When the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published his bestseller The Disuniting of America in 1991, he didn’t seriously entertain the worst-case scenario suggested by the title. At the time, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were imploding, while separatist movements in Quebec, East Timor, Spain’s Basque country, and elsewhere were already clamoring for their own states. But when it came to the United States, Schlesinger’s worries were principally focused on the far smaller battlefield of the American classroom and what he saw as multiculturalism’s threat to the mythic “melting pot.” Although he took those teacup tempests seriously, the worst future Schlesinger could imagine was what he called the “tribalization of American life.” He didn’t contemplate the actual dismemberment of the country.
Today controversies over hate speech and gender politics continue to roil American campuses. These, however, are probably the least important conflicts in the country right now, considering the almost daily evidence of disintegrative pressures of every sort: demonstrations by white supremacists, mass shootings and police killings, and the current dismantling of the federal government, not to speak of the way cities and states are defying Washington’s dictates on immigration, the environment, and health care. The nation’s motto of e pluribus unum (out of many, one) is in serious danger of being turned inside out.
A country that hasn’t had a civil war in more than 150 years, where secessionist movements from Texas to Vermont have generally caused merriment not concern, now faces divisions so serious, and a civilian arsenal of weapons so huge, that the possibility of national disintegration has become part of mainstream conversation. Indeed, after the 2016 elections, predicting a second civil war in the United States—a real, bloody, no-holds-barred military conflict—has become all the rage among journalists, historians, and foreign-policy pundits across the political spectrum.