Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future is a work of “speculative nonfiction” that imagines what the breakup of the United States might look like. It isn’t pretty—and it’s not all that far-fetched, either, given that Marche did 200 interviews with experts in the military, agriculture, science, and other fields to craft the three grimly plausible scenarios he games out.
Marche, a critic and novelist who lives in Canada, has previously written books tackling subjects such as Shakespeare’s influence on modern culture. But like many people north of the border, he’s a close observer of American politics, and he finds our current situation somewhat horrifying. “As lousy and vicious and stupid as American politics might look on the surface,” he writes, “underneath the reality is even worse.” In his view, polarization currently runs so deep in the US that “now there is no nation as a whole.”
He talked to us from his home in Toronto, where he spends his days safely insulated from the terrifying potential futures he’s been imagining.
What swung you to the view that the US may be a doomed project?
I covered the Trump inauguration for a Canadian magazine, and, you know, that had a very fall-of-Rome feel. It was violent. The information systems were all breaking down.
And yet that day seems quaint in retrospect. Nobody attacked the Capitol!
Well, it just keeps getting worse, right? You would never think, “Oh, there are going to be tanks on the streets of Washington on the Fourth of July.” But then that happens. The book really became an attempt to understand why the unimaginable keeps happening.
That idea slots in neatly with your contention that there’s little holding us together as a nation.
The breaks keep happening, right? The crackup is not really an event—it’s a series of events, which is exactly how the first Civil War happened. There was violence on the floor of the Senate. There was the legal breakdown, where judges in the South just simply stopped recognizing the North. Right up until [the first battle of the Civil War at] Fort Sumter, people didn’t want to believe it was happening. But certain kinds of trends, when they get started, become incredibly difficult to stop.
In countries like the UK or Spain, the thing that’s put the brakes on separatist movements has been the reluctance of other established nations to recognize new countries, because they don’t want it to happen at home.
Secession at this point is kind of a best-case scenario for the United States—when marriages reach the point that America has reached now, the time has come to sit the kids down.
The United States has very specifically created a legal framework where secession is basically impossible because of the 14th Amendment. [And in order to] have a postal system or financial exchange on international markets, you also have to get a secessionist movement through the UN. To do that is very complicated and requires the home state to approve the separation.
You don’t always have to go the legal route. West Virginia was arguably admitted to the Union in an illegal fashion, and now we’re all just cool with it.
Right. One way of thinking about the failure of Reconstruction is that the North basically gave up and gave the South home rule for quite a long time. There were a whole set of different laws for people in the South than there were for people in the North. Something like that, some really quite elaborate de-federalization, could be one solution. But again, it’s very hard to see how that would happen when the national politics is just so toxic, right? When you have sitting governors calling for violence against people and you have militias attempting to kidnap other sitting governors and school-board members fearing for their lives, it’s hard to know how to get to the exit door.
If I understand the critique you make in the book correctly, our hollowed-out institutions wouldn’t be able to withstand natural disasters, much less manmade ones.
Well, I think America has actually effectively entered a post-policy period. I mean, the Build Back Better bill was considered this huge achievement. In most mature democracies, that’s a Wednesday. That’s called a budget. A really good case in point is that no one is under the impression that legislators will ever come to a political decision about abortion. It’s totally beyond them. So it’s been left to the courts for 15 years to decide it. That’s really not normal.
There’s also the other thing, I think, which is really important to acknowledge: America is about to undergo an incipient legitimacy crisis no matter what happens. A Republican President will be elected while losing the majority of votes by many millions—if it’s not 2024, it’ll be 2028 or 2032. And the Senate now is really not representative of the will of the American people. By 2040, 68 percent of the Senate will be controlled by 30 percent of the population. You already have this problem where five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court were selected by Presidents who did not win the popular vote. And it’s very unclear on just a basic level whether they represent in a legitimate way the will of the American people.
I think the real question is when the left decides that it’s had enough. I think that moment is also coming.
And the left in the US is considerably more conservative than the left else-where. Despite holding the presidency, the House, and the Senate, they’ve failed to enact a bunch of policies that would be very popular.
Yeah. The Constitution was a document of great genius. It was the greatest political document of the century. But Jefferson said you need to rewrite a constitution every 19 years. The amazing thing is that every single person I talked to [for] this entire book—Texas separatists, California separatists, far-right Oathkeepers, neo-Nazis, Black Lives Matter activists—they all worship the Constitution. They all explicitly called to the Constitution as the justification for their politics. And, you know, when you worship a dead document, you can’t have a living government.
This seems like an opportune time to ask you why you chose “speculative nonfiction” as the way to write this book.
I used speculative nonfiction to be like, okay, you need to see where this is going, because otherwise it’ll just slowly overtake you. I didn’t have to imagine much. I just pushed things slightly forward.
Things that were unimaginable ten years ago are now perfectly normal. Things that were considered impossible five years ago? Perfectly normal. New York is incredibly vulnerable to hurricanes, but the lack of seriousness with which this is treated is shocking to me.
Which of the scenarios in the book would be most likely to mark the beginning of the end of our country?
I think they’re all likely. As we speak, there are far-right militiamen in prison in your city who sing the national anthem and consider themselves political prisoners. The thing that I don’t worry about much is a Trump presidency in 2024. I think he’s really a symptom more than a cause of this crisis. I definitely worry about the effect of the far right. When you lose the sense of legitimacy of the court system, things go very badly from there.
You’re worried about incremental decay rather than spectacular events like January 6.
It’s like what Hemingway said [about] how do you go bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. It’s structural decay and legal decay and political decay. My hope would be that before the violence gets too out of hand, there’s actually some kind of negotiation toward either separation or a new constitutional convention.
One thing that seems worth noting is that you are not yourself American. How do you think a broken-up United States might affect Canada?
Oh, it’d be a disaster for us. I’m not [like] a European who somehow feels superior to Americans. I love the United States.
Do you see any echoes of our divisions in Canada?
No. I mean, we get some of the same stuff. My country has nearly broken up twice in my lifetime. It’s actually very strange as a Canadian, because we’ve always felt that our own country’s incredibly fragile and America was this total rock of stability. It’s kind of switched.
We have much less vertical and horizontal inequality. We have a legal system that is truly transnational. I don’t know the political leanings of any Supreme Court justice in my country. The problems in America are problems of structure—like the Senate does not represent the American people. And it destroys the capacity of the government to produce policy. Canada doesn’t have that problem. Only America does.
This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Washingtonian.