When Failure is Not an Option

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Stephen Marche: The Next Civil War

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Stephen Marche: The Next Civil War

Stephen Marche is an author and columnist whose work has appeared in Esquire, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and elsewhere. His new book, “The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future,” details ways in which a civil war could realistically break out in this country.

You can find his new book here, and follow him on Twitter @StephenMarche

For more about Stephen and his work, visit stephenmarche.com.

Ken Harbaugh:

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Stephen Marche:

People on the right they've known about the collapse of systems and the potential for violence and the possibility of civil war since at least 2008, and they've been talking about it and promoting it really since that point. I think what's starting to happen now is the left is starting to catch up.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Stephen Marche, an author and columnist whose work has appeared in Esquire, the Atlantic, the New York Times and elsewhere. His new book, The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, details ways in which a civil war could realistically break out in this country.

Stephen, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Stephen Marche:

Pleasure to be with you.

Ken Harbaugh:

So you're an outside observer to what's going on here. Why does that matter?

Stephen Marche:

Well, I think being Canadian has a couple of advantages. For one thing we're sort of outsiders, but on the other hand, I would say that we have a kinship relationship with Americans. So I have my Trump voting cousin in Seattle and I've worked in America, I've lived in America. I love America. Our great literary scholar, Northrop Pry, once said a Canadian is an American who rejects the revolution. And I've always thought that that's a pretty accurate description. So we're familiar but at the same time we're different. And we have a sort of a little bit of distance on what happens in America and that gives us an advantage, a sort of different perspective. I think also everything that happens in America affects us so profoundly that we are kind of always on the lookout for what's going to happen there because it'll affect our lives.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to tease that out a bit because of what's going on right now. And I'm going to provoke this part of the conversation with a quote from the book, I'm a Shakespeare geek, and so it jumped out at me when you wrote that ‘Canada is the Horatio to America's Hamlet, a closeness sympathetic, and mostly irrelevant witness to the grand dramatics on the other side of the border.’ Can you really say that given what we're seeing now with the trucker protests and the cross border instigation, and God knows what else is going to be revealed in the coming weeks and about larger conspiracies, but irrelevant I think underplays the relationship.

Stephen Marche:

You mean the trucker convoy?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, I do.

Stephen Marche:

Well, I think actually it kind of provides a perfect example because the trucker convoy now is about a thousand people. It's pretty much entirely a proxy political struggle from America that's happening in Canada. So like Doug Ford, who's Rob Ford's brother, and is the current premier of Ontario and is easily the most Conservative politician in Canada, has called on them all to go home and declared them to be an insurrection and he's declared a state of emergency around them. They have no political support of any kind, certainly not from anyone in power, they're not going to affect Canadian healthcare policy one iota, and 60% of Canadians find them more or less disgusting. That's the phrase they use in the poll. And 88% of this country is vaccinated.

So the effects of this are hugely exaggerated by the American media because essentially what this is the toxic political rage and loathing that have gripped America sort of spilling over to the Canadian side. The Ottawa police have been overwhelmed by 911 calls and doxxing calls, and they're all coming from America. Almost all of them are coming from America. So I think in a sense, of course we are not immune from what's happening in America, but it's pretty clear that what's happened with the trucker convoy is pretty much funded and organized and certainly moved forward significantly by American forces.

So yeah, it's a very ugly situation but I think it actually shows why Canadian systems are going to survive whereas American systems are in such disarray that they can't really process crazy political actions like this anymore.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk about that in the context of your analysis of the precursors to civil war conditions. It's not autocracies, and it's not democracies that wind up in this place and you put Canada in the democracy column. Where is America?

Stephen Marche:

I think we can definitely put Canada in the democracy column and also to be clear, I think there's widespread support for institutions and solidarity for the institutions. And there's a wide range of transnational institutions. Like the Supreme Court for instance I have no idea what the political leanings of anyone on the Supreme court are. They're selected by different prime ministers of different political stripes, but no one cares. They're more or less selected by the legal profession itself. So, first of all you're in an anocracy that would be the technical term. So that’s when… Democracies like Canada we're stable, autocracies like Russia. Those are also very stable. But when you're in between, when you're in the gray area between democracy and autocracy, that's where civil wars start, and that's where things get very dangerous.

The American political system is increasingly incapable of doing very basic things. It took Joe Biden a year to get his diplomats in position, there is constant threat of reneging on the debt, getting budgets passed is increasingly difficult. And then you have polls where only 20% of Americans believe that their electoral system is fair. So you're really in a place where people's faith in their legal and democratic institutions is falling and that distrust is going to increase. By 2040, 50% of the country will control 85% of the Senate. And I doubt whether people will then feel that they are living in a democracy.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about the cascading effects that the complex systems experience because I think a lot of Americans feel in their gut that our system is self-correcting. It has been before. Right? But you write about-

Stephen Marche:

With a civil war. It's self-correcting with a civil war.

Ken Harbaugh:

You're right. Sometimes it takes paroxysm of violence to correct and that's what the book is about. But you write about these self-defeating loops, Ezra Kline has called it the death loop of democracy. How does your analysis of cascading systems implicate that?

Stephen Marche:

Well, yeah, that's the basic I would say intellectual premise of the book is that what we're facing in America is a complex cascading system. And that's why to me the unimaginable keeps happening. Like if you'd gone back five years ago and said, there'll be tanks on the streets of Washington on the 4th of July or a Republican president will openly support the dictatorship of North Korea no one would've believed you. Like no conspiracy theorist imagined it. And the reason the unimaginable keeps happening is because things filter into each other. So it's not really the one thing. So it's not even the anocracy question or the decline of faith in institutions, it's that those things feed into hyper-partisanship and also that feeds into inequality levels, which are at unbelievable levels in the United States, another force that's coming as in is environmental catastrophes, which are increasing and increase the instability of the system because they increase the likelihood of catastrophic damage that is uninsurable which you see both in Florida and California already.

So it's these factors that feed into each other and complement each other that lead to catastrophe. And so that's the basic premise of it. It's a very abstract concept, which is why I sort of wanted to have these imagined scenarios to kind of put flesh on those bones. If you see what I mean.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. We'll get to the imagined scenarios. Some of them are vivid, but the foundations you lay for those scenarios are pretty well grounded in social science research and some of the work others have done. Did your book precede Barbara Walters or did you take lessons from her book?

Stephen Marche:

Preceded by a week.

Ken Harbaugh:

By a week?

Stephen Marche:

I was ahead by a week. Yeah. Her book takes a different approach, but I think that's kind of fascinating that she and I took really separate approaches and came to identical conclusions.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. And so I want to get into the current landscape right now in which that classic American faith in our self-correcting politics is frayed at best and arguably eroded completely. And this is a quote from the book: “In a poll taken in the aftermath of Trump's election, 31% of American voters predicted a second civil war would occur within five years. A panel of now national security experts assess the chances of a civil war over the next 10 to 15 years and the consensus stood at 35%.” This is no longer a fringy conversation. The fact that your book, the next civil war appeared roughly at the exact same time as another book about the next civil war says something about the cultural moment.

Stephen Marche:

Indeed. People on the right they've known about the collapse of systems and the potential for violence and the possibility of civil war since at least 2008, and they've been talking about it and promoting it really since that point. I think what's starting to happen now is the left is starting to catch up. Like American liberals are starting to realize these institutions which we've been taught our whole lives are the solution to history and as you say, this perfect self writing me mechanism, actually it isn't. And actually the rules that apply to other countries in the world probably also apply to America, and that it is not as much of an exception as one might imagine. So the United States as it currently stands is a textbook case of a country headed for civil war. I think that's what both of our books are about.

Ken Harbaugh:

But while the left, liberals, seem terrified of the prospect, there's this weird fetishization of it on the right. And you've experienced that in talking about it, like on right wing media. Share some of that with us.

Stephen Marche:

Well, it was just going on right wing media and having someone say, "Well, would a civil war be such a bad thing?" And I have to say when I was writing this book, I talked to a lot of history presenters and radical militia members and so on. So I'm familiar with that stuff. But I just did not think like the idea that a civil war would be a good idea could possibly occur to anyone. South Carolina lost a third of its male population during the first civil war. 600,000 people died. I really genuinely believe it's the worst thing that can happen to a country. Worse than foreign occupation. Like right wing media, I don't really care about it. It's when you hear things like the governor of Kentucky talking about how the tree of Liberty needs to be fed with the blood of patriots. That's what I find more worrying. When actual political people who are elected and in serious positions, talk about this stuff or of course the Republican Party saying that January 6th is legitimate political discourse. Those are the things that keep me up at night.

Ken Harbaugh:

That might be attributed to just terrible PR. But I think the undercurrent is absolutely real. And I'm wondering if you have a theory as to where it comes from. What is this attraction to that kind of violence in our politics?

Stephen Marche:

That's a fascinating question. I'm not sure I have a perfect answer. I'd actually like to hear your thoughts on this but to me there's obviously a fantasy element to it. So there's an apocalyptic dramatization of ordinary life. It makes you feel like ordinary life is incredibly important and urgent. That a civil war is about to come.

Then there's also one of the things I really... It took me a long time to understand, talking to far right people, was that they need knowledge to be esoteric to believe in. They don't believe something because it's true, they believe it because no one quite believes it yet. And they have access to some insider information and some theory that explains the world in a way that nobody else gets. So there's that spiritual dimension to it too. I think there's also just simple despair and pain. And then also, I don't think we should discount at all straight racism. Just the simple loathing for other people of different types. So to me it would be a combination of those things, but that would be very imprecise. I feel very strongly that my definition there is quite imprecise. The spiritual motivations of it are really profound and deep. And I'm not sure I fathom them in the book. I'm not sure I understand them even now. What do you think?

Ken Harbaugh:

I love it when interviewees turn the tables.

Stephen Marche:

Well, I'm curious.

Ken Harbaugh:

No, I think you hit a lot of the right notes. You say spiritual, but I think there I'll go one step further and say there is a religious element to some of it and eschatology of the end times. Right?

Stephen Marche:

No doubt about that.

Ken Harbaugh:

You see-

Stephen Marche:

And that's very deep in America. The first book ever published in America was a description of the end of the world. Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I think among many men drawn to this movement, there's that loss of a sense of purpose and meaning and-

Stephen Marche:

No doubt.

Ken Harbaugh:

... the feeling that their manhood is being assaulted and how do you counter that better than buying a giant gun and being intimidating. What is interesting to me is that when I look at the number of vets involved in this movement, very, very few of them are actual combat vets. Like it is a cosplay for even them.

Stephen Marche:

Yes, no.. When you go to these prepper conventions and things like that, the thing you can never tell it's really hard to tell is like, is this a hobby? It feels like a hobby in which the fantasy of the overthrow of the federal authority is kind of a key part of the fantasy. I remember going to a prepper convention in Ohio where they were in this room talking about preparations for a military engagement and like all the equipment you needed and all that stuff. And I looked around the room and I was like, "Well, I can tell you the first thing you guys need to do is be able to run a mile because no one in this room can run one mile." Everyone here is 50 to a 100 pounds overweight to be involved in combat. So there's definite cosplay elements to it.

Ken Harbaugh:

I got to say that sense of humor comes through in the book as well when you're recounting, I don't have it in front of me, but like either a journal entry or a blog post from the assassin, the fictional assassin, you include typos which I find very funny.

Stephen Marche:

I was just at one of the trucker rallies today and the misspellings… I swear to God it's like one out of three signs has a misspelling on it. It's something you notice right away whenever you go to these. I do anyway.

Ken Harbaugh:

Or this from your drop in at the Ohio prepper convention. I just found it on the fringe of Bowling green sits Woodland Mall. I know where that is, I'm an Ohioan, where the Ohio prepper I'm an Ohioan, when the Ohio prepper and survivalist summit takes place. Several dozen booths sell not only a lot of guns, but also solar powered flashlights that keep a charge for seven years and plastic buckets containing 120 emergency rations for 274. 99. Gluten free is available if you plan on a gluten free collapse, At least you got a sense of humor about the dissolution of the American society.

Stephen Marche:

I remember just before I had gone there, I'd just come back from Africa, I'd been in Senegal. And so I was going to check out like the so-called rust belt and how this... The argument then was that all this Trump stuff there were economic motives behind it. And I Bowling Green's a beautiful little town. It is kind of an American paradise kind of town. And they have that dairy queen there where you can get like it's huge portions on the Dairy Queen and I was like, imagine going back to where I was in Senegal and explaining these are the broke people. These people are upset because they don't have any money. It would just be so absurd.

Ken Harbaugh:

So what the hell is the fight over? You write it's going to be a war over meaning. Explain.

Stephen Marche:

Well, the word that to me like always presages this stuff is freedom. And their definition of freedom is totally impossible. To speak again in religious terms as we were talking before, it's messianic it. I've heard them describe property taxes as slavery. So if property taxes are slavery, then who is in history has not been a slave. I guess some emperors. There's this sense of the political vision that they have, that's why I don't think comparing it to fascism is particularly helpful because fascism had a real political program.

Stephen Marche:

And here what you have is the hatred of government in itself. And the loop, if I could describe it as a loop, is that they believe they've come to believe that the more that you hate government, the deeper a patriot you are. They express their love for their country in the destruction of its institutions. And that's the fundamental contradiction that they are bringing with them and it's very frightening.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'll have to check the tape, but I think so far we have yet to mention Donald Trump.

Stephen Marche:

I think I mentioned him one once. I don't think he's that important. I'll tell you that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that's what I want to pull out of the book you wrote, that he's far less meaningful than either side understands and that the smartest thing he ever said about his political career was in 2017. “I didn't come along and divide this country, this country was seriously divided before I got here.” And that division if anything has increased, even with the waning of his influence,

Stephen Marche:

The Biden years have seen increases in violence. The argument American liberals find really hard to accept in this book is my argument that if Hillary had been elected in 2016, would still be true. But I do firmly believe it because the trends we're talking about here are far above horse race politics. I think if there's one thing to take away from this book, it's that the problems that America faces are not what Ted Cruz said last week or what Marjorie Taylor Green put on Twitter, or what Pelosi said or whatever. They're really structural and if solutions are to be found, they have to be found structurally. So getting really mad about Donald Trump or indeed getting really mad about the trucker convoy is pretty beside the point at this juncture.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have a litany of issues that are dividing us from the withering of national purpose, to the eroding of national solidarity, and loss of faith in institutions. Those all just wind up on someone's checklist. Can you share with us how that affects Thanksgiving dinners in America?

Stephen Marche:

I mean, there were a couple of really great things that I found doing this research, but there was an amazing piece of research that they did about Thanksgiving dinners, which they did by geo locating people's phones which is kind of creepy in a way. But basically if people were going from blue states to red states or red states to blue states for Thanksgiving, their Thanksgivings lasted, I don't have the number in front of me, I think it's an hour and a half less than ones where they're of the same political affiliation.

Hyper-partisanship in America is the defining hatred now. There's a number of metrics that show that it transcends race. Republicans are much less likely to hire Democrats or vice versa than they are to hire people of different races.And they're much less likely to want their children to marry outside of party than they are to marry people outside of their races or their religions, which is truly extraordinary when you think about it. But on the other hand when you look at American life from the outside, the amazing thing is how everything, like every last thing becomes subject to hyper partisanship. Like Oreo cookies are now political. Like there's LGBTQ questioning cookies and then on the other hand, you have like homophobic chicken at Chick-fil-A.

And of course this has real consequences when something like COVID, which is not political in most else in the world, just becomes incredibly political in the United States. And then of course it comes across the border to us in this distorted form. So Americans are spoiling for a fight. That would actually make a really good title for a book. Everything needs to be invested with this political meaning and once it does, it becomes toxic virtually instantly.

Ken Harbaugh:

And they, we are increasingly defined by what and who we are in opposition to.

Stephen Marche:

That to me is that to me is the most horrible part of all. The political model that I use in this book is negative partisanship. There are others but to me it's the one with the best track record. It really does show how things work. And it's so good that its own proponents thought it was wrong about Donald Trump's election. It's very rare for a political scientist to publish the results of a model and say, "Oh, by the way, we must be wrong." And then it turns out to be right. What happens in American politics now you don't vote for things you vote against people. And that's why there is no common ground and even basic functions of government become impossible because it's just about who your enemy is rather than what can be achieved.

Ken Harbaugh:

But for that to result in civil conflict groups would need to coalesce around an ideology that includes violence. And historically it has been a response to oppression. If you look at revolutionary movements across history, that seems to be flipped on its head in this case, it's the oppressors who are rising up. How is that happening?

Stephen Marche:

Well, there's this amazing piece of research by these English economists about India, because they were able to get really good data from visa records. They were able to show that as Muslim expenditures rise to reach the Hindu level. So Muslims are sort of the marginalized group in India. And as their numbers rise towards Hindu numbers, which are the dominant ethnicity, that's when the violence starts. I think it's very important to say it because it really shows that what's happening in America is not peculiar to its own racial history or its own racial pathologies. This is in fact something you see all over the world. You see it all in Africa, you see it in India, see it in the Middle East, as marginalized groups rise towards equality that's where the violence starts.

And of course that's a very dark thought because essentially white people are not losing. It's just that black people and Latino people are not losing as much compared to them. And they don't have this downtrodden people to look down on and that's what they're losing. And the study of who was at January 6th was at the insurrection, only about 15% were actually militia members or official members of militias. That's a whole other separate question, but a huge determining factor was that the people who came there had come from counties where exactly that had happened. Where there'd been an influx of immigration and a rise to power of heterogeneous populations. So that does seem to me to be a prime motivation of what is driving American civil strife. And of course America is slated to become a majority minority country by 2040 and that seems like a pretty scary date.

Ken Harbaugh:

For other countries a huge barrier to entry for any insurrectionist movement is the ability to procure weapons. That barrier doesn't exist here.

Stephen Marche:

No.

Ken Harbaugh:

What did you see when you were out in Ohio, or you went to Oklahoma as well, right?

Stephen Marche:

Yeah, well, everywhere I went, like any prepper convention you go to, any oath keeper convention, there's always a small gun show at all of these events. But I did go to Oklahoma to the biggest of them all, [inaudible] which I could barely walk in a day. Like it was just so enormous. But yeah, there's virtually no kind of weapon that is not accessible in the United States to a large group of population. People make a big deal out of AR15s but they don't really have a very secure grasp on how many people have .50 caliber rifles. There's certainly like low grade nuclear materials caught in the hands of committed accelerationist that's been caught a couple of times.

So yeah. I think they're fully armed. Now that doesn't really matter in the end because the US military is the US military and the Marines are who they are, but you're definitely dealing with a population where access to weapons is not an issue as opposed to somewhere in Europe where even committed terrorists often have a great deal of difficulty getting even pistols.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. But in any head-to-head engagement I think you see a pretty clear outcome if the military is asked to engage any militia movement.

Stephen Marche:

Yeah. Well, everyone I talked to… I wanted a big battle scene. I was like, I want to know what the engagements will look like, I want to know how this will look? And I did get amazing experts to talk to me including people who are responsible for drawing up battle plans for full spectrum operations in the Homeland. But tactically, it's not really a question. They had nothing to tell me. They were like, "We just simply walk over them." The Marines are the Marines. They're way, way... You can put them up against anyone they're going to win. And certainly not ragtag groups of weekend warriors who have AR15s. That doesn't count much against helicopters.

Ken Harbaugh:

But that's almost beside the point. If our history with counter insurrection has taught us anything, it's that we actually don't win even when we win. And if the goal is the de-legitimization of government what better way than a Bundy Ranch-style face off.

Stephen Marche:

Exactly. And Bundy Ranch was the FBI too. So the military is much more complicated. That was ultimate... Oh, oh yeah. The…

Ken Harbaugh:

You're thinking Ruby Ridge.

Stephen Marche:

I'm thinking Ruby Ridge, but actually the Bunny stuff was FBI too. And the Department of Homeland Security was there as well I think. But anyway, it was a police action. Like a military action has a whole host of bureaucratic and legal problems with it that are enormous. And for one thing, military people don't act without situational awareness and it's extremely hard to get legally when you're making war against your own citizens.

The point is that just going and killing people doesn't do anything. In fact, it just makes things much worse and is to be avoided clearly at all costs because once these things start, it tends to spiral out of control. So yeah, a military engagement would tactically be one sided, but it would be totally counterproductive at the same time. It would only spread the violence.

Ken Harbaugh:

This is probably my biggest issue with the book, I think by and large, the military gets that. And you saw that in some of its decisions to stand up to these threats, to invoke the Insurrection Act you heard senior combat commanders, you heard the chairman himself say, "No, we're not going to do that." Because I just don't don't think that is the most likely... What's your phrase? Inciting incident or instigating incident?

Stephen Marche:

Well there are incidents from it in history. There is 1992 and there is Arkansas. There are examples of it being done. And if you want to go further back to the Whiskey rebellion.

Ken Harbaugh:

Sure give us a contemporary, not totally contemporary, but it was the bridge in Arkansas. Right. Was that your inspiration?

Stephen Marche:

No, it was desegregation of schools.

Ken Harbaugh:

Oh okay.

Stephen Marche:

And they had to bring in the military and they ordered the Arkansas guard to barracks. They took it very seriously. There were no people from Arkansas in the military force imposing it. And that didn't happen in 1992 but that was of course much broader, that was just a riot that they were trying to bring under control. So there are models of it. One thing I think when you read the history of counter insurgency, at least that maybe was surprising to some, but they never want to do it. Like before Vietnam and before the bay of pigs and Cuba, the military took the presidents and said like, "Look, this is really, really, really hard to do." The president makes the call. And if the president tells them to do it, they would have to do it. So I don't think anyone in the military would ever want to do this ever. And of course we saw that during Trump where they basically just refused because it was unconstitutional, but of course, Trump also didn't know what he was doing. He didn't know how to enact what needed to be enacted. Like he didn't know how to appoint a Scragg and he didn't know how to do all this other stuff.

But if someone who comes in who does know, like I think a president absolutely should put the military in that position. They take their oath very seriously. America is in an institutional decline as I said, but the military is kind of the exception. There's still huge amounts of trust in the military. And the military oath has stood up better than anything in Congress or the Senate or the political order. It's not really been violated. So it certainly would be a nightmare situation, but I think it's conceivable for sure.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think it's worth reminding people that president Trump's first act after losing the election was dismissing the secretary of defense because he wanted his people in charge and there were people very close to him telling him that if you want to stay in power, you need to control the guys with guns. They said that.

Stephen Marche:

Yeah. I don't really deal with that in the book.

Ken Harbaugh:

No.

Stephen Marche:

Like I don't really deal with the electoral problems in the book mainly because they're extremely difficult for me to understand and also because I couldn't really find reliable... Like finding people who could talk to, in a sort of, from 30,000 feet in the air who don't have an agenda is extremely hard to find. So I didn't do any of that in the book because I didn't really feel like I knew what I was talking about or could know what I was talking about.But it's very much a real possibility. What happens when a president wins the electoral college but loses by 10 million votes? That's easily foreseeable. That could easily happen. Who does the military side with then? That's a whole other nightmare.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. So you paint the picture through a series of hypothetical scenarios of this breakdown of civil order, the outbreak of mass violence. And it ends with secessionist movements. And this is where I just have a hard time as a Democrat living in a red state, imagining that part actually happening. Civil strife, sure. But the one thing that was so much simpler about the first civil war was that the division broke down geographically, relatively cleanly. How do you separate a society in which the divisions are density divisions more than geographic divisions?

Stephen Marche:

Obviously that's me trying to figure out a way for this to end peacefully. Like trying to imagine a scenario where the tensions in the United States are resolved in some way that is not by violence. As you know from the book, like the book is basically a litany of how extremely nightmare-ish it is to try and separate in the United States like nevermind the US constitution, you also have the UN regulations which are incredibly complex and then to do what you really, really need a lot of goodwill and good faith between the parties, which of course is exactly what's lacking. I just think that violence is so horrible and political violence is so intolerable. And it may be the subject of fantasy cosplay, and it may sound fun on some weekend trip with the boys out in the woods of rural Illinois but when you get really down to it, you don't want to leave your children a country where they're not secure, where their physical security is at risk the whole time. So what 's required for that is radical solutions.

I think when marriages reach the point that America is in right now, you sit the kids down and say, "You know what? It's time for this to come to an end." And America is right for that. Like the popularity of succession, every few years. It's majorities of Southern Republicans now, it's like 41% with California Democrats. But as you say, and I fully acknowledge, and acknowledge in the book, it's a nightmare. Like it's on the edge of what's possible. It's conceivable but to get there would in fact be such a difficult problem.

Ken Harbaugh:

What's the alternative, the nonviolent alternative? I think you paint a pretty clear picture of catastrophe but is there a possibility for restoration?

Stephen Marche:

Well, I definitely think there's a possibility. I know this sounds like I'm blowing smoke or something, but the American people are incredibly capable of reinvention, certainly unlike Canada, where we are just tootling along and trying to survive. Like they're capable of political reinvention in a way that no other country I guess with the possible exception of France is. And I actually have a great deal of faith in that, in the American people. When you talk about the self writing mechanism, I wonder how much it's a self writing mechanism and how much it's like American people arrive at a crisis and then they figure out they have to solve it and then they solve it.

I would say at this point, the solutions are radical. Secession would be one, another one would be a new constitutional convention. Jefferson said the Constitution should only last 19 years otherwise it's a contract with the dead, and the American constitution is a great work of genius but it's 200 and nearly 50 years old. And it has devolved into a contract with the dead. And I think it really needs writing in plain English in a way that can be understood outside of these elaborate interpretations by court systems that people are dubious about their legitimacy anyway.

I think what is required is pretty profound. I think as I say, the book the hope that has to be put aside here is that everything's going to work out. That's not going to happen. Like it's not going to be like suddenly there's the 60s and then it's the 70s and everyone's key parties and lava lamps and whatever. Like that's not what's going to happen. What is required is really, really profound political action. And the problem is that as these systems collapse, they make correcting themselves much harder. Like a system that can't even agree on appointing diplomats it's very hard to imagine a real constitutional convention. But increasingly I think people are realizing that their choices here are between that and catastrophe.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can any of those nonviolent alternatives occur in a hyper armed society?

Stephen Marche:

It's more difficult. I'm not sure that's the part that I would say makes it the most difficult. I think the hyper-partisanship makes it really, really hard to figure out a way out. When you just have people who literally only come to power by hating their opponents and reveling in the hatred for their opponents, it really becomes quite difficult to negotiate when essentially, you're just screaming at each other.

Canada is heavily armed too. We have 50% of households in Canada own a gun. Now, that's because we have a lot of people that live in the country and they're not military grade weapons. They're mostly rifles for hunting and farming and so on because we have this wilderness that we're in. But nonetheless, like that level of weaponry doesn't seem to prevent us from functioning as a democracy.

Switzerland is armed to the teeth and it's of course a perfectly functioning democracy. So I don't know if it would be the weapons so much as the fetishization of weapons. You know what I mean?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I do.

Stephen Marche:

Like the love of violence. Like all of my uncles own guns, but they would never... They use them for getting pigeons off the roof. It's a tool. It's a tool that you use around your acreage or your farm. It's not something like the government can't regulate or something like that. It's not a sacred object. It's just a tool.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm glad you answered that way because I tend to agree. Our last guest was the founder of Moms Demand Action, who is incredibly optimistic and pointed to Switzerland as well. There are great examples of hyper armed societies that require accountability and responsibility and are not as dangerous as ours.

Stephen Marche:

Yes absolutely.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I hear so many people throw up their hands and say there are 400 million guns in this country. It's a lost cause but it's not.

Stephen Marche:

No. Like after Newton, like that happened in every country in the world. It happened to us in Taber Alberta and it happened in Australia, where I think it was 22 kids were killed. And then when that happened, there was immediate gun reform and there was immediate, like suddenly you had to register your guns and nobody complained. You can own a machine gun in Canada. You just have to pass a whole bunch of tests and you have to keep it and you have to be subject to inspection and so on. It's just as regulated. It's not like you can't own one, it's just that there are a ton of rules around it. And everyone seemed to accept that after these horrific tragedies where children are murdered by insane people. But to me if you've gone through that and it only made you believe in guns more, it's hard for me to see how you get to meaningful gun control. It really is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Well, that's a political problem not a physics problem. It is surmountable, in other words.

Stephen Marche:

No, that's true. Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I pulled this out and I couldn't find the footnote for it, and I'm wondering where you learned about intelligence services in other countries preparing dossiers on the possibilities of America's collapse.

Stephen Marche:

Oh, those were just anonymous sources, but there were certainly multiples of them from multiple countries. Those are high grade political sources. They're just anonymous, but yeah, that's definitely happening. Of course it's happening. But it's also like I was just told that by these people. That's all that I know. I certainly know that it's happening in Canada, and I know that it's happening in Germany.

Ken Harbaugh:

You do your best, and you're clear up front that even as a moderate in Canada you're pretty liberal at least on the American spectrum and you do your best to be fair but it's pretty clear that the majority of the moral burden lies with a certain American party that now has an armed, militant wing, your words. What do Canadians think about the mutation of the Republican party?

Stephen Marche:

Well, it's really fascinating in a way because it hasn't affected our Conservative party. And so there's a real strong contrast. Like our liberal party and the American democratic party are not all that different. But the Canadian Conservative party and the American Republican party are night and day. And I say that as someone who is written against the Canadians Conservative Party my whole life. They certainly would not consider me a fan in any way. But Doug Ford, Rob Ford's brother, the most Conservative politician in Canada, he's going to go after these truckers immediately. It would never occur to him to do anything else. And it makes a huge difference.

I remember one of the questions I'm asked is like, "How did social media play into the violence in the United States?" And I'm like, well, it obviously had an effect but Facebook also happened everywhere else in the world and didn't have that effect. Like in our country, Christopher Friedland, who was then foreign minister, like there was a Russian campaign to smear her. She's a Ukrainian, was a journalist and Ukrainian, Canadian. She was a journalist she's literally persona non grata in Russia and they came after her because her grandfather had worked on a Nazi newspaper during the Second World War. And what immediately happened was that Tony Clement, the Conservative, her opponent, gave a press conference where he said, "This is nonsense. Please ignore it. Don't report on it. And we should all know that this is a smear that has nothing to do with reality." And the story died. And the Conservative press ignored it because when they get the country back, it's going to be their country. Like it's not going to be Russia's country. And so I think that it's a question of will. Like when you have people that hate each other so much that they're wearing shirts that say, "I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat." Once that sense of unity is broken, it's really broken and it's kind of nothing can go right after that, if you know what I mean?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah.

Stephen Marche:

So I'm very careful in the book because I really do believe the problems are structural. Hoping that the Republican Party gets different members in it like that's beside the point. And I think getting mad at Trump is beside the point. The problems here are really structural. But on the other hand when you have the Josh Hollys of the world raising their fists to rioters who are desecrating the institutions to which they belong how can any country survive that?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, well, we shall see. And I think the next couple of years are going to be key. But I want to end on a high note and I'm going to use your own words, not a question just to prompt. You wrote, "The world needs America. It needs the idea of America, the American faith even if that was only ever a half truth, the rest of the world needs to imagine a place where you can become yourself, where you can shed your past, where contradictions that lead to genocide elsewhere flourish into prosperity." I hope you still believe that.

Stephen Marche:

I hope you realize this book is not written out of contempt, but out of love. This is not a work of snobbery or something. This is from someone who is... It's written out of sadness at what's happening rather than contempt or something like that. And yeah, I do think that a world without America, like it's very easy to complain about America, but a world without it is going to be a lot poorer and a lot more dangerous and a lot more democratic. Sorry, a lot less democratic, and the consequences will be felt everywhere.

Ken Harbaugh:

Couldn't agree more. Stephen, it's been great having you. Thanks so much.

Stephen Marche:

Yeah. Real pleasure talking to you.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Stephen for joining me.

The link to his new book, The Next Civil War can be found in the show description.

For more about Stephen and his work, visit stephenmarche.com.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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