten times worse. How elimination of earmarks (pork spending) eliminated the only basis of compromise in the two-party system, resulting in hyper partisanship. How the electoral college, the Senate, and gerrymandering warps democracy such that it can scarcely be called democracy (62% of senators represent 1/4 of the population, while 6 senators represent another 1/4, Democratic presidential candidates regularly win the popular vote but lose elections, etc.). How gridlock means America is becoming incapable of enacting major policies and confronting the greatest threats to its existence, which are income inequality and climate change, and how this fuels the rise of the imperial presidency, as the executive branch claims more and more powers simply to get something done. How Congress can’t even properly investigate an assault on itself by violent protesters seeking to overturn a democratic election result, with one of its major parties (the GOP, obviously) essentially having a political and a militant wing that are starting to work together. How social media manufactures and refines rage, helping to fuel a right wing terrorist movement. How hyper partisanship means everything becomes politicized along tribal lines, from Trump’s big lie about the election being stolen to whether people should take the basic self-preservation steps of wearing masks and getting vaccinated during a pandemic. The story of the woman literally drowning in her own COVID snot and fighting nurses trying to intubate her in the belief COVID is a government hoax, based on “doing her own research” on YouTube, is pretty much a defining image of these strange times we live in.
As for the scenarios that Marche presents as trigger points, they seem fair enough as major stresses on the system. What I think the book is missing is a major Constitutional issue that literally breaks the country. Marche logically concludes a match and kindling are what makes fire, but bringing the US to a literal state of civil war would require a healthy dose of gasoline, to extend the metaphor. Secession would do it, or an attempted or successful hard coup. In my novel OUR WAR, the civil war starts almost by accident, as far-right groups take over government buildings across the country as an armed protest over an impeached president that snowballs into something much bigger. Far more likely as a result of the depicted scenarios in Marche’s book would be civil strife, terrorism, government impotence and de-legitimization, and continuing decline. Civil war is very unlikely when it’s so much easier to simply take over the government through elections and rewriting election laws, and then stack the courts with friendly partisan hacks as we’re seeing with today’s Supreme Court.
In its conclusion, Marche nails the idea that America is itself an idea, a dream that creates a nation from what is really just another of history’s multi-ethnic empires. Political tribalism has destroyed this idea, or rather created parallel ideas, parallel Americas with different interpretations of government, history, and even basic reality. He wonders if the only solution is a divorce, where different regions of the country can be freed of each other to pursue their own dreams.
Overall, THE NEXT CIVIL WAR is a powerful if unhappy read. Even if you don’t agree the country is headed to civil war, the way Marche depicts the fault lines in American stability is compelling, provocative, and eye-opening.