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How the Second Civil War Could Start

The potential U.S. descent into violence, mutual suspicion, and even dissolution.
September 20, 2022
How the Second Civil War Could Start
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

[Editor’s Note: In the following excerpt from The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of “The Big Lie”, on sale today, authors Major Garrett and David Becker imagine a grim scenario for the next two years of U.S. politics.]

America’s second civil war could start with a bang or with a whimper. It could begin with a skirmish or sneak up on us through a series of small compromises and acts of political cowardice. Civil war could announce itself loudly and bloodily, leaving no doubt as to its awful entrance. Or it could creep in through the back door, only to be recognized in hindsight as a series of seemingly disconnected events that could have and should have been stopped. We may be midstream in such a flow of events already. We now examine this possible future as if we have just emerged from its aftermath.

During the 2022 campaign, national Democrats were bracing for a tidal wave that might eject them from control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, crippling President Joe Biden’s agenda and possibly accelerating former president Trump’s formal announcement (he toyed with it throughout 2021 and 2022) as a candidate for the presidency in 2024. Democrats had long since lost patience with Republican accusations about the “stolen” 2020 election, which they came to believe led to a flurry of unnecessary and regressive laws in states dominated by Republican legislators. In Texas, a law passed that set new restrictions on mail-in ballot access, limited the use of drop boxes for early votes, and then went further by weaponizing and empowering hyperpartisan poll watchers to interfere with the voting process. This in a state where it was already harder to vote in than most other states. In states like Florida, Iowa, and Texas, professional election administrators found their efforts criminalized. In states like Arizona and Georgia, it appeared legislators were seizing control of elections by limiting the authority of election administrators at the state and county level, thereby creating the real possibility of partisan politicians rejecting the will of the voters. In several states—Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada—there were candidates running for secretary of state on a platform of denying elections and delivering outcomes for their preferred candidates. All of this was very much on the minds of national Democrats. Many were seething.

In such an environment, many were worried about armed poll watchers, inflamed passions, and even possible violence. In Texas, voters saw unusually long lines in voting precincts in urban areas like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, where recent legislation had resulted in concentrating more voting into a single day. The lines were longest in communities of color, thus confirming fears about the consequences of the new election law. Before the March 1, 2022, primary, voters in predominantly Democratic counties like Harris, Travis, and Bexar were seeing requests for mail-in ballots rejected at historically high rates, fifteen times higher than Texas had previously experienced in their most populous counties.

About this time, Democrats in Washington began wondering aloud if midterm election results could or should be believed. “I think there’s a real possibility that we will see in the next two elections, get some results sent to us for ratification . . . that’s not consistent or that we’re gonna have to question,” Texas Democratic representative Colin Allred said. “That’s the reality of the situation. We can no longer pretend like these elections are just going to continue to proceed the way they have in the past.” At a press conference marking his administration’s one-year anniversary, President Biden amplified this sentiment. When asked if the midterm elections would be legitimate, Biden said: “Well, it all depends on whether we are able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of this election.” Biden’s statement wasn’t as toxic as Trump’s, but it deepened confusion and consternation—setting the country up for months of midterm election fear-mongering.

Imagine a polling station in Texas on Election Day 2022. The location doesn’t matter. Neither does the underlying dispute. What matters is a person came to the polls, purportedly on the hunt for voter fraud. States like Texas had given poll watchers more latitude to move around polling places, question procedures, and exercise authority. This person, in accordance with Texas law, was armed with a semiautomatic pistol. A discussion escalated into a confrontation, perhaps about the proper place to stand inside the polling precinct in relation to others, or about how to properly mark the ballot and use the ballot scanning machine.

Tragically, things spun out of control. The person feared fraud was afoot, and meant to stop it, by any means necessary. It first came through a raised voice, then physical intervention, and ultimately through the brandished weapon. Tension and shouts ensued, followed by a scuffle. One shot rang out and a poll worker lay bleeding on the floor of the gymnasium—the polling place was a high school. As the blood pooled, the victim passed away. Simultaneously, a friend of the victim hit send on a video taken of the conflict and its horrible aftermath. The video, as these things do, flew faster than news coverage and became a national sensation. Raw emotions frayed further.

As Election Day played out in Texas, Democrats believed they were seeing some of their worst fears realized. The perception of long lines and disproportionate damage done to minority voters sparked genuine anguish and rage. Now a death—video confirmation of what Democrats came to see as senseless violence marring and jeopardizing democracy.

As for the polling place death, the causes and motives behind it were opaque. It might have been an unintentional escalation—not exactly an accident because there was a weapon and a confrontation, but certainly not premeditated. Every frame of the cell phone video was analyzed and then hyper-analyzed. It yielded no definitive answers to the discerning and just enough to those quick to judge and blame. What the video did capture quite clearly was the grisly, harrowing aftermath—a life taken by a single bullet fired in a single precinct in a single county within a vast country now unified by hatred, suspicion, and contempt. It seemed to be the only true unity this once great but now wayward nation appeared able to summon.

The death video, as they say, went viral, but not benignly so. Quite fortunately, it did not lead to more violence. But in the hours after it appeared, more people began taking weapons to polling places. There were standoffs. There were fistfights. Police and sheriff’s departments nationwide were deployed in almost SWAT-like fashion to protect poll workers, repel weekend vigilantes, and generally keep the peace. It was scary as hell up close, on cable, on cell phones, on Facebook, and myriad other apps. But it worked. An uneasy peace was erected and brittlely maintained, though an atmosphere of foreboding and crisis pervaded.

Or perhaps no such incident occurred. Maybe none was necessary to push the nation to the edge. In the months leading up to the November election, Trump and the circle of grifters that surrounded him continued to push, and profit from, The Big Lie (Trump’s multifaceted yet groundless vilification of the 2020 election). Con artists continued to successfully push for incompetent investigations of the last election. Legislation based on the false pretext of election integrity—but which actually reduced it—was passed and voter confidence suffered. Election deniers running for governor, or secretary of state, or Congress, won their primaries and amplified their platforms, or almost as dangerously, lost their primaries and doubled down on their divisive and destructive disinformation. Leading up to the November 2022 election, concerns about voter suppression and voter fraud were so amped up that whether either actually existed didn’t matter anymore. When reports of long lines at polling places in Texas, or Arizona, or wherever came up, that alone was enough to light the fire.

It could be a gunshot. It could be accumulated grievances. The combustibles are before us—voting, immigration, racism, abortion, crime. Things could move in dreadful directions, even if key players initially resist predictable grassroots pressure to lash out. We now describe events that could plausibly play out if either of the situations described above came to be.

Whether it’s nationally broadcast election bloodshed or a slowboil confrontation over voter suppression in a state like Texas, it is not hard to imagine House Speaker Nancy Pelosi facing hard questions from her leadership team about Texas’s entire delegation and other close House races. Texas could trigger a startling conversation about countermeasures. Democrats had already sued there over redistricting, alleging Republicans diluted minority voters by dispersing them in ways assuring more House seats in 2022. These gains were coming to be and were also emblematic of noxious trends. Republicans were on pace to win at least twenty-five Texas seats—many tainted, in the view of national Democrats, by violence, suppression, or both. With Texas at the center of these midterm aggravations, Democrats could feel it necessary, maybe even imperative, to use Texas as a pretext to prevent certification and recognition of the entire thirty-eight-member state delegation. This wouldn’t be easy. Each term of the House is limited to two years. A new House majority would swear in members and Republicans would hold sway. To cover their bets, House Democrats might also litigate all other close House races—generating lengthy delays and, possibly, widespread protests.

Texas, as it turned out, was the fulcrum in the House of Representatives. Republicans, when all voters were counted, won nearly twice as many seats there as Democrats. That advantage would loom large in control of the House. But so would other races that turned out to be surprisingly close in states with new and more restrictive voting laws and in districts where suburban voter attitudes shifted over abortion and privacy-related politics. These close races gave Democrats ground to challenge results, slowing certification and sowing confusion while generating new partisan hostility.

Under the Constitution, Congress is the judge of its own membership. There are limits, but Congress can, in theory and practice, refuse to seat or expel a member. As law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos of Harvard University points out, the “choice to seat or oust is a nonjusticiable political question. No court can second-guess a chamber’s judgment as to whether an election was free and fair or which candidate won a race.” Congress has delayed or refused to seat a member whose victory has been certified. A dispute in 1984 over a House seat in Indiana initially won by a Republican but awarded to a Democrat convulsed the chamber for months. Slowing certification would gum up the process of creating a new House, even with an incoming GOP majority. An idea took hold: Refuse to seat the full Texas delegation and hold off recognition of disputed races in other states.

This was not a novel idea, having been floated the previous year. Marc Elias, the prominent Democratic lawyer, had written in 2021 that as “Republican legislatures enact new voter suppression laws, Congress should reaffirm the House’s promise in 1965 to refuse to seat, or to unseat, members who benefit from discriminatory voting laws. If there ever was a need for it to do so, it is now.” Professor Stephanopoulos of Harvard similarly noted:

Given the history and law of the Judging Elections Clause, the most familiar way for a congressional chamber to enforce the provision would be by refusing to seat candidates-elect whose elections the chamber deems defective. . . . Imagine that, in the wake of the 2020 election, states under unified Republican control enact stringent new voting restrictions: photo-ID requirements, cutbacks to early and mail-in voting, voter roll purges, and so on. Also imagine that, in these states, several Republican candidates receive slightly more votes than their Democratic opponents in the 2022 election. Then, after that election, it would be a conventional application of the Judging Elections Clause for a chamber to decline to seat these Republican candidates-elect (and even to seat their rivals) because they owed their victories to voter suppression. This is exactly what the House and Senate have done many times before, especially in the decades after the Civil War.

Texas would be the symbol and the explanation—a rejection of Democratic and Republican members of Congress to contest deeper issues of access, suppression, and violence. Refusing to seat an entire state delegation would be novel, volatile, and unprecedented. It would not be undertaken lightly. But in pressurized times, lines can be crossed, especially when rivals are seen as enemies and choices no longer incremental but existential. Or perhaps a Democratic House could simply choose not to seat the Republican members elected, thus solidifying an even greater majority.

Democratic concern about GOP tactics in Texas and obstructionism of favored voting reforms put unrelenting pressure on Pelosi. Even if institutionalists initially resisted refusing to seat the Texas delegation, vociferous lobbying from the party’s progressive Democratic base proved too much to resist, particularly if it meant holding on to the House, preserving the House January 6th Committee, and shielding Biden from impeachment. Pelosi, though reluctant, could consider refusing to seat the Texas delegation, knowing her party would support her. Such an action, whether successful or not, would be another descent into norm-breaking oblivion. Pelosi could justify her actions by claiming she was preserving democracy. Republicans, some of whom backed the Big Lie, would then accuse Pelosi of destroying democracy. Whether the Texas delegation was seated or not could ultimately be irrelevant.

That process of vanishing could begin, and look something like this.

Provoked by the denial, successful or not, of congressional representation, Texas, which had just reelected Republican governor Greg Abbott by a fairly wide margin, announced it was prepared to take unprecedented action to halt this usurpation of power. Republican-led states, where some certifications were being held up, vowed to join Texas in whatever protest it deemed necessary. Republicans resurrected the words of Texas GOP chair Allen West after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Texas’s lawsuit to invalidate election results in six states, thereby overturning the 2020 election: “Perhaps law-abiding states should band together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”

After a brief debate, Republicans worked with Abbott to enact a resolution of refusal. The terms were simple. The Republic of Texas (as it still calls itself) would no longer compel individuals or businesses within Texas to pay federal tax revenue and, further, would block any efforts by federal officials to collect said revenue. Texas said the grant of immunity from paying federal taxes would last until Pelosi seated the full Texas delegation, halted all election litigation, and delivered unto Republicans majority control in the House of Representatives.

There were some knotty details to sort out. Texas provisionally allowed the federal government to continue operating fifteen military bases and twenty-nine ports of entry. It informed Washington it was preparing to take possession of military facilities and ports. Travel restrictions, Texas menacingly warned, would accompany these repossessions.

Sympathetic states (possibly states like Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming) followed suit. Each state wrote its own resolution of refusal differently, but the march away from Washington was clear.

America being a diverse place, there were states with other sympathies and they sided with the Democrats. California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Delaware banded together as a compact against doing business with or recognizing the rights of visitors from Texas or any other state that joined its revenue-withholding gambit. This was a toothier form of boycotts that arose in earlier disputes over abortion and voting laws. States were merely intensifying the sense of separation, pressing up against the Interstate Commerce Clause along the way. Every step in the escalation raised arcane legal questions, but the impetus to pull apart and strike poses, fueled by grassroots political energy, overrode them. Banding together against Texas, the rival states said, was protection against secession, fascism, vigilantism, intimidation, voter suppression, and redistricting “violence.” Democrats believed it as surely as Republicans believed their equally florid rhetoric about patriotism, treason, subversives, socialist radicals, and BLM mobs.

Whether from a single galvanizing incident—a gunshot and death—or the culmination of less-violent but no-less-shocking incidents over time, a “national divorce” began. The approach was economical, but the effect was spiritual. A great, slow-moving cleaving came over America. The federal government tried to be patient. It changed nothing, of course, for the states that did not adopt resolutions refusing to pay tax revenue. Initially, the federal government took no action against those that did. Washington had plenty of practice dealing with non-cooperative states or resistance to federal requirements to receive revenue transfers in lieu of policy changes. It had far less practice with states flatly denying revenue and seeking to block collection thereof. The Civil War was an armed rebellion, an opposing force against the Union. This was less stark and more procedural. It was a rebellion, if you will, of accounting and shared resources. Uncle Sam was stunned and struggled for recourse.

As was discovered, it takes a great deal of energy and personnel to erect barriers within a once-unified nation. The matters to which states now turned their attention were related to protection and isolation. Travel wasn’t exactly halted because the attitude of boycott began to be translated into procedures of suspicion. States started to monitor themselves in relation to one another and therefore wanted to more closely inspect the movement of people, goods, and services. Definitions of contraband expanded exponentially and something akin to paranoia regarding motives about “other” states began to seep into laws and habits. This naturally led to unraveling of intertwined limbs of commerce that once profitably joined all fifty states. This meant increasing the security state—state by aligned state—at the expense of almost all else. All those fears about things getting militarized during COVID finally came to be—long after the pandemic had subsided. It was not the virus that cut down American democracy. It was a bastardized vision of protecting democracy that dealt the mortal blow.

Armed borders kept things in and kept things out, as armed borders almost always do. States for a time appeared satisfied, especially because Washington seemed stupefied. Federal courts, as it turned out, could not force states to do much of anything. There was no national military force large enough or motivated enough to storm Texas or any other state for revenue earmarked for Washington. National Guard forces became true militarized arms of the state—each state.

With legal disputes now separating one state from the other, America began to slowly disappear. Stock prices fell. More worrisome, America’s bond rating suffered, and interest rates rose—destabilizing the Federal Reserve. Texas said it might create its own currency. Simple transactions became complicated and confusing. Naturally, there were, for a time, regional winners, but the overall trajectory, reflected in bond markets and declines in foreign investment, was of an increasingly sluggish national economy. America was no longer a sure bet, the dollar less reliable as the safest global currency. States acted as small nations and transacted business for their nation and against other nations—places that used to exist as white stars on the same field of blue but now flew their own reimagined economic and cultural flags.

States that didn’t join either compact struggled for identity and good relations with both state compacts. Much energy and time was wasted in all directions. Other things began to slowly crumble too. Federal subsidies for infrastructure, scientific research, agricultural innovation, flood control, and weather forecasting atrophied. Decay took a noticeable, pitiable turn toward rot, leaving mid-twenty-first-century children to wonder what this thing was their grandparents remembered with such mourning . . . what was it called, again . . . the United States of America?

Perhaps most disturbingly, into the void left by a unified American nation—the world’s formerly oldest and longest-enduring democracy—stepped the opportunistic nations steeped in autocracy. Russia, North Korea, Iran, and most notably China, already transfixed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its aftermath, began to wonder if America could still lead the free world or if it had become only a collaborative partner with Europe. The great question of authoritarianism vs. democracy, to which America had always acted as if it knew the answer, seemed up for grabs in Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow. The lessons of Ukraine were far from settled but America looked not only distracted but on the verge of some form of disintegration. Autocrats began to wonder how best to pounce. Our allies, and the free people of the globe, were even more shaken than they were after the Capitol riot. Would America recede? Would they become more vulnerable? Was America devouring itself at the expense of all it had fought since the end of World War II to protect and preserve?

We have just tried to paint a narrative picture. It is not of a world blown up, not literally anyway. We are not describing an invasion where civilians are slaughtered as they were in Ukraine and vestiges of civilization and order fray. Ours is not a story of bunkers, stockpiles, and gaunt survivalism. It is not a story of militias in cabins or vigilantes in convoys. It is a potential story of national suicide committed gradually and with self-justifying intent, on paper—no bullets or bayonets required. It is a story about the death of America as a place, an ideal, and a home for liberty, prosperity, and law. It is a story the component parts of which are with us now. It is a story that intentionally leaves out widespread bloodshed—because our darkest fears are already bad enough. It is a story that fills in blanks we ourselves have created, blanks that will be filled one way or the other—through cooperation or confrontation. We must confront and extinguish election-denying cynicism. We must commit ourselves to casting and counting votes without fear or favor. We must do as generations did before—believe in democracy as we believe in ourselves.

The great cleaving could be closer than we think. Our next civil war is stalking us. We can stop it. We must stop it. Or we, as an ideal and as a spirit will, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, surely perish from this earth.

Excerpted from The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of “The Big Lie” by Major Garrett and David Becker, available now wherever books are sold. Copyright © 2022 Major Garrett and David Becker. Printed with permission of the publisher, Diversion Books. All rights reserved.

Major Garrett and David Becker

Major Garrett, CBS's chief Washington correspondent, and David Becker, a foremost elections expert, are co-authors of The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of "The Big Lie."