A University of California Davis researcher, Garen J. Wintemute, recently announced that a survey of 8,620 Americans found that slightly more than half agreed that “in the next several years, there will be civil war in the United States.”

It is an arresting claim, and one that made headlines in places such as The Los Angeles Times and even Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Which is not to say that the survey provides especially powerful evidence that a civil war is at hand—only that a significant cohort of American adults questioned between May 13 and June 22 found the idea plausible.  The survey floated some other numbers that may be more reassuring.  Just 18.7 percent of the respondents agreed that “violence or force is needed to protect American democracy when elected leaders will not.”  

The latter figure suggests that a lot of people who anticipate another American civil war have no intention of starting it themselves.  And the question posed by Professor Wintemute and his associates suggests they were stirring the pot.  Their research was part of a project run by the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, and Wintemute is also the director of California Firearm Violence Research Center.  In other words, an agenda can be discerned.  Their research was presumably part of an effort to scare people about the possibility of impending mass violence. That’s exactly how the left-of-center journalists who picked up the story treated it.  The writer for Science summoned the connection to “white nationalists” and “QAnon conspiracy theory,” and the need to suppress “disinformation online and in right-wing media.”  

Chatter about the possibility of another American civil war is widespread, but it is more of a journalistic springboard than a reflection on actual conditions in the United States.  Plainly, there are small numbers of Americans, left and right, who harbor fantasies about violent insurrection, and even some in the case of Antifa and parts of the Black Lives Matter movement, who put their fantasies into practice.  But these are marginal actors. Americans as whole are not interested in organizing armed rebellions, nor are the minority of our seriously seditious countrymen in any position to gain widespread support. 

And yet. Still.

My hesitancy is that very large numbers of Americans are indeed angry about the condition of the county and the direction it is headed.  As I write this in August 2022, the prospect of the 2022 midterm election has curbed some of that anger.  Most American conservatives expect a signal victory in November, sufficient to turn both houses of Congress over to Republican control and put a stop to at least some of the abuses and insults that rule by progressive Democrats has brought. The American left is also aware that it has pushed the “deplorables” to the brink. The treatment of the January 6 captives—for all intents, political prisoners—is meant to keep the restless natives in their place.  And “research” like that of Professor Wintemute is meant to keep fellow progressives on alert. 

I have no expertise in elections. My discipline is anthropology and for a good many decades I have focused on the American temperament.  Because temperament sometimes plays out in politics, I write about that too.  But my main concerns are how we learn and how we express our anger.   

In 2006, I published A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, which was an account of a slow-moving revolution in how Americans experience anger—a revolution that began around 1950.  In the wake of World War II, several developments shook the long-settled American bent toward emotional self-control.  Before that period, going all the way back to the colonial era, Americans placed a very high value on mastering their anger.  Emotional provocation, of course, was nothing unusual.  People being people always have the capacity to get angry.  And likewise, people always face an abundance of aggravations.  Fights occur.  Wars break out.  Grievances are nursed.  But what is the right response to provocation?

If you look back to the counsel that parents gave their children, teachers taught their pupils, ministers gave their congregations, and friends repeated to their friends, for centuries the basic answer was “control yourself.”  Take the time to let wisdom, good counsel, and reflection to set in.  Anger unleashed in the moment would only makes things worse.  The heroic man was stoic; only the weak man gave vent to his ire.  The strong woman knew how to contain her anger. The weak one would turn too easily to confrontation.  We have a national literature as well as a national cinema that played endlessly on this contrast of strong and weak as corresponding to emotionally restrained and emotionally volatile.

Then came that post-World War II moment in which the country experienced a subtle pivot—not at first visible to all, but definitely writ into the national psyche.  One part of it was the arrival in mainstream culture of a new ethic derived from psychoanalysis.  It said that bottling up anger was bad for your mental health.  Repressed anger would come back at you as neurosis, and it encouraged us to look back at earlier generations as emotionally stunted for blocking expressions of their real feelings.  In this new view, Americans could and should take pride in throwing off their old inhibitions.  The “strong” were redefined as those courageous enough to strike out—sometimes literally.  The era of “angry young men” was born, epitomized by Holden Caulfield, the bratty narrator of J.D. Salinger’s enormously popular The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. At the end of the book, we learn that Holden has been telling his story, naturally, to his psychoanalyst. 

The psychoanalytic liberation of anger licensed a new kind of pride and a sense of authenticity that could be lorded over—as Holden Caulfield liked to say—the “phonies” who continued to conform to the old social norms.  But psychoanalytic rebellion was only part of the story. World War II also brought back, with the returning GIs, the discovery of European existentialism. It elevated emotional “authenticity” in a different way. Treating social norms as artificial and a hindrance to the individual’s effort to achieve inner freedom and responsibility, existentialism presented anger as the path to a secular redemption.  The authentic man or woman would be the one who could face reality stripped of its veneer of platitudes and excuses.  Anger became both the means to achieve this and its reward.  The angry person was authentically free.

Psychoanalysis and existentialism did not instantly transform the emotional tenor of American life, but both gained footholds in literary, artistic, and cultural circles and they won a certain intellectual cachet.  We probably would not have had the Abstract Expressionist movement in painting were it not for this emotional shift.  What would Jackson Pollock have been “expressing” if not his existential rage and the turmoil of his vitriolic anger?  What would have filled the pages of Partisan Review?  How would Allen Ginsberg have found an audience for his screaming profanities? 

A Bee in the Mouth was my attempt to track this rejection of the old ethic of emotional self-control and the progress of the new ethic of angry expressiveness over the decades that followed.  It posed the idea that an emotion as basic as anger could be culturally shaped, and that its shape could change significantly over time.  The social norms and cultural expectations around anger had changed in the post-war era, and we could describe the changes with some precision. The new form of anger, “new anger” for short, had proven to be a destructive force that had ripped through almost all aspects of American life:  marriage, child raising, sports, the arts, music, religion, mass communication, and more.  A new genre of movies arose which featured anger as entertainment. Recall the 1976 hit, Network, in which the lead character’s tag line was “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Eventually this new style reached our politics.

Putting politics late in the chain of institutions that were transformed by anger may seem surprising. After all, anger in politics is abundant and highly noticeable. But that’s because politics always involves opposition and always sits near the edge of angry confrontation. Nothing “new” about that.  But precisely because politics is so volatile, our political institutions have numerous built-in buffers and circuit breakers that allow politicians to express strong disagreement without a complete breakdown in decorum. That’s what has changed.

“New anger” is a flamboyant “look at me” anger.  It shows itself off in a search for applause.  It is not anger bursting the bonds of self-restraint. It is instead anger thirsting for the spotlight and expecting to be rewarded as a performance. The “newness” of new anger is its popularity, not its focus on display.  Anger for the sake of exhibition has always attracted a few performers.  When John Wilkes Booth jumped on the stage after shooting President Lincoln, he offered a textbook example of narcissistic anger. The difference is that America in April 1865 did not treat such performative anger as a positive good or a norm to be respected.  That’s what has changed.  By the early 2000s, show-off anger had become a staple of the political left and had found echoes on the political right as well. 

My 2006 book cautioned that this did not augur well for America.  Precisely because politics always has the potential to disintegrate into ruinous hostility, our political system was designed to hold people back with formal codes of restraint that imposed artificial shows of respect. Replace that with the expectation of flamboyant displays of anger and contempt, and the system would inevitably break down.

New anger is to effective self-government as a food fight is to a formal dinner party.  The food fight might be great fun and a temporary release from tension, but it will not iron out any underlying complexities.  

The question becomes one of what happens after the last vestiges of the old forms of emotional restraint disappear from our political culture.  The answers lie in the aftermath of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the great COVID shutdown, the George Floyd riots in the summer of 2020, and the events and aftermath of the January 6 Capitol Hill riot. These events have too many layers of complexity to yield to a short analysis.  This is more in the vein of a postscript.  

As I argue in my latest book, Wrath: America Enraged, the old restraints and the old decorum, weak as they sometimes were, have now collapsed and in their place is a spirit of emotional free-for-all.  Even so, that doesn’t mean perpetual riot or constant chaos.  It means instead that we have licensed ourselves to engage in theatrical anger on a purely opportunistic basis.  The left’s riots in DC during and after Trump’s 2016 inauguration is the archetype.  These were “riots” that were carefully staged and planned, with the aim of playing to the cameras.  The post-George Floyd riots were of the same character but played out on a national scale with abundant funding, logistics, and mobile personnel. 

Marshaling people to create massive public disorder became a tactic that the American left could turn on at a moment’s notice.  When it appeared that Donald Trump was likely to win the 2020 election, word spread that George Floyd-style riots were about to erupt in cities across the country.  On my street in New York’s Upper West Side—solid Democrat territory—buildings up and down the block hired special security to ward off the rioters.  Those rioters, of course, never appeared. Other forms of electioneering rendered their services unnecessary.

But Trump, for one, was listening.  And the protest summoned in DC for January 6, 2021, was intended to emulate the left’s familiar tactic.  It was, however, ill-planned, ill-executed, and largely anticipated and co-opted by a bevy of Democratic strategists.  The details matter, but for my purposes here, what matters more is the thwarting of popular protest.  For all its flamboyance, it was a defeat of new anger-style theatrics in the face of brute force. And it set the stage for what I call the next iteration of national emotional breakdown: the emergence of wrath.  

Wrath is what happens when anger escalates past all reason, and that happens when anger is driven to a kind of despair.  When the popular will is thwarted by a combination of careerist elites, progressive ideologues, an unprincipled press, and a business class attuned more to its global opportunities than to domestic flourishing, that despair takes shape.  Political protest tourniqueted by mass arrests, censorship, gross violations of due process, and sheer force will incubate something terrible.

The current administration counts on these factors working to intimidate those who believe the election was stolen.  It hopes to create acquiescence sufficient to marginalize the 80 million or so Americans who voted for Trump.  It will perhaps work, at least for the short term.  But it is an approach that comes at a very high cost to Democrats and to the country as whole.  That’s because it drains the legitimacy out of the supposed rule of law.  

And it is why Professor Wintemute’s large poll found more than half the respondents imagining that “civil war” will break out in the U.S. in the next several years.  

I am among those who think that something like a cold civil war has already broken out.  It is not a war based on states or regions, though there are certainly some parts of the country more aggrieved than others.  The dividing line is institutional.  Formally respected institutions such as the FBI, the mainstream press, most colleges and universities, and CDC are now viewed by millions of Americans with withering contempt. That’s because they are seen as having been transformed into instruments of state-sponsored suppression of American freedom.

This sapping of legitimacy from our governing and culture-making institutions cannot be stopped, short of a dramatic turnover in political control and a thorough purging of the corrupted elites who have been complicit in the suppression.  This is what is meant by “draining the swamp,” and what sophisticated observers such as Angelo Codevilla, Michael Anton, and Victor Davis Hanson have pointed to as lines of fracture in our republic.  The lines of fracture are not sectional, nor are they closely matched to our political parties, since a good many Republicans are on the side of capitulation, and a fair number of self-professed conservatives imagine that there are less rambunctious ways to restore civility and civilizational confidence to the American people.

I doubt that our cold civil war will resolve itself so benignly.  I say that because beneath politics and even beneath culture lies temperament.  Our basic habits of emotional forbearance and moderation have been abandoned, and what was left of them crushed by a regime that sees no need to foster either forgiveness or self-restraint. All is force, or force mingled with deceit, which is just force in camouflage.  We didn’t arrive at this point overnight.  The breakdown of the ideas of emotional self-control in favor of the flash and gratification of instant expression took generations.  But once the stage was set, the end came quickly in the form of “mostly peaceful” rioting and by the rhetorical transformation of trespassers, protesters, and unarmed intruders into “insurrectionists.”  The ongoing effort to characterize the January 6 rioters as a force aimed at destruction of American democracy is itself a force aimed at hollowing out our republic by declaring the grievances of what are probably a majority of Americans as of no validity at all. 

If we want a civil war, that’s a good way to start one.  Most Americans, of course, do not want a civil war.  They want to be left alone in peace to enjoy their liberty and to pursue happiness. Taking that away in the name of stopping “domestic terrorism,” imposing “climate justice,” or enforcing “gender affirmation,” or whatever else is on the progressive menu these days will make Americans angry.  Denying citizens an opportunity to express or act on that anger (for example, by holding free and fair elections) will lead to something worse.  Wrath.  

Headshot of Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars, a network of scholars and citizens with a commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. He previously served as provost of The Kings’s College in New York City; and tenured member of the Anthropology Department at Boston University, where he also held a variety of administrative positions, including associate provost and president’s chief of staff. He is the author of Wrath: America Enraged (Encounter Books, 2021), 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project (Encounter Books, 2020); Diversity Rules (Encounter Books, 2019); A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (Encounter Books, 2007) and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (Encounter Books, 2003), which won the Caldwell Award for Leadership in Higher Education from the John Locke Foundation. These books extend his anthropological interest in examining emergent themes in modern American culture. In addition to his scholarly work, Wood has published several hundred articles in print and online journals, such as the Wall Street Journal, Claremont Review of Books, Spectator USA, American Greatness, Partisan Review, National Review Online, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He lives and works in New York City.