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Image by Peter Barker

Introduction by Ben Speggen

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of our democracy, or are we living through growing pains? Are we on the brink of a civil war, or will unity prevail adapted and renewed? If the former, and if our nation is on the precipice of dissolving, what will such a dissolution look like? If the latter, what can we learn from history, and what social and political discussions must occur to preserve us from fracturing?

Tom Ruby — the CEO of Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions, a business and leadership consulting firm, and a retired Air Force Colonel who served 26 years on active duty and a former Associate Dean of the Air Command and Staff College — wrestles with those questions here in his essay. Both history and new forms of communication play critical roles in how we move forward and what results from our actions, Tom argues. Further, Tom postulates that future historians may see work occurring today as an inflection point in American history.

Here is his case in his own words:

An increasing chorus of voices is warning that today Americans are at an inflection point in history, one that we’re just now becoming aware of. Our political polarization is high. Our social polarization is high. American Evangelical Christianity is becoming a proxy for political purity on the right. Support for increasing identitarian politics is becoming the marker for progressives.

Is this divisiveness just another predictable bump in the road of a mature, multicultural democracy, or is this the sign of the beginning of the end for the United States as we have known it? If the latter, then how will it end, and what will it look like?

It’s difficult to discount that notion of a historical tipping point, because looking back in history shows that few were aware they were living through a period of change or inflection. Fewer still could have done anything to turn the tide of previous decisions and their consequences.

Let’s assume a Senator in Rome had been aware that they were about to tip into a steep slope of population decline which would combine with the consequences of war to make their city ripe for conquest. It is unlikely that one person could have turned that tide at that inflection point. A more recent example, Charles Emmerson’s 1913 chronicles how Europeans were completely unaware of the coming Great War and could not envision their present moment ending.

For 245 years the United States has been a single country with deeply different regional cultures that’s expanded significantly since its beginning as 13 colonies. If today’s US was overlaid onto Europe, it would stretch from Kazakhstan to the British Isles. The people of Yerevan, Armenia don’t go up in arms because of a law passed in Glasgow, Scotland. If there is a violent protest in France, people in Prague don’t say that the safety of Europeans is somehow lessened.

Likewise, even if the people of Watertown, New York knew what the crime rate was in Fresno, California, they likely wouldn’t care until it became tied to a cause that is trending on social media. Many people hear about the high violence numbers in Chicago, but almost none outside the area of shootings allows that to affect their day. Until recently.

Neil Howe, co-author ofThe Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny, says that a generational Turning is defined by the supply and demand of order. In their generational theory of history, Howe and co-author William Strauss predicted that history cycles through turnings that occur with generations.

A High starts the process after a crisis when institutions are strong, individuals are weak, and society is confident. The High is followed by an Awakening in which the concept of personal freedom attacks institutions and rigidity. An Unraveling follows the Awakening. In the Unraveling, institutions are weak and distrusted and society and families atomize. Crisis follows Awakenings, and those crises are most often terrible – The Civil War, WWII, our present crisis.

The last Turning was defined by the low demand and low supply of order, whose consequences are obvious today. The Fourth Turning, which we are in now manifests as a public demand for more order, which is manifestly lacking.

Absent an external unifier, such as an attack from another country, perhaps the primary unresolvable issue is that the vision of order by the extremes of the political spectrum are seemingly opposed. Yet both pole points are merely different versions of authoritarianism. One based on a strongman and the other based on the state. Neither of these forms of authoritarian control have successful analogs on the last two centuries from which we can draw comfort. More recently, Howe argues young people are more willing to accept autocracy and centralization of power. That is, they have not the life experience of historical knowledge to understand how that usually turns out.

It might seem like we are at an inflection point today that could tip our radically polarized country towards a dissolution. However, there may be an equal chance towards resolution or modification/change.

For example, why do so many think we’re on the path for civil war today when that dissolution didn’t occur in the 1960s when cities burned in race riots, or during the bombings of the 1970s across this country? It might be a bias that makes us think that the moment we’re in is more special than any other moment in history. Most people, after all, don’t think that they’re lives are just average in an average era, with average ups and downs.

One major difference between now and any previous era is the remarkable impact and power of social media and availability of highly segmented news 24 hours a day. In previous eras, there were certainly newspapers wholly dedicated to the left, the right, the far left, and the far right. They slandered. They threw accusations and, in some cases, stirred up injustices and whole political movements such as the Know Nothings. But their reach was neither national nor immediate. News was primarily locally focused, and then, people’s social circles were limited to how far they could walk or travel during the course of their day.

As radio networks grew and learned to differentiate themselves, people beyond a single city could hear news, drama, and political speeches from regional and national broadcasters. Radio gave national audiences to Father Charles Coughlin, an initially pro-Roosevelt priest preacher who became anti-Semitic and spread conspiracy theories until he was silenced by his archbishop. He was a harbinger of how mass media could bring a certain voice with a certain position to a national audience.

With the advent of network evening news, the major networks made decisions as to what was newsworthy, reporting what happened that day in the national government and what was happening internationally that would affect the country. All in just 22 minutes. And then maybe watched the local city’s newscast for more in-depth coverage of their local issues.

Then came cable news cycles and channels, plugging viewers into the news 24-hour a day, seven-days a week. Today, the promise of the internet as a uniter of people in deliberate communities has been realized, but not as the prophets of the early internet age positively envisioned.

Social media and preference-based targeted advertising have made possible on-line networks, You-Tube channels, and separate platforms, such as Telegram and Gab, on various message boards where one can go beyond channel surfing to go topic surfing and wade around in only the topics that they specifically find of interest. And today, one cannot only surf; they can make waves, becoming an influencer. Not just the young and beautiful, but the terrible and hateful can gain thousands or millions of followers. And when these individuals are anonymous, their followers may not know they may be teenagers with no actual background knowledge or Russian trolls purposely dividing the U.S. population.

Without ubiquitous social media, it is difficult to imagine the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol could have been coordinated and attempted. The ease at which likeminded people can freely communicate, plot, and plan has never been seen like this before.

And without social media it is hard to fathom candidates running to the extremes of their party would not only win election in their districts but become national figures both praised and vilified by people in parts of the country they do not directly represent. And that that has become a model to replicate and scale, creating the false sense that the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more powerful than they are, as they receive publicity and out-of-district money far beyond proportion to the importance of their single votes. This paradigm shift stands to only widen the political chasm and breed more pronounced polarization.

Absent some long-term unifying force, the natural consequence of this extreme social and political polarization is the dissolution of the United States as a country into multiple new countries, or a civil war for control of the entire United States. Neither is a good option, while one is obviously truly terrible to even consider.

Recent research indicates that Americans don’t merely dislike their ideological foes; many believe violence against them is warranted. Forbes posted an article about a Trump supporter at an Oct. 9 rally saying that a civil war is coming. That elicited a response of more than 76,000 tweets by the next day on the subject. A Brookings Institution paper references a study in which 46 percent of Americans said they foresee a civil war as opposed to 43 percent who do not. These polling numbers certainly do not make it such that the event is inevitable. But they do show how prominent the talk of civil war is even if the adherents haven’t thought through the implications.

For those who think a civil war is a positive outcome or even possible, they ought to consider that in 1861 there were clear lines that delineated the belligerents. State borders were known, and all parties knew who was on which side. One army wore blue and the other wore grey. They had clear objectives and limited means of achieving them.

Unlike 1860, today’s belligerents would be neighbors throughout the country. Instead of states declaring to be for or against the Republic, it would be ideological groups against each other. There would be no front.

The U.S. military is far too small to sweep across the country to fight against either faction, let alone control cities or the countryside. Twenty years of experience in Afghanistan makes that clear.

Further, for every citizen of the United States, there are 1.3 guns in this country. However, the distribution skews 2-1 to Republicans or Republican-leaning independents with 60 percent of the country not owning any weapons in their household. This means that if there were to be a civil war, from the very outset, before the belligerents even decided on objectives and post-hostilities governance goals, the far right would have an advantage in firepower.

A civil war today would not look like anything in U.S. history. It’d look more like The Troubles in Northern Ireland or perhaps at the other extreme, like Afghanistan, with conflict devolving to whoever was strongest controlling their local or regional fiefdom. And while that was happening, some foreign countries would be nervously waiting it out to see what transpires while others would actively engage on one side while others still would actively engage on all sides simply to sow greater discord here.

Remember that in the lead-up to the 2016 and 2020 elections Russian state sponsored troll farms sowed discord by supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates with the singular aim of more deeply dividing the U.S. That would be the aim of many countries in any future troubles in the U.S.

Warfare, however, is no longer solely kinetic. The countryside may be largely Red, but cities are largely Blue. Those who advocate for civil war would have to consider that while one side might have more guns, the other would likely be able to drain their bank accounts and turn off power to their neighborhoods in a cyber-attack. And those conservatives that think they can starve the cities have to ask themselves, first, to what end? And second, how far they’d really be willing to go and whether they think they understand the food cycle in this country well enough to actually do so? Do they really think they can target every food truck or train going to a city? Do they really think their actions would not incite a response?

No, an outright civil war lies beyond imagination today. However, that doesn’t mean that some form of regional or localized armed conflict over years or a decade is not possible. Likewise, cyberattacks are not only possible but likely. There are enough cyber-savvy individuals out there willing to take down bank accounts or power grids that for a sufficient price they could be bought. And there are enough people who demonstrated their willingness to rise up for a defeated president during an armed takeover of the U.S. Capitol that others who might be coaxed into sabotaging water supplies, gas pipelines, and highway infrastructure. And the threat doesn’t only come from the right. If racial justice protesters in the Pacific Northwest were willing to attempt to set the county courthouse and federal buildings alight, they will likely be willing to do other such acts.

There are few people alive today in the U.S. who lived through the difficulties of World War II in Europe. Those who survived the war not only saw countries fighting each other; they had to make daily decisions under occupation that would impact their future lives. Some collaborated out of necessity. Others eagerly. And those decisions had lasting consequences that people who don’t think about them today will suddenly see clearly if the country starts to come apart. Many will take the law into their own hands when neither side sees as legitimate the government in power. Emotions will rule the day without regard for future consequences.

Those living today that survived the true hardships of World War II or who saw their countries fall apart are too old to lead this Turning. That means the young will rely on their zeal and ideology to carry them through. Like many young entrepreneurs with great ideas and charisma, the young leaders who will see the country through this Fourth Turning need character to match the prominence and they will achieve and to buttress the decisions they will make. That character isn’t found in social media and a world with no lanes. That leads to barricades and guillotines.

A silver lining is that due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, some people are moving from expensive cities to smaller, less expensive places that offer younger individuals, couples, and families options that they didn’t have when they had to work from an office. This means that places will likely become more purple than either red or blue over time. Perhaps this next Great Sort will happen over sufficient time that it acts as a dampener on our more base instincts. For every anecdote of New Yorkers not knowing anyone in their high-rise buildings there are plenty of examples of neighborhoods and communities where social media might have you think would be fighting each other actually get along and look to help one another.

Yes, Texas was a red stronghold for 20 years. Yet today the net migration into the state is nearly all blue. Its blue cities are getting bluer, and its red districts are becoming purple. When cities and towns like Topeka and Bemidji are offering incentives to lure new residents, those localities are not checking voter registration before determining who can collect on the incentives. Tax dollars and new life are more important than ideology, and that is good for the country. These are interesting second and third order effects of government and business assumptions and decisions during the Covid pandemic. Initiating quarantines drove businesses to restructure. Providing government monetary relief and work-from-home policies made it possible for people to move and have the financial security to experiment with where they might go. However, those second and third order effects can also be negative, dividing communities and fostering animosity, as can the media.

Media throughout modern history has both set itself up as and been largely accepted as the referee of truth and what is and isn’t worthy of news. It was national media that was looked to in determining what was worthy of news, what was right according to the rules of evidence and who told the truth. Walter Cronkite telling America that the US was losing the Vietnam War meant it was so.

Today, James Fallows says:

The normalization of wholly abnormal behavior is the through-line of the press’s struggles in this era. If you keep calling out the excesses, you worry about becoming “shrill,” or seeming to “take a side.” It’s a very damaging version of “Oh, well, boys will be boys…”

He was talking about abnormal political and social behavior among politicians, notably, former President Trump. However right he is about the trap of normalizing behavior by avoiding over-reporting, that same rule ought logically to apply to all behavior. The press can’t argue whether it is too stringent or lenient on politically abnormal behavior without at least considering all social behavior that informs the political arena. Ignoring the impact of social behaviors on voting preferences is willfully blind if not suicidal to a press institution’s credibility.

People are more secure and less anxious when they have some moral certainties. They need consistent rule sets in their lives to know what they can and can’t do in a world where goalposts are moving. In traditional political theory, the more liberal one is, the more open they are now new ideas and change, while the more conservative a person is, the more they adhere to traditions/power while being wary of change. But that traditional view was lacking in the nuanced reality that there were technological, social, and personal elements of change a conservative person would welcome. Likewise, a liberal might have certain routines and comfort zones and lines in the sand that would be deemed traditionally conservative.

On the Republican side, this truth is showing in the hammering Liz Cheney is receiving in Republican polling. Although one of the most ideological conservatives, Cheney has been made a pariah for calling out President Trump and her party for Jan. 6. Conversely, Marjorie Taylor Greene draws strong support despite holding to conspiracy theories because of her apparent loyalty to the party.

Across the aisle on the Democratic side, evidence is also less important than purity. Ezra Klein’s recent in-depth article on David Shor’s prediction of a decade of Democratic losses in the Senate have exposed a serious issue in that party. Shor posits that the young Democratic Party staffers skew well left of the median Democratic voter and thus consistently fail to gather support for what the young staffers consider the primary issues. For example, 23 percent of Obama staffers cited income inequality as the top priority facing the country, while less than 1 percent of all voters listed that as a top priority.

In the Afterword to his novel, Empire, about a near future American civil war, Orson Scott Card said:

We are fully polarized – if you accept one idea that sounds like it belongs to either the blue or the red, you are assumed – nay, required – to espouse the entire rest of the package, even though there is no reason why supporting the war against terrorism should imply you’re in favor of banning all abortions and against restricting the availability of firearms; no reason why being in favor of keeping government-imposed limits on the free market should imply you also are in favor of giving legal status to homosexual couples and against building nuclear reactors. These issues are not remotely related, and yet if you hold any of one group’s views, you are hated by the other group as if you believed them all; and if you hold most of one group’s views, but not all, you are treated as if you were a traitor for deviating even slightly from the party line.

This seemingly intractable situation brings us to what may be the most possible – and least discussed – outcome. Consider what would happen if the federal government issues a decree and certain states or localities refused to comply. It could be as simple as a federal vaccine mandate that multiple states acknowledge but refused to enforce.

Now consider a situation in which Donald Trump runs for President in 2024 and wins. Consider what might happen when he appoints key cabinet positions, selecting not based on experience and qualifications but on who’s passed his loyalty test of the previous four years. It is easy to imagine multiple state governors simply refusing to comply with any number of mandates issued by the administration. It will be impossible to send the military to enforce them. The national security apparatus would collapse. States would quickly hold emergency meetings to decide which issues they were on board with and which lines they wouldn’t cross.

This is how the country will come apart, if it ever does. Once states decide they’re not on board with the whole, then the dam breaks and it doesn’t matter who is President or from what party. This is when people will further relocate to be with their own, or decide to stay where they are and live and operate only locally. Some will make a decision that their purple small city is just fine for them. Others will not. There will likely be street protests against the federal government or against some social issue, but there almost certainly won’t be people killing their neighbors when there is an option of moving somewhere else.

If this situation should come to pass, it will be interesting to see what countries are born from the USA. Should this divorce ever come about, expect the new countries to have different laws, customs, and representation – just as today’s states do.

If the dissolution doesn’t come, unity will only be preserved when those driving social and political discussion take an active role in reshaping rage-fueled rhetoric and turn it towards a new future. After all, the United States has never had an election in which the losing presidential candidate did not gain 40 percent of the vote, and yet the country’s remained overall united. Too, politics and culture swing like a pendulum throughout history. It is natural that when the pendulum reaches one extreme, it starts its slow arc back through the median and to the other extreme. But are we passed a point of no return?

Today, we have two tools at our disposal that we can use here: History and our new forms of communication. We can use the means we’ve designed to mediate the effects of that Turning to make it less extreme than it could be. One, we can observe and learn from history and past Turns. Two, we need elites, politicians, social influencers, athletes, media personalities, and individuals at every position in society to breathe deep and offer their circles an example of love and friendship rather than more rage. If we truly wish to remain unified, that will be the key to some historian in 500 years writing about how we got through this inflection point in history just as we’ve done in the past without dissolution.

Tom Ruby is CEO of Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions, a business and leadership consulting firm. He is a retired Air Force Colonel who served 26 years on active duty in positions from Squadron Intelligence Officer, to Chief of Special Programs for the Air Force Materiel Command where he oversaw a $3 Billion annual portfolio of classified programs. He was Associate Dean of the Air Command and Staff College where he developed exchange programs with the NATO School, the French École Militaire, the German General Staff College, and Poland’s National Defense University. He served on General Petraeus’ Joint Strategic Assessment Team as well as in three combat deployments. He earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Kentucky, and actively mentors graduate students and aspiring business leaders. He is widely published and speaks globally on topics from critical thinking, to leadership, to strategy, to morality in warfare.