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Back cover design of The Next Civil War / Simon & Schuster

Canadian writer Stephen Marche’s new book The Next Civil War was officially published last week, and it made quite a splash among those of us who read it at Lux.

Marche pulls no punches in his opening lines: “The United States is coming to an end. The question is how. Every government, every business, every person alive will be affected by the answer.” Rather than regale readers with the repetitive talking points that animate left- and right-wing partisans, Marche does something rather novel: he explores alternative incendiary scenarios that would lead to a cataclysm, including local takeovers of federal land, climate change, an assassination, and more.

While the book has several core messages and a constellation of fascinating facts, there are three meta-lessons worth pondering.

First, one theme that flows across these different scenarios is the gaping lack of trust and truth between Americans. Benedict Anderson famously described nations as “imagined communities” in his eponymous book, because no one in a country of 330 million people can meet — let alone know — everyone else. So in order to function as a nation, each American has to imagine who those other Americans are and connect with them through culture, or religion, or language, or institutions, or simply through our very borders.

Marche, borrowing from findings in political sociology, notes that “Typically, when democracies confront violent disruptions to the transition of power, they rely most heavily on their national symbols and collective rituals.” What happens when even basic questions like “who is in charge” can no longer be answered and a shared truth can’t be found? The answer, of course, is in the book’s title.

Second, and this is from Josh Wolfe, but the very discussion of civil war opens the Overton window for civil war, accelerating the narrative rather than stifling it. Indeed, one widely discussed recent poll showed that Americans of all political stripes are increasingly willing to consider violence “justified” for policy ends. Polls like this, discussions like this newsletter, and more make it ever more likely that non-democratic means will be used to effect political change. It’s the future-that-shall-not-be-named.

Source: Financial Times

Third, and perhaps most tellingly about the state of American discourse, The Next Civil War will convince approximately zero of its readers to adjust their point of view on the trajectory of American politics. Readers are going to viscerally agree with some points, viscerally disagree with others, but it is hard to believe — even for a book that makes reasonably strenuous efforts to be non-partisan — that someone will walk away thinking anything differently. Which of course is the vicious intellectual cycle that led to the book being written in the first place.

Marche ends not with optimism, but with an anti-hope. “There is one hope, however, that must be rejected outright: the hope that everything will work out by itself, that America will bumble along into better times. It won’t. Americans have believed their country is an exception, a necessary nation. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the world doesn’t have any necessary nations.”

The way forward is clear, and it’s built into that theme of lux: it’s about enlightenment. Renewing values, renewing symbols, renewing a commitment to truth, and rebuilding institutions that have become antiquated in 2022. And doing that all quickly, since the trendlines aren’t going to be friendly to delays.

“Securities” by Lux Capital (Week of Jan 10, 2022)